A SCHISM within the main flag protest grouping appears to have been averted at a clear-the-air meeting yesterday.
Well publicised difficulties between committee members intensified yesterday morning when interim chairman Jamie Bryson claimed Willie Frazer was no longer a spokesman for the Ulster People’s Forum (UPF).
In a statement released from Mr Bryson’s personal email account just after midnight on Thursday, the UPF said: “The committee wish to make clear that Jamie Bryson is the only officially elected spokesperson of the Ulster People’s Forum, and has their full support.”
The UPF was formed as an umbrella group to coordinate the activities of protestors angry at Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union Flag on designated days only.
Over the last two months, protest meetings have been used to highlight a series of additional injustices the loyalists claim have been inflicted on their community – including costly inquiries being established mainly to investigate the deaths of nationalists, and the lack of a ‘peace dividend’ for loyalist areas.
Yesterday’s statement provoked an angry response from Mr Frazer, who denied claims that he had declined to attend meetings. He also denied the allegation that he was making media statements “contrary to some of the views, plans and agreed policies of the Ulster People’s Forum”.
Within an hour of the statement appearing on the internet, Mr Frazer used his Facebook social networking page to hit back, saying he remained “committed to the original aims of the forum”.
He added: “There are meetings being held which people are not being told about and then we see statements like this being issued.
“But what right do they have to put out statements like this when they have not yet elected either a full committee or executive. We have been pushing for a full meeting so that we can have the committee elected, but that is being blocked for some reason.”
In the latest development, the two loyalists met yesterday afternoon in an effort to clarify, among other things, whether Mr Frazer would continue as a UPF spokesman.
Immediately following the meeting, the UPF issued a statement saying the group was united and that “there is no split”.
It said: “The difference of opinion between William Frazer and Jamie Bryson has been put behind us for the good of the people of Ulster.
“There is an attempt by sinister forces to divide loyalism and the UPF will move forward united and continue to work with protestors from right across Ulster in defence of our British identity.”
It went on to say: “William Frazer has clarified his position to members of the UPF committee and made clear he supports 100 per cent the current UPF committee.”
Prior to yesterday’s meeting, Mr Frazer posted a statement on Facebook thanking everyone who had supported him during the past weeks.
“You are all correct,” he said. “The UPF isn’t owned by anyone, it was started by protestors countrywide and cannot be dictated to so the people themselves will push ahead with a countrywide meeting to form a democratically elected executive committee representing all of Ulster.
“This meeting will take place next week in Antrim or Ballymena and only then will any decisions be made regarding the direction the people want to take things.”
He also told the News Letter: “The executive committee has not been elected – the interim committee is to facilitate a countrywide elected committee.
“Whenever they elect who they want to speak for them and represent them on the committee then I will take a step back from it.
“I had not been saying much, but when they’re issuing statements and not even sending them to me then what do they expect? I know people are upset and confused but the aims and objectives are still the same.”
Mr Frazer said he “won’t walk away” from the UPF and added: “This cannot be about Willie Frazer or Jamie Bryson or anybody else, or any other organisation.
“When the people have their election and vote for who they want to replace them (the interim committee) then that is fair enough.
“I won’t walk away. It’s only when the people decide that that will happen. I’m not out to be the head of anything as I have enough on my plate.”
With Mr Frazer back on board, yesterday afternoon’s agreed statement – issued around 3pm – said the UPF committee would stand together despite a “daily witch hunt” by some media outlets.
“Ulster is united and no one will divide us. Neither Jamie Bryson nor Willie Frazer will be commenting further and ask anyone currently attempting to cause division to desist and unite behind the cause of Ulster we all hold dear,” it said.
Since the flag protests began on December 3, several of the road block protests have resulted in violence leaving more than 100 police officers injured.
Almost 200 loyalist protestors have been arrested, with most of them facing charges – including illegally blocking a public road, riots and assault on police.
The full scale of unionist discontent with their leaders’ handling of the flag crisis has been laid bare in a major opinion poll carried out for the BBC.
On the Spotlight programme earlier this week, the results of an Ipsos MORI survey revealed that 34 per cent of DUP supporters believe that PUP leader Billy Hutchinson has handled the protests well, compared to only 30 per cent who believe their own leader, Peter Robinson, has.
The extensive survey also found that almost half of adult unionists want the Union Flag protests to continue – despite repeated calls from the two main unionist leaders for them to end.
In the first proper test of public opinion since the Union Flag crisis began, the poll found that 54 per cent of unionists want the protests to stop, but 45 per cent believe that they should go on.
However, across both unionism and nationalism, a clear majority of 77 per cent feel the protests should end.
Following a meeting between flag protestors and the police last week, a police spokesman said it produced “a frank and constructive dialogue” in relation to “peaceful and legal protests and parades”.
The meeting revealed the first real signs of tensions within the UPF when its two main spokesmen released separate, contradictory statements on protest tactics.
In his own statement, issued immediately after the PSNI meeting, Mr Bryson said the forum was supporting a move towards totally legal “white line protests”, while Mr Frazer said the demonstrations should carry on as normal.
Last month, the Confederation of British Industry estimated that the flag protests had cost Belfast businesses up to £15 million in lost revenue.
In response, the Backin’ Belfast campaign was launched to encourage more people to shop and socialise in the city.