THE political leaders of Northern Ireland’s two main unionist parties have called on loyalist street protests over the Union flag row to end.
The DUP’s Peter Robinson and the UUP’s Miken Nesbitt made the call on Friday in the hope of convincing those involved in street protests that a political solution can be found.
There has been a gathering momentum within unionism for the protests to stop because of the image it is sending around the world.
On Thursday, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster, whose job it is to bring in inward investment and jobs for Northern Ireland, also called for an end to the rallies as they were damaging trade and hurting local shopowners in the run up to Christmas.
Mr Robinson and Mr Nesbitt have been holding a series of meetings over the past week to find a way through the flags impasse.
They have held also held meetings with unionist and loyalist represetantives, including the de facto brigadier-in-chief of the UDA, Jackie McDonald.
He has recommended setting up task forces for each affected area in Northern Ireland. The task forces would talk to the local communities about their fears and angers and report back to politicians.
On Friday afternoon, following on from those discussions, the two unionist leaders issued a joint communique on a possible way forward.
Entitled ‘Moving Beyond Protest’, they say:
“In the past two weeks, because of our concern that protests may lead to violence or civil disturbance, we have asked organisers to suspend their protests.
“It remains our view that the cause is best served by moving beyond protest and to a political solution.
“We are especially conscious of any impact on the business community in the vital weeks leading up to Christmas and wish to ensure that their business is not affected by either protests or the fear of disruption.
“For our part we share the stated aim of the protests to defend the Union Flag. We not only acknowledge but defend people’s right to lawfully protest and have indicated that if, in spite of our advice, protests are organised by others and where our representatives are certain that a protest will be conducted in a completely peaceful and lawful manner, it is a matter for their own judgment as to whether or not they should attend.
“In addition where, as has been the case on a number of occasions, the police have asked our representatives to seek to play a role in ensuring that a protest remains lawful, we support them carrying out such a function.
“As political leaders our task is to ensure that we find a political solution to the problems that we face and to ensure peace and stability for the people of Northern Ireland.
“On Monday we will complete our brief consultation with some of the key interested parties in the unionist community.
“Following that, we will agree a way forward which will facilitate the announcement of a new initiate, involving people from across the unionist community, that will chart a positive way ahead to address many of the issues of concern that have been raised in recent days.
“We also intend to engage constructively with other parties outside the unionist community with a view to making progress in shaping a better future for us all.
“We believe that it is in the interest of the entire community that the difficulties of the past few weeks are resolved to the satisfaction of everyone.”
A Union flag protest is planned on Saturday at Belfast City Hall where several thousand peoplea expected to attend.
A counter demonstration will be held at the City Hall on Sunday which will include a minute’s silence for peace.
Because of the recent unrest in the city, the Continental Market at Belfast City will not end next Thursday, December 20 as was planned. It has now been extended to allow those shoppers who have been unable to visit to now attend.