Bryson claims flag protests are strong despite dwindling crowds

Flag protestors at Belfast City Hall on Saturday.
Flag protestors at Belfast City Hall on Saturday.

Loyalist activism on issues around parades and the Union Flag is as strong as ever, despite the fact just 30 people are understood to have turned out for Saturday’s weekly flag protest, a PUL campaigner has said.

What began as a demonstration against a vote to limit the flying of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall more than a year ago has now mushroomed into a movement of people who are “disenchanted with the political process as it stands here”, according to Jamie Bryson.

The chair of the Ulster People’s Forum, who said that he was not at Saturday’s demonstration, told the News Letter Camp Twaddell has now become the main focal point for unionists angry about decisions on parading as well as the flag.

While a number of bigger protests were held on Saturdays in September, November and January at City Hall, numbers have steadily declined at the weekly demonstration.

Thousands gathered at some of the biggest protests last year, which organisers said extended to demonstrations against ‘political policing’ and the continued existence of the Parades Commission.

Objections were raised, and endorsed by First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, at the timing of protests as Belfast geared up for its busiest shopping days in the run-up to Christmas.

On Saturday just a small crowd stood at the front of City Hall with flags and banners, prompting one Twitter user to comment: “Switch off the lights on your way out! Pathetic & embarrassing!”

Mr Bryson, who addressed some of the gatherings at the beginning of last year, said court cases arising out of the protests that had turned violent may be a factor in the declining numbers of participants.

“It has to be remembered that when these protests were at their strongest the police and the state came down hard on them,” he said. “The loyalist people have withstood that onslaught. But many of them probably can’t attend because of bail conditions.”

Asked if it was time for the protests to come to an end, Mr Bryson said “absolutely not”.

“All those issues have not gone away,” he said. “But there are now so many issues that it has mushroomed into a wider thing.”

PUP member Winston Irvine rejected suggestions that interest in the protests had waned.

“There is a hardcore element of people who are continuing to mount a weekly protest at the gates of City Hall,” he said.

“There will be weeks in which numbers will vary but there are enough people who still care about this issue to ensure it doesn’t slip off the political agenda.

“My view is that the protests are still in full swing.

“We have said from the get-go that the peaceful protest is only one part of us expressing opposition and it must be done alongside a strategic political process.”