Jim Allister has become the only one of the three main unionist leaders to back tomorrow’s flag protest in Belfast city centre, saying he hoped it would be a “sizeable” event.
The TUV leader told the News Letter that if it had not clashed with his party conference he would probably have been in attendance at the event.
The MLA said: “I probably would have been [there]. Obviously I can’t be. Indeed I had an approach from some people who seemed to be associated with it to be there but I had to explain that it was the long-established date for our party conference.”
Mr Allister said that “those who say that they shouldn’t hold this protest are really saying they should give up on the flag issue and I don’t see how you can give up on the flag issue”.
He said it was right that people still felt exercised about the “tearing down of the flag” from Belfast City Hall but stressed that all protests must be “totally peaceful”, adding: “Once they cease to do it in a totally peaceful way, then the story is no longer about the object of their protest; it’s about the folly of any violence.
“I trust it will be a wholly peaceful event.”
But Mr Allister did say that the element of confusion about who is organising the event was unhelpful: “Obviously the more clarity there is, the better. I think confusion breeds instability in any situation so it is desirable there should be clarity.”
He added: “My understanding is that it’s primarily to mark the first anniversary of the decision to tear down the flag. As to who’s organising it, I can’t say. There doesn’t seem to be an identifiable group who are organising it.”
Mr Allister also rejected criticism of him for being seen with alleged UVF leaders at the Twaddell protest in north Belfast.
He said that a photograph of him with the men – which was criticised by Martin McGuinness – was taken after he had gone to Twaddell, not knowing who would be there, and was invited onto the platform with others, some of whom he did not know.