Unionist Forum ‘finished’ as another party walks away

First Minister Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist Leader Mike Nesbitt speaking to the media at Stormont after the first meeting of the Ulster Unionist Forum in January last year.
First Minister Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist Leader Mike Nesbitt speaking to the media at Stormont after the first meeting of the Ulster Unionist Forum in January last year.

The leading proponent of unionist unity has quit the Unionist Forum, calling on Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt to publicly admit that the initiative is dead.

David McNarry, whose passion for closer inter-unionist ties was such that two years ago he attempted to bring the party closer to the DUP but was subsequently expelled for indiscipline, told the News Letter that the full forum had not met for more than seven months.

David McNarry

David McNarry

The unionist veteran, who is now UKIP’s Northern Ireland leader, said he still believed in unionist unity but that “no one now would trust any initiative on the basis of how this one has been driven into a road crash”.

Loyalist members of the forum said they were also deeply frustrated at the lack of progress but intended to remain involved.

The DUP confirmed that the forum had not met since last summer but said that was partly because of the Haass talks and that it was now keen to get the Ulster Unionist Party to agree to setting up another forum meeting.

The pan-unionist grouping was set up by the DUP and UUP leaders just over a year ago in an attempt to channel the street anger of the Union Flag protests into political action. Encompassing almost every pro-Union political voice, from the Orange Order to the TUV to loyalist paramilitary representatives, the body was hailed by the First Minister as “the most representative group in the unionist community to meet in half a century”.

But there were sceptical voices from the start. Last summer one of those, TUV leader Jim Allister, quit, citing the forum’s inability to take a position on the Maze peace centre, and arguing that the forum had been cynically created in an attempt to stop the flag protests.

Last night, Mr McNarry said that many others shared Mr Allister’s belief that the forum was merely set up to stop street protests, not genuinely bring unionism together.

The MLA said that he had become increasingly frustrated at the lack of forum meetings over recent months and that soundings of UKIP members in the Province had “come back more or less unanimously that I shouldn’t attend it any more”.

Mr McNarry said that he had intended to convey that in person to the DUP and UUP leaderships at the next forum meeting but that in the absence of an invitation “there is actually no point in pretending that the forum exists”.

Mr McNarry said he was concerned at “how easily extinguished” the forum had been, and added: “To say I’m disappointed doesn’t do justice to my feelings.

“I’m a believer in unionist unity and I actually thought that whilst I had suspicions about some people’s motives in forming the forum, I thought there would be sufficient momentum to hold it together.”

The Strangford MLA added: “It’s bewildering how the two leaders of unionism – particularly the main leader, Peter Robinson, for whom I have a high degree of admiration for his tactical and strategic nous – let the idea of a united unionist presentation go over their heads and not back up what they were trying to do.”

Asked about the implications of the forum’s failure for future unionist unity attempts, he said: “I think it is a serious let-down for many unionists – that it’s easy to talk about doing things together, but in the end selfish party interests interfere and therefore you just end up going up a blind alley.

“It seems ironic that the flags issue is left hanging, the lodges are still at Twaddell – and yet no-one has thought it fit to call a meeting of the Unionist Forum to discuss these issues.”

A DUP spokesman said: “A number of meetings of the forum have taken place both in committee and plenary format.

“The work of the forum has been advanced across a number of sub-groups and it last met in plenary during the summer.

“Due to the ongoing discussions on parades, flags and the past, the forum has not been in a position to complete some of its work programmes.

“The DUP is committed to the concept of discussing a range of matters with fellow unionists and we have sought in recent weeks to reconvene a meeting of the Unionist Forum with the Ulster Unionist Party.”

David McNarry is the second MLA to take his party off the Unionist Forum, but others who remain involved are far from happy.

Jim Wilson, who represented the Red Hand Old Comrades on the forum, said “a lot of people are unhappy that it hasn’t met”. He said it was “frustrating” and some people “believe it was a ruse to get them off the flag protests”.

Paul Clissold, of the UDA-linked UPRG, said that it still viewed the forum as positive but “it has lost momentum...I can only speak for South Belfast UPRG when I say that as frustrating and slow as it has been, we will always push for more communication”.

PUP deputy leader John Kyle, above, who is chair of the forum’s education sub -group, said it was hoping to publish a report within the coming weeks but said “as far as I’m aware, we’re further on than anyone else”.