THE pan-unionist forum set up amid the flag protests is self-defeating and could undermine the Union, former Ulster Unionist deputy leader John McCallister has said.
As simmering UUP discontent at the party’s increasingly close relationship with the DUP surfaced, Mr McCallister urged his party to return to a “generous but robust” unionism of the UUP which negotiated the Belfast Agreement.
Addressing a largely nationalist audience in Co Louth, Mr McCallister dismissed those behind the violence at some Union Flag protests as “a corruption of unionism” but also told them that to suggest that flying the Union Flag from public buildings “somehow marginalises northern nationalists is, frankly, nonsense”.
On Friday night peaceful protestors braved bitter winter conditions to continue the marathon demonstrations which have now stretched for 46 nights.
Mr McCallister did not mention his party leader by name once in his half-hour speech.
However, he was scathing of Mike Nesbitt’s most significant policy initiative since becoming leader 10 months ago, the Unionist Forum.
In a detailed critique of the forum, which is jointly chaired by Mr Nesbitt and DUP leader Peter Robinson, Mr McCallister said that it “reinforces the hard lines of tribalism... preventing our politics from breaking free of sectarian identities”.
The South Down MLA, who was sacked as UUP deputy leader in September after warning that the UUP was “sleepwalking into unionist unity”, said that the forum – which includes the DUP, UUP, TUV, UKIP, PUP, UDA and loyal orders – was “potentially a cul-de-sac for unionism”.
Mr McCallister, who along with suspended UUP MLA Basil McCrea has appeared increasingly estranged from Mr Nesbitt, said that at a time when support for a united Ireland was at an all-time low, “unionism has no business retreating behind barricades – whether metaphorical or physical”.
He said “dissident republicans and dissident loyalists” must be confronted with an alternative Northern Ireland where all could live in peace – whether British or Irish passport holders – under a shared “Northern Irish” identity and proposed a “forum for a shared future”, rather than the unionist-only and nationalist-only “bunkers”.
Mr McCallister, who was invited to speak at Killanny Heritage Group, just across the Co Armagh border in Co Louth, warned that the Unionist Forum could make unionism less attractive to those who are not unionists but could be convinced to support Northern Ireland remaining within the UK.
He said there was an absence of leadership among both unionists and nationalists: “The two nationalist parties have met together to discuss their views. The Unionist Forum has been created to draw together various strands of unionist opinion.
“I cannot help but think that both of these events are pointing Northern Ireland in the wrong direction – unionists speaking to unionists; nationalists speaking to nationalists.
“Surely what is now required is unionism, nationalism and others meeting together – talking and debating together, not circling the wagons and only talking to ‘our’ own ‘tribe’. Speaking as a convinced unionist, I am particularly aware of the dangers tribalism poses for unionism. When unionism chooses the path of reactionary retreat into itself, the cause of the Union is undermined. Unionism ends up talking only to the already persuaded.
“It is entirely self-defeating, abandoning the hope of building up support for the Union from across the community.”
He said that the recent scenes in Belfast had been “utterly disheartening for the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland”, adding that “what we have seen on our televisions is not unionism”.
“The protests closing roads and hurting businesses; the masked rioters attacking the police; none of this is unionism. This is the work of a faction within loyalism, no more than a few hundred people – they cannot even pretend to speak for all in the loyalist tradition.... Just as the Provisional IRA was a corruption of nationalism, so this violence and intimidation is a corruption of unionism.”
He said that away from the protests “real unionism” is to be seen among those attempting to keep businesses open, medics travelling through roadblocks or police officers “bravely upholding law and order against masked thugs”.
He added: “No, not every business owner or parent or health service worker or police officer has pro-Union views. But it is there that you will find real unionism, authentic unionist values. Amongst those who make Northern Ireland work, who support law and order, who believe in tolerance and respect for others.”
Mr McCallister said that the majority of unionists had viewed Belfast City Council’s decision to stop flying the Union Flag every day as “an unnecessary step – but not the apocalypse”.
The South Down MLA added: “In truth, neither the nationalist nor the unionist political parties acted as they should have done. Could the unionist parties have reacted differently to the proposal of flying the flag on designated days? Yes they could – a move from 365 days could and should have been accommodated.
“Should the nationalist parties have abandoned the divisive attempt to entirely remove the Union Flag?
“Of course they should have – seeking to find common ground with unionist fellow-citizens rather than opting for a sectarian zero-sum game.”