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Unionist political leaders offer to meet paramilitaries

Published 11/01/2013

UNIONIST political leaders say they are willing to hold talks with loyalist paramilitary groups in an effort to end violence surrounding flag protests.

The pledge came after the first meeting of the 'Unionist Forum' at Stormont yesterday.

Senior figures within the UVF in east Belfast have been blamed by police for "orchestrating" violent clashes in re-cent weeks.

The forum was set up by First Minister Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt in response to ongoing disturbances following a vote to fly the Union flag from Belfast City Hall on only 17 designated days each year.

The inaugural meeting 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 hundreds of Union flag protests, boycotted yesterday's 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.

Mr Nesbitt said dialogue was the required and acknowledged some loyalists feel alienated by the political process.

"And I understand the media asking questions about will you be talking to quote unquote 'loyalist paramilitaries' but I think you also understand that 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.

PUP Belfast councillor John Kyle, who attended the event with party representative Winston Irvine, said the forum must have a community focus.

"The forum has the potential to deliver real and meaningful change within communities and it is positive that it is looking at such a wide range of issues affecting the protestant community," he said.

"However, the forum must ensure that responses are community led, and will ultimately be judged not only on its actions but how successful those actions are."

The Orange Order's grand secretary Drew Nelson and grand chaplain Rev Mervyn Gibson also attended.

"The removal of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall acted as a catalyst to convert a generation of unionist fragmentation, and it is deeply encouraging to witness the coalescing of the wider pro-union family," a spokesman said.

"All strands of unionism now have a real and tangible vehicle to work together on issues of common concern.

"We must not miss this opportunity for constructive cooperation."

However, Sinn Fein Upper Bann assembly member John O'Dowd said the Unionist Forum will not solve problems around "mutual respect".

"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."

A number of working groups were set up to consider issues identified and it is expected the forum will meet again next month.

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said politicians, including unionists, should work for everyone, not just one section of the community.

Speaking after the first meeting of the Unionist Forum yesterday, he said: "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." ■ REPRESENTATIVE: The new Unionist Forum leaving The Great Hall at Stormont yesterday

PICTURES: Justin Kernoghan/Photopress ■ GREETING: UDA leader Jackie McDonald, left, shakes hands iwht Peter Robinson at the meeting of the Unionist Forum yesterday PICTURE: Paul Faith/PA