Published Monday, 14 May 2012
Parliament Buildings at Stormont (© Getty)
David Ford hit out at the DUP and Sinn Féin, saying the opportunity to tackle underlying divisions between Catholics and Protestants must not be squandered.
The Justice Minister claimed that if those two parties are left in charge of the revised Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy (CSI) it will be "watered down" and will "only have the lowest common denominator" between them, thus failing to achieve a genuine, shared future.
However Peter Robinson accused Mr Ford of "mud-slinging" and "playing politics" over the issue, arguing that the focus should be on creating policies that secure maximum support.
The subject came to the fore after the chairman of the Community Relations Council said sectarianism remains deeply rooted in NI despite progress towards a more shared society.
Tony McCusker said he detected a willingness to deal with the legacy of conflict and division, but he said there was clear evidence that much more work remained to be done - with Protestant and Catholic children still taught separately while the communities largely live apart.
Mr Ford told a conference on the issue, held in Titanic Belfast on Monday and entitled "No More Them and Us", that combating sectarianism had to be made a priority.
He said: "For the first time in many generations we have an opportunity to address not only violence but to ensure that we address the underlying pattern of exclusion, discrimination and threat.
"History will not forgive us if we squander the opportunity presented by an end to violence to tackle the underlying divisions of this society.
"Above all we must move past preening ourselves for moving on from the disaster of the 1970s and face the challenge to act to make change."
But Mr Robinson slammed the Alliance leader over his comments, arguing that the DUP has led the way in working towards a strategy that can bring communities together.
The First Minister said: "I think it is unfortunate that there are some people who are trying to posture and party politicise issues around the CSI strategy.
"And it's sadly the case that some of those who publicly make the most noise are making the least contribution, and perhaps in particular the Alliance Party would try and focus itself more on trying to get an agreed result instead of going out and trying to indicate that somehow they are leading the way, when in fact they are dragging their feet on the issue.
"So perhaps they can get their head out of the sand and start attending more meetings, stop trying to delay meetings from taking place and make more of a contribution at the meetings."
Mr Ford defended his party's attendance at the meetings and said the DUP were annoyed with Alliance because they would not accept a "watered down" strategy, listing policies he said had to be included if the new framework was to deliver change.
The row came after Mr McCusker spoke at the beginning of Community Relations Week, which will include a conference discussing policies aimed at tackling division.
"There are still many difficult issues to be addressed, including segregated educational provision, interface areas and barriers, residential segregation, misuse of flags and emblems, parades and other expressions of cultural identity," he said.
"The number of interfaces in Northern Ireland was 22 when the Belfast Agreement was signed. Today the number is as high as 88 by some estimates.
"We still see flags and emblems as prominently displayed during the marching season as before the agreement. Deep divisions in housing and education also remain.
"These and the many events during Community Relations Week offer a picture of a possible future which is both shared and inclusive. It is one worth striving for together."
© UTV News