Northern Ireland news

Unionist leaders must have 'difficult discussions' with loyalists who have lost faith in politics - Arlene Foster

Violent scenes during a week of loyalist violence. Picture by Alan Lewis - PhotopressBelfast.co.uk

UNIONIST leaders have to have "difficult discussions" with loyalists who "think that politics has failed them", First Minister Arlene Foster has said.

The DUP leader was speaking after party chair Lord Morrow claimed that the current situation for loyalism was "of equal seriousness" to the workers' council strike and Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The general strike called by unionists against the Sunningdale Agreement in 1974 led to power cuts, while mass street protests also broke out over the 1985 treaty.

Lord Morrow also claimed that authorities had shown “total and absolute capitulation to the demands of militant republicanism”.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill described the remarks to the News Letter as "a nonsense", saying: "What unionism requires is strong civic leadership and personally I think that that is absent in many respects."

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster, she said "there is no other alternative than the Good Friday Agreement institutions and we need to work together as political leaders to make that work".

"Now that's challenging. That is extremely difficult and I accept that, but it is what we have and it is something we need to work at every day."

The Sinn Féin deputy leader disagreed with Lord Morrow's claim of loyalist feelings that authorities have "concluded they don’t want to annoy republicans - everybody else seems to be expendable"

"I see the same challenges in working class loyalist communities as I see in working class nationalist communities.

"Poverty isn't picking and choosing a religion. Poverty is appearing across the board so what we need to see delivered upon are anti-poverty strategies. What we need to see is good housing for people. What we need to see is opportunities for a job for people."

Ms Foster told the programme she was "disappointed to hear the deputy first minister dismiss the views of my party chair as nonsense", saying it was not "the generosity of spirit that we need to see".

She said "responsible leadership" is about listening, engaging and "advocating that politics, despite everything that's going on, is the only way forward, is the only focus we should have".

"That means difficult discussions and difficult engagements with people who think that politics has failed them.

"All of those things have to be tackled head on and not dismissed as nonsense because, you know, one person's nonsense is another person's absolute belief in what is happening at this moment in time."

She said there were some things said over the past week of violence "which are not true or they are perceptions, but they are very, very strongly held perceptions".

"We change perceptions by engaging, by listening, by actually saying to people 'well, actually here is what the case is in terms of the loyalist community'."

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