Northern Ireland

Unionist forum 'most representative in 50 years': Robinson

The new unionist forum is "the most representative group in the unionist community to meet in half a century," NI's first minister has said.

The forum met for the first time on Thursday, after weeks of flag protests.

Peter Robinson told a press conference at Stormont there has been "no angry words" and that he was very encouraged.

The forum has set up a taskforce to engage with the wider community, and eight working groups on subjects across the unionist spectrum.

The new body was established by the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party to address the ongoing union flag protest and other concerns within the unionist community.

The DUP leader described the first meeting as "useful and positive".

"We want to move beyond protests to political action to get outcomes that are beneficial, not just to the unionist community but the whole community in Northern Ireland," Mr Robinson added.

'Mechanism for change'

Asked if he would talk to loyalist paramilitaries, he replied: "We will talk to anyone who wants to talk to us about how we can move forward in an exclusively peaceful and democratic manner.

"We want to take people beyond the protest, we want to engage with people. Here is the mechanism for change.

"The protesters have highlighted issues, the forum is taking those issues forward."

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said he had been struck by the breadth of representation at the meeting and the very positive nature of engagement.

He said there were plans for the forum to "get out and hit the ground" as early as Friday.

The cost of policing the protests is believed to be more than £7m and 68 officers have been injured.

Earlier this week, the police said individual, senior loyalist paramilitaries were involved in orchestrated violence in east Belfast, the scene of six consecutive nights of rioting.

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

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