Unionist Forum 'not talking shop' - FM

Unionist Forum 'not talking shop' - FM

The first meeting of the unionist taskforce created in response to the ongoing flag dispute will take place at Stormont on Thursday morning.

Some of the issues which are to be discussed include flags, parades, and increasing the voter turnout in unionist areas.

First Minister Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt explained in a joint statement that the purpose of the forum will be to "seek to engage with the entire unionist community and address issues of concern".

"It will seek to channel unionist efforts through political means. While participants attending the initial meeting will be limited, working groups may be established to provide a more extensive reach across the wider unionist community," they said.

"The forum will be a body through which unionists can meet to consider matters of interest and concern to the unionist community."

Organisers said participants should commit to "exclusively peaceful and democratic means, non-sectarianism", a shared future and devolution.

I don't believe that the answer is through protest, I believe the answer is through politics.

Peter Robinson

Mr Robinson has told UTV protests should remain peaceful.

"I recognise that last night in particular there was a particular agitation from the Short Strand and that violence began there, but I look to unionists to support our police service, not to be in the process of attacking them," he said.

He said that the Unionist Forum would allow people the channel their views through politics, although he acknowledged that not everyone would engage with the outlet.

"If people don't follow the leadership that we (have) given, I think we have to recognise that not everybody supports the process in which I am a part of; they are not going to accept the influence I might have."

Mr Robinson said the forum will not be "just a talking shop" but is an opportunity for unionists to become more "cohesive" and united in how they respond to issues, which he hopes will result in positive action.

Political unionism must now face up to the reality of the situation, that they bear a heavy responsibility for the chaotic and distressing scenes on our streets.

Conall McDevitt, SDLP MLA

The announcement comes after a fifth night of violence in the east of the city, which PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott believes is being orchestrated by senior members of the UVF.

It follows a Belfast City Council vote in December to reduce the number of days the Union Flag flies from 365 days a year to 18 designated days.

Around 100 people were arrested and 80 charged in the last month after violence erupted in the wake of flag demonstrations.

Reacting to another night of violence in Belfast, SDLP south Belfast MLA Conall McDevitt called for unionist politicians to address the issue urgently.

"The police must act decisively against anyone who would seem to encourage illegal demonstrations or incite riotous behaviour. The police response must be fair, firm and unequivocal," he added.

"Furthermore the Northern Ireland Office and the Secretary of State must now review all loyalist prisoners on licence to ensure that none of them are engaged in directly or indirectly facilitating violence or the organisation of illegal protests.

"These protests no longer have legitimacy when we have seen a consistent spiralling toward unlawful, violent and destructive scenes which shame the City of Belfast and have very little support in the wider community."

If symbols and cultural expressions are to be treated equally, then unionists must recognise that we are coming from a time when it was all one-sided.

Gerry Kelly, SF MLA

Meanwhile Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly has said that reasons given by loyalist and unionists for the flag protests do not "stack up".

"There needs to be a discussion on how people's Irishness or Britishness and those of other national identities can be respected and valued," he said.

"We can make a start to that discussion with flags but it is far wider than that and takes in the Irish language and the Loyal Order parades."

Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers says she is concerned about the impact the ongoing disorder will have on the region.

She has urged political leaders to find a way forward.

The Conservative MP said: "It's vital these protests come off the streets so that we can have a sensible and informed debate and a way forward on flags which reflects different perspectives, the different identities and the different traditions in Northern Ireland."

© UTV

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