Unionists meet as loyalists plan action

Fri, Jan 11, 2013, 00:00

The first meeting of the Unionist Forum which was held at Stormont yesterday was one of the most representative unionist groups to gather together in half a century, according to First Minister Peter Robinson.

Amid concern about major loyalist demonstrations happening throughout Northern Ireland this evening, Mr Robinson hoped the forum would be a vehicle to allow people “move beyond protests”.

Defusing tensions

More than 20 people attended the meeting of the forum which was established before Christmas by Mr Robinson and Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt as a possible means of defusing tensions over the decision to limit the days the British flag can fly at Belfast City Hall. The attendance included senior representatives from the DUP, the UUP, the Traditional Unionist Voice party, the Orange Order, the Apprentice Boys and the Royal Black Preceptory.

Also present at the meeting in Parliament Buildings were Jackie McDonald and Jimmy Birch, who have influence with the UDA, and Dr John Kyle and Winston Irvine of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the UVF.

The forum yesterday established a task force and eight working groups which will address issues such as flags, parades, getting out the unionist vote, educational under-achievement in loyalist areas, and generating employment. None of those involved in the protests, one of whose members is a prominent east Belfast loyalist, attended the meeting, which added to the concern about this evening’s planned street action.

Mr Nesbitt said it would be expecting too much for the forum to deliver an immediate end to the demonstrations.

“Obviously there are plans afoot over the next few days and I think it would be unreasonable to expect the forum, meeting for the first time on a Thursday morning, to have an immediate and universal impact,” he said.

“But the general sense of direction is to say to everyone there is a better, positive alternative that would take us all beyond street protest to something that delivers on the political agenda that people have,” he added.

The First Minister expressed hope that the forum would allow the broad unionist and loyalist population to move forward. “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,” he said.

Violence and disorder

Mr Robinson made clear that he would speak to loyalist paramilitaries if that could help end the violence and disorder. He said it was the job of constitutional politicians to convince people that that is the way forward, that “they should give up violence, that they should not be involved in violence, that . . . there is a better way, this is a better way”.

The First Minister saw great potential for the forum which he believed was the first such gathering of wider unionism in more than 50 years.

“Never before have people within the unionist community had the opportunity of all of their representatives, no matter what their viewpoint might be, to be in the one room looking at a common agenda and moving forward in that direction,” he said.