The DUP last night moved to clarify that it is not boycotting the North-South Ministerial Council as a protest against the Parades Commission.
After a 24-hour period where it was widely assumed the withdrawal of the DUP and UUP ministers from yesterday’s meeting of the council was part of the unionist “graduated response” to the Ardoyne parade ruling, the party last night played down talk of a boycott.
To boycott the body would place unionist ministers in a tricky legal position due to the requirement of the ministerial code to participate in the cross-border meetings which have largely passed without incident.
On Thursday the DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP and UPRG issued a statement which announced the end of unionist involvement in the post-Haass Stormont talks on parades, flags and the past in protest at Thursday’s Parades Commission ruling.
The statement warned obliquely that there would be a “graduated response”, something about which unionist sources were coy about specifying but said would quickly become clear.
When that night it emerged that unionists had forced the postponement of north-south meeting, it led Eamon Gilmore in one of his last acts as Tanaiste to release a statement in which he said he was “disappointed” by the move, something which he said was “as a consequence of the DUP’s and UUP’s withdrawal from the political talks in Belfast”.
But last night DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson told BBC Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics programme said: “The council meeting that was due to take place today has been postponed because ministers simply weren’t available and there are many meetings going on today around this issue and around the serious situation that we face.”
Another DUP source made clear that the party was not boycotting north-south business. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly dismissed Mr Donaldson’s explanation, saying that it was “never about diaries” but that unionists had “decided to pull out of it”.
Yesterday there was no further clarity on what the “graduated response” might entail, although Mr Donaldson declined an opportunity to say that Tuesday’s Executive meeting will definitely go ahead.
Instead of a political statement, yesterday the Orange Order released a statement after senior Orange figures met unionist leaders in Belfast.
Grand Master Edward Stevenson said that the institution had “offered our full support for their joint statement and unity of purpose following the Parades Commission’s nonsensical decision preventing Ligoniel Orangemen from once again completing their Twelfth parade”.
He added: “Grand Lodge is also mindful at this time of restrictions on other Orange parades throughout the Province.
“We will continue purposeful dialogue within the Orange family and wider pro-Union community over the coming days; and will outline our response in due course.
“Although there is much anger at the latest restriction on our legitimate cultural expression and traditions; I would once again reiterate the Institution’s call for any protest to be lawful and peaceful. Violence will not help our cause, and only play into the hands of our enemies.”
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said that the decision had created deep hurt but stressed that he was not calling people out onto the streets.
“Despite this hurt and anger, everyone must remain calm. Any response should be peaceful, lawful and respectful.
“To do otherwise would do a disservice to getting a fair resolution.”
SDLP MLA Alex Attwood and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams called for government intervention above the heads of the local parties
Meanwhile, UKIP has clarified its absence from the joint unionist statement released on Thursday. UKIP and the Conservatives were the only two unionist parties who were not signatories to the statement.
But yesterday UKIP’s Northern Ireland leader David McNarry said that “it should be understood that UKIP were not invited to participate in the joint unionist talks or in the formation of a combined unionist group or, for that matter, to sign the statement released on Thursday”.
He added: “I was aware of such talks but not aware of the formation of a combined group or the release of a statement.
“Although UKIP polled very well in North and West Belfast at the European election, we did not contest their council areas. I understood that the original talks included only those parties with elected representatives in North and West Belfast.”
See Business, page 17