Talks seek to end flag ‘protests’
New efforts to end the flag riots in the North of Ireland have seen church leaders and even loyalist paramilitary figures take the lead in seeking an end to the violence.
However, the failure of prominent unionist politicians to engage in any real peace efforts remains a source of dismay and division.
But a joint statement by church leaders and community representatives on Thursday was backed by senior UDA figures, and has encouraged hope that the end may be in sight.
After a meeting in the East Belfast Mission, a statement was issued condemning the violence. It said: “The rioting does absolutely nothing to promote any cause, but is damaging this community.
“We would add that those who come into the area to riot and cause disturbance are not welcome.”
They stopped short of calling off the roadblocks and other street protests which have often descended into riots. However, the leader of the UDA in east Belfast, Jimmy Birch said members of his paramilitary group have been told to desist from rioting.
Birch, who attended the first meeting of the Unionist Forum at Stormont organised by DUP leader Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt, said the violence was counterproductive.
“Every time [Sinn Féin] call the tune, we take to the streets, we wreck our own areas, we fight with the police, we burn our own cars and we stop our own people going to work and coming home from work and disrupt our own people’s way of life,” he said.
But the North’s First Minister, DUP leader Peter Robinson has been particularly condemned for failing to release a joint statement with Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness about the violence.
The two held talks on the disturbances with the British Direct Ruler and 26 County Tanaiste at Stormont on Thursday. Unusually, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister spoke separately about the meeting. The two have not been seen publicly together since the crisis over flying the British flag erupted.
The trouble comes amid other sectarian tensions at Stormont, as the DUP issued plans to scrap the Housing Executive, set up in 1971 to try to end anti-Catholic discrimination in public housing.
On a visit to the besieged nationalist Short Strand on Wednesday, Mr McGuinness hit out at the weak response from unionist leaders. He said political leaders needed to stand “shoulder to shoulder”.
“This is an occasion where we do need to be seen to be standing together -- not just Peter Robinson and myself -- but all the political leaders in the assembly need to be speaking with one voice and making it absolutely clear that we are not going to bow the knee, we are not going to bow the knee to anti-democratic forces, whether they be so-called loyalists or so-called republicans,” Mr McGuinness added.
He also said he was hopeful agreement could soon be found but establishing a solution was not easy.
“I welcome the fact that, albeit it hasn’t happened collectively, but individually all party leaders have called for an end to the protests,” he said.
“We all understand that the violence is very damaging to our society, to the community and to our economic prospects.”
He again called for robust action against “rabidly sectarian” people. he identified with the ultra-right British National Party. He said they were led by “drug pushers”.
“They are made up of a gather me-up group of people who are British national-type tendencies, people who are rabidly sectarian and this element within east Belfast attached to the Ulster Volunteer Force led by two drug pushers who have been at the heart of most of the conflict that has occurred in the last number of weeks,” he said.
He said those who disagreed with comments by some Sinn Féin politicians suggesting Short Strand residents had a right to defend themselves, “have a brass neck.”
“I haven’t heard one unionist politician... calling for people to be arrested and I haven’t heard them call on people with information about those involved in these violent riots to bring that information to the police,” he said.
DUP LEADER SHRUGS IT OFF
Accused of reneging on peace efforts, Peter Robinson said he was not in the business of “trying to put a face on issues”.
“We are agreed that the only way forward is by exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
“But it is important that we have a political process that deals with the issues that are causing concern. Real progress is being made on that. I am reasonably confident we will be able to have a joint way forward.”
A peace demonstration in Belfast city centre on Sunday saw an attendance of up to a thousand hold a ‘no silence’ protest against the violence.
However, further disruption is expected in the coming days as loyalists stage more flag protests -- including two so-called ‘Operation Standstill’ demonstrations just days apart.
At least six protests are planned this Friday night around Belfast and further afield.
Tomorrow [Saturday] thousands of loyalists are again expected to gather at Belfast city hall for a protest at 1pm. There were demands that the return march follow the ‘traditional’ Queen’s Bridge route into east Belfast.
It comes exactly a week after serious violence broke out at the Short Strand interface in east Belfast when loyalists returned from a similar rally.
Loyalists have also announced plans to stage a “unionist civil rights” rally in Derry -- on the same day as a march marking the anniversary of Bloody Sunday.
A flag of the murderous British Parachute Regiment, responsible for the murder of 14 Derry nationalists in the 1972 massacre, was flown from an interface close to Derry’s Bogside yesterday, just days ahead of the anniversary of the killings. The provocative flag was quickly removed by community activists.
‘Operation Standstill’ disturbances are also due to take place in areas across the north on Monday evening, as well as next Friday, the 25th of January.