Loyalists protesting over restrictions on the flying of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall should learn from the successful campaign against the Maze peace centre, Mike Nesbitt has said.
Speaking to the News Letter ahead of his second party conference as Ulster Unionist leader on Saturday, Mr Nesbitt delivered a blunt message to disaffected loyalists: street protests will not deliver the changes you want.
The UUP leader said that as it approaches the first anniversary of Belfast City Council’s decision there should not be protests which disrupt traders in the approach to Christmas.
Mr Nesbitt said: “I would say this to people who engage in street protest: Yes, you have the right to lawful, peaceful, dignified protest. But it doesn’t achieve anything.
“After the Anglo-Irish Agreement nearly 30 years ago people took to the streets in their tens of thousands and achieved nothing.
“People have been taking to the streets in theirs thousands and hundreds since December 3; the flag’s still down.
“The campaign over that period that has worked was the campaign against the peace centre at the Maze. There were no street protests, there were no riots, there were no white line protests; it was brains, not brawn, it was a strategic campaign.
“Think what we have achieved with the campaign on the Maze — if it worked for the Maze, it can work on other issues. So don’t disrupt trade but think strategically.”
Mr Nesbitt said that the consequence of the Union Flag vote at Belfast City Hall almost a year ago was that “one flag has come down; thousands of flags have gone up”.
He added: “You look at those flags today — they’re in tatters. If Haass achieves anything on flags, surely we have to agree a protocol that when you’re putting up a Union Flag, or a tricolour, that you look after it and when it’s starting to look a bit worn and tattered, you take it down.”
Mr Nesbitt said that he wasn’t aware of the controversial DUP-UUP leaflet urging people to contact the Alliance Party to express their opposition to their stance on the flag.
But he said that those behind the leaflet had “a genuine ambition of awareness-raising”.
Peter Robinson’s extraordinary U-turn on the Maze peace centre has arguably been Mike Nesbitt’s biggest triumph as UUP leader.
Many commentators questioned his decision to line up with the TUV on a campaign which they thought was doomed to fail.
Yet it was the UUP and TUV which correctly called the mood of unionism, forcing the DUP in an unusual change of course.
Mr Nesbitt said that there was not a single person or moment behind his party’s decision to campaign against the Maze centre but that over time its opposition to the centre became increasingly pronounced. The former journalist said that from his time as a victims’ commissioner, before entering politics, it was clear to him that “it was the most divisive issue ever — to place the centre at the Maze”.
“The granting of planning permission brought it back to the fore. I remember watching the TV news where the headline image was a still picture of Bobby Sands. If it had been on the Crumlin Road, where I’d been promoting it, the image wouldn’t have been of Bobby Sands...the difficulty with putting it at the Maze was that it put an undue emphasis on victim-makers rather than victims.”