Unionist Forum is told flag plan may not work

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and east Belfast community worker Jim Wilson pictured after the meeting.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and east Belfast community worker Jim Wilson pictured after the meeting.

THURSDAY’S pan-unionist meeting at Stormont was told that a plan to increase the Union Flag days at Stormont is in jeopardy because two unionist MLAs may not support it, the News Letter understands.

The media was not present for the two-hour inaugural meeting of the Unionist Forum but several sources said that there was a brief discussion about unionist attempts to use the Assembly Commission to increase the number of flag days at Stormont.

There has been a unionist majority on the commission – which represents all MLAs – but the meeting was told that the votes of former UUP deputy leader John McCallister and suspended UUP MLA Basil McCrea could not be guaranteed and that if they lent their votes to non-unionists the plan would fail.

It is understood that Mr McCallister and Mr McCrea would support a modest increase in the number of days the flag flies at Stormont but would oppose the flag flying every day of the year against the wishes of nationalists.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and Mr McCallister declined to comment.

Mr McCrea said that the DUP’s Edwin Poots had talked about attempting to fly the flag 365 days a year at Stormont, something he said was “not viable in the long term”.

Mr McCrea said that he would not “force through” the issue but said that if a small increase in the number of days could be done “by agreement” he did not think that there would be a problem.

Forum member David McNarry said that he was “horrified” at what the meeting had been told, something he said “just about sums up the impotence of the UUP”.

The former UUP man, who is now a UKIP MLA, added: “Remember the furore before Christmas when Alliance, Sinn Fein and the SDLP started boycotting the commission because they didn’t want to vote on the flag – well they now have no fears, it has been handed to them on a plate and the vote won’t be pushed now at all.”

Meanwhile, Mr Nesbitt has sought to reassure members of his party who fear that the forum is a move to unionist unity.

In his weekly message to members, Mr Nesbitt said yesterday: “Let me assure you it is not the first step on the road to unionist unity. Nor is it the vehicle that will drive us to the creation of a single, monolithic unionist party. Rather, it is a response to the cry, heard loudest in Belfast, for leadership and cohesion from the Ulster Unionist Party and others with political mandates.”

He said: “I appeal to everyone to give the forum a chance. Never in my lifetime have I seen such an attempt to find common ground, and success will yield strength, not demonstrated as brawn, but as confidence in taking the unionist cause forward, for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland.”