A unionist audience in one of Belfast’s loyalist heartlands has accused the leading unionist parties of abandoning them over the Union Flag protests.
A public meeting of the Unionist Forum on the Shankill Road attracted about 300 people on Thursday night and heard robust exchanges with the eight-strong panel.
A straw poll of the audience revealed that most people were unsure whether the forum was a good idea but there was vocal anger, particularly towards Peter Robinson.
Many members of the audience sparred with the panel representing the forum and two of those at the top table - TUV leader Jim Allister and PUP leader Billy Hutchinson — repeatedly clashed with the DUP representative, Nelson McCausland.
Mr McCausland defended the concept of the forum, saying that “people don’t want to see unionists attacking each other, gutting each other”.
But Mr Allister received loud applause when he said that he had low expectations of the forum because it “came into existence as a reaction to a boiling over of unionist outrage at the tearing down of the Union Flag from City Hall” and said that it would not address the “elephant in the room...Sinn Fein in government”.
UUP MLA Tom Elliott appealed for people to give the forum a chance and said that during the Troubles “when unionists had our back to the wall, we did not always speak with one voice but we thought with one mind”.
Isaac Andrews from the UDA-linked UPRG said that “the jury is still out” on the forum but it could see unionists speaking with one voice.
Orange Order Grand Chaplain Mervyn Gibson said: “I would seek unionist unity but the political parties represented here at the top table have told me that it is not possible. I’m a realist and I accept that so I see the Unionsit Forum as working towards cooperation within unionism...we have to confront and combat Sinn Fein at every opportunity.”
The Rev Gibson, who criticised the sluggishness of the forum last month, said:“If I don’t think it’s working, I’ll certainly recommend that the Orange Order leaves it. At this stage the jury’s out and there’s still a lot of work ahead to make it work.”
Mr Huchinson received loud applause when he said that “if anybody thinks that the unionist forum wasn’t used to get rid of the flag protesters...and about shutting me and Jim Allister up, they’re living on cloud cuckoo land”.
Mr Hutchinson, who murdered two Roman Catholic men walking to work in 1974, said that the flag protest “is still out there” and called for future protests: “I think that at City Hall on the night that council is meeting there should be a number of people there for a lawful protest, just to let those people inside the hall know that this hasn’t gone away”.
He said that the PUP will challenge for council seats next year with candidates “signing a public declaration stating that the first thing they will do if they get elected will be to get the flag as the first item on the agenda”.
Mr McCausland countered that the DUP’s councillors had always voted to retain the Union Flag 365 days a year.
The Rev Gibson said that he believed “every unionist is a flag protester but not every unionist is out on the street”, a statement which elicited cries of “shame” from members of the audience.
As the Rev Gibson attempted to explain why many unionists were not at protests, several audience members heckled him, demanding: “Where’s the Orange Order [at the protests]?”
The senior Orangeman responded that individual members of unionist parties, bands and the loyal orders were at protests but warned them: “Standing on the street won’t get the flag up...what it has done has highlighted it, it’s brought the Unionist Forum about but we need to move forward...”
Local community worker Jackie Redpath, who was chairing the meeting, had to step in to stop heckling from the audience and allow the Rev Gibson to make himself heard.
Jim Wilson from the ‘Red Hand Comrades’ said that the strategy for returning the flag should be “register to vote and get the Alliance Party out wherever they are”.
A middle -aged woman who had been heckling was given a microphone and she asked why the DUP and UUP were “sitting in government with murderers”.
She told the politicians on the panel that they should “stop having cross-community [sic] with these rebels”.
Another woman who alleged police “brutality” claimed that unionist politicians had not spoken up for the protesters, “especially, excuse me, Robinson; he’s too busy sitting up there with Martin McGuinness”.
There were jeers when one young man in the audience pointed out that PUP leader Billy Hutchinson had until recently supported the Union flag flying on designated days while the DUP position had been consistent.
Mr Andrews from the UPRG said that “the best way to get this flag back is to get out and vote and get rid of Alliance once and for all”. The UPRG representative also accused the PSNI of “political policing” for bringing flag protesters to court on public order charges but yet there “wasn’t a policeman in sight” when there were republican street parties to celebrate Baroness Thatcher’s death.
Mr Elliott reminded the Belfast audience that while it had just lost the Union Flag every day from City Hall, councils such as Fermanagh Council had stopped flying the Union Flag at all in 1991.
Mr McCausland said that returning the flag required a unionist majority on Belfast City Council and insisted that such a change at the next election was possible.
The Social Development Minister said: “We shouldn’t just be targeting Alliance seats but we should be targeting SDLP and Sinn Fein seats...it’s about reclaiming the City Hall for unionism”.
TUV leader Jim Allister said: “I salute the tencacity of those who have stuck by the protest despite the shameful condemnation of protest by the First Minister...every attempt was made by the DUP leader as First Minister to undermine the protest because it has the potential to destabilise the relationship with Sinn Fein”, to which there was loud applause and a member of the audience shouted: “Get him out”.
Mr Allister claimed that the introduction of the ‘super councils’ and the re-drawing of council boundaries meant that Belfast’s boundaries were extended into nationalist areas, making a unionist majority more difficult.
Mr McCausland hit back that “in terms of boundaries it is quite technical...Jim was not accurate or truthful in what he said” and said that while nationalist areas would come into Belfast, there would also be parts of east Belfast coming into the city, something which he said was decided by an independent commissioner.
And Mr McCausland said that there would be “more than enough unionist voters in Belfast [after the boundary changes] to ensure that we get the flag back on city hall if we do our work properly”.