PROTESTS will not increase the number of days on which the Union Flag flies on Belfast City Hall, Peter Robinson has said as he attempts to encourage protesters off the streets.
Speaking to the News Letter after announcing that the first meeting of the joint DUP-UUP organised Unionist Forum will be held tomorrow, Mr Robinson also accused some loyalist protesters of using republican language in an attempt to demonise the police.
Tomorrow’s Unionist Forum meeting will begin at 9.30am at Stormont and is expected to last up to lunch time.
All unionist political parties with elected representatives — the DUP, UUP, TUV and PUP — have been invited, along with the UDA’s unelected political advisers, the UPRG.
The forum will be jointly chaired by Mr Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt who yesterday issued a joint statement. It said: “As indicated when we initially announced the creation of the forum, its purpose will be to seek to engage with the entire unionist community and to address issues of concern.
“It will seek to channel unionist efforts through political means. While participants attending the initial meeting will be limited, working groups may be established to provide a more extensive reach across the wider unionist community.
“The forum will be a body through which unionists can meet to consider matters of interest and concern to the unionist community.
“All participants should share the core values of support for the maintenance of the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, non-sectarianism, commitment to a shared future and commitment to the successful operation of devolution in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Robinson said that the protests were harming the Province’s world-wide reputation: “Northern Ireland’s reputation around the world has been very considerably enhanced over the last number of years and very considerably damaged over the last number of days.”
Although he has made clear that the protests should be suspended, Mr Robinson had said that DUP representatives were free to attend if they believed that their presence would help to keep the peace.
However, when asked if he would consider attending the Lower Newtownards Road in his East Belfast constituency, where much of the trouble has been centred, Mr Robinson said: “Do you think that would help?
“Do you really think that would help? Try reading some of the Facebook pages and then ask the question again. When you have this group literally saying that I need to resign and be exiled from Northern Ireland, I think it’s unlikely my presence at the junction of Castlereagh Street and the Newtownards Road is going to be helpful in those circumstances.”
When asked if he believed that some other DUP representatives, such as MLA William Humphrey in north Belfast, could help by attending protests in their area, Mr Robinson said: “I honestly don’t think anybody’s going to be able to talk people who are intent on throwing petrol bombs on the police out of doing so.
“The fact is that there are many genuine people who started out as part of the protests who are now distancing themselves from the protests simply because of the violence and the remarks being made by those who purport to lead the protests.
“I don’t think that you’ll find it to be in the normal unionist language for people to refer to the PSNI as terrorists and Nazis, yet that’s the language being used by those who purport to represent the protesters.
“That is republican language; that is the kind of thing that we have become accustomed to expect from the republican community. It’s certainly not unionist-speak.”
So does that mean that we are now at the point where all politicians should stay away from any protest and let the police handle the situation?
“I think that not only politicians but those who are not politicians but are concerned on this matter need to use the political process.
“You will not change by one day the flying of the flag at the city hall by throwing a petrol bomb at the police. The means for change is through the political process and everybody knows that Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party are not going to vote in a different way at the city hall; the only way to get changes is to get elected representatives there who are in a majority and who can take those decisions.
“So it’s the political process that has to be worked; protesting on the streets is not going to change it. The purpose of a protest is to highlight an issue; it’s been highlighted and we have now provided a vehicle to translate the concerns that people have expressed into political action and that’s the way forward.”
When asked last night if he would continue to attend protests, Mr Humphrey told the News Letter that he had a chest infection so would “be going nowhere over the next wee while” but added: “I’ve made my position clear on protests — where protests are peaceful, as the leader has said...where the protests are the people understandably showing their anger, frustration and annoyance at the appalling decision of the council, those protests are absolutely within the law; then people should be allowed to protest absolutely to show that frustration and anger. What we are opposed to very clearly is people manipulating protests and situations for the furtherance of crime and criminality.”
Fellow Belfast DUP councillor Ruth Patterson, who has also attended numerous protests in south Belfast, could not be contacted.
Last month Cllr Patterson refused to condemn the burning of an Irish Tricolour at one protest.
When asked about her stance, Mr Robinson disagreed with his councillor’s initial comments: “I saw a report that last night [Monday] she had made it very clear that she believed that there should be respect given to national flags of every country and I welcome that. I don’t think you enhance the case for showing respect for the Union Flag by showing disrespect to any other.”
He said that within unionism “people are crying out for a higher level of unity”. However, when asked if he saw the forum as a move towards an electoral pact or a single unionist party, Mr Robinson said that the forum’s role was to take on board various pro-Union views and “channel them into the political process; after that it’s up to the future to decide — I can’t dictate that”.
When asked if he was comfortable inviting the UDA’s political advisers the UPRG to the forum, Mr Robinson said: “I’ve indicated to you the basis upon which everyone will participate and that includes a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means and non-sectarianism...that’s the road that I would like to see everybody travelling and I think we should be encouraged if people feel that those core values are something that they can share.”
Mike Nesbitt has said that he wants the Unionist Forum to discuss the issue of how the First Minister is chosen by the Assembly. However, Mr Robinson said that on issues such as that “it is not a matter of simply getting an agreement with the DUP and the Ulster Unionists” but there are other political parties which have to agree before any change can be made.
See Business repeats call for violence to stop, page 15