Northern Ireland

Unionist Forum meeting over Belfast flags protests

The protest started outside Belfast City Hall on Monday 3 December
The protest started outside Belfast City Hall on Monday 3 December

The Unionist Forum is holding its first meeting.

DUP leader Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt set up the forum in a bid to address the ongoing protests over the union flag.

Mr Nesbitt said the challenge was to get a consensus on a way forward from the "broad unionist family".

However, one of the groups behind the protests, the Ulster People's Forum, said it had not been invited and would not attend even if it had been invited.

Mr Nesbitt told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme: "I was in communication with one of the leaders of that group up to midnight."

The UUP leader declined to name the leader he had been speaking to but said: "I'm confused about why that particular individual doesn't want to engage with the forum because he seems to want to engage with me."

Mr Nesbitt added: "I was preparing the ground to encourage them to engage after today when we open it up and try and give channels of communication to all groups and factions within unionism because that's the challenge - for the first time to see if the broad unionist family can come together and support a political path forward."

'Cultural identity'

A campaign of street demonstrations began on 3 December, when Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the union flag is flown at Belfast City Hall.

Some of the protests have resulted in violence - 66 police officers have been injured.

The flag row has pointed up a gap between some in the loyalist grassroots and the leaders of unionism.

The DUP, UUP and the other unionist parties represented at Stormont are attending Thursday's meeting although the TUV leader Jim Allister said he had another commitment and sent representatives.

The agenda includes flags, parades and cultural identity.

Mr Nesbitt said Northern Ireland's 1998 peace agreement had promised an economic dividend, "better politics" through devolution at Stormont and "mutual respect for people's identity and culture."

Mike Nesbitt and Peter Robinson
The forum has been set up by UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and DUP leader Peter Robinson

'Achilles heel'

"The sort of people who will be coming to the table today don't believe that the agreement and the process over the last 15 years has delivered on any of those fronts," the UUP leader said.

"Our failure to properly deal with the past is the one Achilles heel of devolution. It is the one thing that could truly destabilise the political process," he told BBC Radio Ulster.

He said he hoped the initial meeting would result in the setting of an agreed agenda and the establishment of "working groups who will offer a channel and look for expressions of interest from everybody".

The unionist forum has been criticised by some, including the Alliance party, which has said a "single identity solution" to the flag dispute will not work.

Mr Nesbitt said: "If we are hoping to change the way we do politics here - and I certainly would want to change some significant elements of the way we do politics - we'll need to have a phase two, beyond the unionist forum, and that is a cross community initiative, because we'll need buy in from nationalists and republicans."

Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, said that the flag decision was an "outworking of the Good Friday Agreement" and that there was no justification for the protests.

'Disadvantaged'

"There used to be an Orange state and that, in my opinion, did not serve working class unionists at all well," he said.

"It's no longer an Orange state and we need to understand that is good for everyone - we need to be able to develop our society in a way in which we are tolerant and that can come together on the basis of mutual respect for everyone."

He said that the decision by the council was a compromise and that the protests were undermining efforts of people in disadvantaged unionist areas to bring jobs and training.

"The peace process is good for everyone, equality is good for everyone and there's going to be more change with modern times and as a people's rights and entitlements are enhanced as a consequence of the process of the change we are all engaged in," Mr Adams added.

Flag protests took place in Belfast and Londonderry on Wednesday evening, but there were no reports of any trouble.

The Northern Ireland secretary of state has said riots linked to the protests were causing "significant damage" to the economy.

Theresa Villiers said the "negative images" were "threatening jobs".

The cost of policing the protests is believed to be more than £7m.

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