Pan-unionism hailed as forum meets
Unionist political leaders have said they are willing to hold talks with loyalist murder gangs about increasingly violent flag protests.
The paramilitary UVF in east Belfast have been blamed by the PSNI for orchestrating riots in recent weeks.
The pledge came after the first meeting of the ‘Unionist Forum’ at Stormont this week. The body is said to be an attempt by the two largest unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, to discuss fears that nationalists are making inroads against British rule and a resulting unionist ‘identity crisis’.
Senior figures within the UVF in east Belfast have been blamed by police for “orchestrating” violent clashes in recent weeks.
The inaugural meeting on Thursday was attended by the main unionist parties -- as well as leading loyalists including south Belfast UDA leader Jackie McDonald and east Belfast’s Jimmy Birch.
Senior members of the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the UVF, were also in attendance. However, the Ulster People’s Forum, which has organised a number of the flag protests, boycotted the meeting.
Mr Robinson said the gathering was the most “representative group within the unionist community to meet probably in half a century”. The DUP leader said he was willing to meet those behind the recent violence.
“We will talk to anyone who wants to talk to us about how we can move forward in an exclusively peaceful and democratic manner -- that’s the way forward for Northern Ireland and that’s the basis upon which we would be talking,” he said.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said loyalists feel they have been left out of the political process, and were still angered by Sinn Fein’s inclusion in power-sharing at the Stormont Assembly.
In a break with traditional UUP policy, he dismissed media concerns about direct engagement with loyalist paramilitaries.
“People with that sort of past look at what’s up here [parliament buildings], look at who goes into that chamber to represent republicanism and they see frankly a hypocrisy and they think one side is being picked on while the other’s being celebrated,” he said.
The leadership of the Orange Order also attended, and praised the event as a “coalescing of the wider pro-union family”.
However, Sinn Fein Upper Bann assembly member John O’Dowd said the Unionist Forum would not solve any problems.
“That can only come when representatives from the whole community sit down together. There needs to be an open discussion on how people’s Irishness and Britishness can be respected and valued,” he said.
“Equality, parity of esteem and mutual respect needs to be at the core of any move forward on identity and symbols.
“Unionism needs to face the reality that the north has changed and will continue to change. Any attempts to hark back to a one-sided past will only sow more confusion among unionists and loyalists.”
Stewart Dickson of the moderate Alliance Party, said politicians, including unionists, should work for everyone, not just one section of the community.
“Somebody should remind Peter Robinson that he is the first minister for Northern Ireland and not just the first minister of unionism.
“Mike Nesbitt by co-chairing this group must admit that he has given up on his attempt to make the UUP appeal to all people and not just Unionists.
“This tribal form of politics will only further cement divisions and will not help deliver a shared future.”