Protests: Mike Nesbitt platform

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and east Belfast community worker Jim Wilson pictured after the meeting.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and east Belfast community worker Jim Wilson pictured after the meeting.

I HAVE said often since December 3 that I support the principle of the democratic right to lawful, peaceful street protest.

However, when street protest carries a high risk of being followed by violence, such as we saw this weekend, and have seen since the attempted murder of a female officer over a month ago, I believe we should seek an alternative.

What could the street protests over the Union Flag have achieved?

For me, the answer is raising awareness of the breadth and depth of anger over the decision by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance to stop flying the flag at Belfast City Council most days of the year.

Has that awareness been achieved? Yes! If anything, too many people are aware, not least potential inward investors.

What is required is something strategic, offering brains round the political negotiating table, rather than brawn on the streets. That is what the Unionist Forum offers, and having co-chaired the initial meeting and then attended the first meeting on the ground, it is clear to me that it has the potential to deliver on the issues.

And there are multiple issues, way beyond the flying of the flag at Belfast City Council.

Fifteen years ago, people were promised better times ahead, with a political process that would bring an end to the murders, the bombings, the destruction of the economy, and offer mutual respect for people’s identity and culture, a peace dividend for the economy, and better politics than that offered by Direct Rule.

We often talk up how much the peace and political processes have achieved. It is now time to be honest about the unfinished business: poverty, deprivation, educational under-achievement, sectarianism, dealing with the past, reconciliation and building a shared future.

They are all linked, and offer the chance to re-connect with the people.