The British Direct Ruler Theresa Villiers has said loyalist flags protestors are wrong to believe that Britishness in the north of Ireland is being “eroded” and condemned them for “dishonouring our flag”.
In a deliberately contentious speech at Queen’s University, Theresa Villiers claimed that “Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is probably stronger now than at any point in its history”.
She said there was “widespread agreement” that it would be “wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”.
She pointed to the removal of the territorial claim to sovereignty in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution under the Good Friday Agreement -- “something unionists had long campaigned for,” she said.
And although the Union Jack does not fly there every day any longer, she said it was hard to imagine “a building more British” than Belfast City Hall.
The speech was directed at loyalists and unionists angered at a decision by Belfast City council to reduce the year-round flying of the British flag, long the symbol of unionist domination of Belfast.
Those protests appear to be fading after over two months of street protests which often graduated to mob violence and riots.
A police deal with unionist paramilitaries two weeks ago has allowed the force to take a harder line against those engaged in illegal roadblocks. While smaller numbers of loyalists, largely women and children, have continued to block roads, others have been told to move to the footpath or face arrest.
A key protest group has now said it will only take part in ‘white-line’ demonstrations along the centre of roads, without blocking them. The Ulster People’s Forum (UPF) said on Wednesday that its members had made the “positive step” to protest without blocking roads, or at council meetings.
The UPF, chaired by Jamie Bryson, said changes in strategy were agreed at the weekend. But it stressed it did not speak for all protesters and would also back those wanting to protest “in a non-violent manner”, suggesting that some roadblocks would continue.
Bryson’s scaled-down strategy is said to have provoked a falling-out between him and the second loyalist protest leader, Willie Frazer.
But Villiers accused all those involved in the protests of “dishonouring” Britain and dragging down the local economy. Speaking at the Conservative Party event, Ms Villiers said her government could no longer afford to spend a million pounds a week policing the loyalist protests and violence.
“The actions of those involved in riots are shocking and they are intolerable,” she said.
“They are dishonouring our flag, damaging the economy and risk weakening support for the Union. In other words, these people are undermining the very causes in which they claim to believe.”
She added: “The flag may not fly there every day right now, but it’s hard to imagine a building more steeped in British cultural tradition and symbolism than the Portland stone Victorian splendour of Belfast City Hall.”
She said she could not understand the North’s sectarian divisions, and warned of “consequences” if the troubles aren’t ended.
“It can’t be right that so many children here are educated completely separately, that public housing remains so segregated and that since the 2006 St Andrew’s Agreement the number of so-called peace walls has gone up,” she said.
“A shared future can’t be imposed from London,” she said, adding that if division and violence was not replaced by dialogue “the consequences will be to the detriment of everyone who lives here.”