Northern Ireland’s former first minister David Trimble has accused the Democratic Unionist Party of “cynically” stoking tensions over the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.
Speaking on Friday, Lord Trimble said he suspected the row was linked to DUP efforts to win back a parliamentary seat in its former East Belfast stronghold from the Alliance Party.
He said that Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers may have to step in and extend legislation governing the flying of flags over government buildings like Stormont so that it also covers City Hall.
The Conservative peer told BBC Radio 4’s World at One: “I am surprised there is a problem, because the issue could have been foreseen, a compromise was available. It seems rather strange the compromise has not been accepted.
“It’s really strange that some parties who sit at Stormont and accept for government buildings the designated flag days, are out encouraging protests against designated days in other public buildings. It’s a pity some parties are now not accepting that compromise.”
The former Ulster Unionist Party leader said it made him suspect parties had “other motives”.
“I cannot avoid looking at the fact that the Alliance Party, who provided the majority for this compromise at City Hall, is the party that defeated the DUP in east Belfast in the parliamentary election,” he said.
“I wonder if this is something to do with trying to regain support that went to the Alliance Party at that stage. In which case I think it’s a really quite cynical thing for them to be doing.”
Last week’s decision to limit the number of days the Union flag is flown at City Hall was followed by protests which sometimes flared into violence. At least 29 police officers have been injured and 38 people arrested, while Alliance Party premises have been targeted by loyalists.
The leaders of the DUP and UUP have reiterated their call for an end to the protests.
The parties have been accused by political rivals of sending out mixed messages after some of their elected representatives attended the loyalist demonstrations despite earlier calls from the leadership to suspend the public events.
DUP leader Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said if protests were held in spite of their advice it was up to the judgement of their representatives whether they should attend, as long as they were certain they would be peaceful and lawful.
Mr Robinson and Mr Nesbitt have been holding a series of meetings with loyalist community figures in a bid to devise a political strategy to address their concerns.
They said they would announce a new initiative when their discussions were finalised early next week.
In a joint statement, Mr Robinson and Mr Nesbitt said: “In the past two weeks, because of our concern that protests may lead to violence or civil disturbance, we have asked organisers to suspend their protests.
“It remains our view that the cause is best served by moving beyond protest and to a political solution.
“We are especially conscious of any impact on the business community in the vital weeks leading up to Christmas and wish to ensure that their business is not affected by either protests or the fear of disruption.
“For our part, we share the stated aim of the protests to defend the Union Flag.
“We not only acknowledge but defend people’s right to lawfully protest and have indicated that if, in spite of our advice, protests are organised by others and where our representatives are certain that a protest will be conducted in a completely peaceful and lawful manner, it is a matter for their own judgment as to whether or not they should attend.
“In addition where, as has been the case on a number of occasions, the police have asked our representatives to seek to play a role in ensuring that a protest remains lawful, we support them carrying out such a function.
“As political leaders our task is to ensure that we find a political solution to the problems that we face and to ensure peace and stability for the people of Northern Ireland.”
They added: “We also intend to engage constructively with other parties outside the unionist community with a view to making progress in shaping a better future for us all.
“We believe that it is in the interest of the entire community that the difficulties of the past few weeks are resolved to the satisfaction of everyone.”
The Alliance Party has criticised the unionist parties over a lack of leadership.
East Belfast Assembly member Chris Lyttle said: “Unionist leaders have continuously said that the British identity is being undermined, further heightening fears and creating tensions.
“The decision by Belfast Council actually acknowledges Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, with Sinn Fein and the SDLP voting for the Union Flag to fly on designated days.
“Unionist parties have presented this as a break with normal practice. Yet it is the policy at Stormont, the DUP at Lisburn Council and was the preferred position of the UUP and PUP (Progressive Unionist Party) in 2000.
“These parties are now exploiting the flag and failing to address issues such as the economy, education and employment. Do they support a shared future or not?
“They are also sending dangerously mixed messages to protesters. While Peter Robinson, Mike Nesbitt and (DUP economy minister) Arlene Foster call for these protests to end, their elected representatives have supported them.
“In the run-up to Christmas, businesses are losing out due these protests, it is time people realised that they are harming their own community.
“Protests must end, politicians must voice united opposition and urge those organising them to stop the disruption to people’s lives.
“Sinn Fein could also move to defuse fears by making clear their commitment to a shared future for all identities in Northern Ireland.”
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell criticised the joint unionist statement.
“The joint DUP/UUP statement is wrongheaded and aggravating,” he said.
“It sends a message to businesses and citizens that unionism is not stepping back. It flies in the face of what people want to hear.
“Unionism and loyalism must step back and do so immediately. This is not the time to escalate. It is not the time to, in any way, endorse public representatives’ presence at illegal protests or, even in a qualified manner, encourage people to take to the streets.
“The DUP and UUP jointly contributed to this situation. That was bad judgment, bad politics and bad for people. To now issue joint statements makes the situation worse and shows exactly the same bad judgment and politics and a lack of consideration for people.”
He voiced concern that any pan-unionist political initiative to address the issue would be influenced by loyalist paramilitaries.
“Let me repeat - the strategy must be an end to mixed messages and aggravating words and no populist actions that see contentious issues replayed in other places including the Assembly and councils,” he said.
A UUP Assembly member claimed tonight that the row over the flag was the consequence of tribal and failed politics.
John McCallister suggested that, if a spirit of generosity had prevailed in City Hall, a compromise could have be reached which would have resulted in the flag not flying all year round but on more days than the 17 proposal that was ultimately voted through.
“What has been missing in the current controversies is the voices of moderate, civic nationalism and moderate, civic unionism,” he said.
“Rather than reduce our politics to a sectarian zero-sum game, the vocation of moderate civic nationalism and moderate civic unionism is to create a greater space for pluralist politics, a shared society and an understanding of the common good.”
He added: “We might suggest that a spirit of generosity would have allowed moderate, civic nationalism and moderate, civic unionism to propose something more than the 17 designated days - recognising the historic significance of Belfast as the region’s capital - and something less than 365 days - recognising the place of nationalists and republicans in the city of Belfast.
“Instead of such an outcome, moderate, civic nationalism and moderate, civic unionism both allowed themselves to be co-opted by the politics of division.
“Rather than the spirit of generosity, we have had the triumph of divisiveness.”
Mr McCallister was set to deliver his message to a Northern Ireland Conservative Party event in Strangford.
The South Down MLA also insisted that the decision by his party to discipline fellow MLA Basil McCrea over comments he made on the Union flag issue was “over the top”.
Mr McCallister, Mr McCrea’s closest ally in the party, said he disagreed with the decision to remove the whip from the Lagan Valley Assembly member.
Mr McCrea’s future in the UUP is in doubt after Mr Nesbitt took the disciplinary action for what he claimed was the MLA’s inability to exercise self-discipline or teamwork.
The move came after he criticised the party’s backing of a DUP bid to kick-start a debate on flying the Union flag more regularly at Stormont.
Sinn Fein Belfast City Councillor Jim McVeigh has received a second death threat but said it will not deter him or the party from continuing their work at the council.
The latest threat was made this afternoon in a telephone call to a local media outlet.
“These death threats will only make me more determined to push ahead with Sinn Fein’s work in the council of making the city hall a more inclusive place for all the citizens of Belfast,” he said.