THERE has been a guarded welcome from unionists outside the two main political parties for talks aimed at resolving the current street protests.
A new Unionist Forum is due to be convened by the leaders of the DUP and UUP as widespread demonstrations against perceived erosions of British sovereignty continue.
Although the majority of protests have been peaceful, several have resulted in police and property being attacked since a vote to limit the flying of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall was passed.
Up until last night, the three weeks of protests have resulted in 41 police officers being injured and almost 60 people – including a large number of children – arrested and charged.
Announcing the new initiative yesterday, Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt said the forum will “seek to engage with the entire unionist community” to address issues of concern.
Victims’ campaigner Willie Frazer has been invited to speak at dozens of the ongoing protest rallies. He says the City Hall flag row is “the straw that broke the camel’s back” after other controversial decisions elsewhere.
In the joint statement, the two leaders said all participants in the forum “will share the core values of support for the maintenance of the Union” as well as a “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”.
On the agenda will be: producing a strategy to address the flags issue; measures to increase voter registration and turnout in unionist areas; strengthening British cultural identity in Northern Ireland; proposals to address problems surrounding parading; proposals to tackle deprivation and educational underachievement in the unionist community and broader political and economic matters.
The statement added: “The forum would not be a decision-making body but would act as a body within which a consensus might be built and implementation of any actions left to individual organisations. It would seek to engage positively with representatives from all sections of the Northern Ireland community.”
The demonstrations and associated traffic disruption have left many retailers and other business owners despairing at the unwelcome blow to the pre-Christmas trade.
Mr Robinson and Mr Nesbitt have both called for the protests to end but despite that stance some of their elected representatives have attended the demonstrations.
This has prompted claims from political rivals that the two main unionist parties are sending out mixed messages.
Both leaders have said it was up to the judgment of their members if they attend, noting that they may be able to exert some influence to ensure the events pass off peacefully.
Mr Nesbitt said last night: “I remain of the view that while people have the right to democratic, peaceful, lawful protest, in this case everything they (the protesters) want to achieve in terms of awareness they have achieved (and) with the associated violence and the disruption it is arguing against the case they are trying to promote.
“However, if a local representative feels they will do more good than harm, that they will lessen rather than heighten tension by being there – and particularly after liaising with the PSNI if they are requested or if they are told that their presence may well be for the good – then of course I will not stand in their way.”
Mr Robinson said his position on the issue remained the same – that it was up to the judgment of his representatives if they attended or not.
But he added: “We will expect all our elected representatives to be urging and advising people on the ground that now a process has been set in place of which they can be a part, because the forum will be looking at mechanisms to engage directly with people on the ground, then people should be willing to take part in that process, which will not be helped if we have continuing protests on the street.”
One of the parties that has supported the protests is the Progressive Unionist Party. Party leader Billy Hutchinson has given a guarded welcome to the proposals but would not call for an end to the demonstrations.
“This is an effort to actually do something about not just the present problem that exists but all of the problems,” he said.
Willie Frazer addressed a protest in Magherafelt last night and said it was the 28th time he has spoken at such an event in three weeks and there were plans to take the protests to Dublin.
Mr Frazer said the forum would achieve nothing if it was a case of the politicians talking down to the protesters.
“This was coming, and I said to a lot of media people over this last few months that there was an unrest out there and that people were feeling they had had enough.
“We are going down to Dublin to ask them to move the Irish flag off Leinster House and the Irish people will be very cross – and they have every right to be cross – and we are also going to ask the Irish government to butt out of calling for inquiries in Northern Ireland, whenever they have been behind mass collusion with the IRA since the start of the Troubles.”
UKIP MLA David McNarry said he welcomed the agenda but that the time schedule to completion will be crucial –particularly on the flags issue.
“It is essential that the forum do regular updates for public consumption and keep informed those who may think that they have been marginalised because they are not on the forum.
“It would be my idea to make sure that any voice left outside will be heard inside,” he said.
East Londonderry independent unionist MLA David McClarty said: “It’s up to the politicians to try to restore unionist confidence and the only way to resolve issues is to sit around the table and try to thrash them out.
“The flag issue, the issue of the economy, the lack of confidence within the unionist community, the under-achievement in education in unionist communities – we can sit down and talk about all of these issues.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said his party’s expectations will be “limited” in respect of a forum “initiated by those who sustain McGuinness & Co at the top and heart of government”.
He said: “A forum turning a blind eye to the source of the problem and the anti-democratic nature of the present Stormont structures is unlikely to deliver a meaningful and lasting advance for unionism.”
Mr Allister has also made three proposals for resolving Province-wide “alienation” of flag protesters.
They are that the Union Flag is flown from all civic buildings across Northern Ireland on a minimum number of designated days; that it be flown over Stormont when MLAs are sitting and that it would fly from the Belfast City Council Cenotaph daily. He also called for the designated days to be extended to include “obvious and significant dates” like July 1, July 12 and Ulster Day, September 28.
Meanwhile, an Alliance councillor in Lisburn has slammed DUP and UUP members for voting for a review of the council’s flag policy while widespread protests are taking place.
Cllr Brian Dornan said: “At a time in which we still have illegal protests, intimidation and violence happening on our streets, it is inappropriate for Lisburn Council to be discussing its flag policy.
“This issue was agreed six years ago and was not proving controversial, in fact it was actually helping community relations.”