TASK FORCE SET UP AT FIRST MEETING OF UNIONIST FORUM AT STORMONT

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt says Unionist Forum sets up Task Force

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt says Unionist Forum sets up Task Force

THE first meeting of the new Unionist Forum has set up a Task Force.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said that along with the Task Force, the Forum also set up eight working groups.

He said he hoped the Task Force and the eight working groups could “hit the ground running” by Friday.

The Unionist Forum was the brainchild of First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson and the UUP leader following discussions with the UDA’s Jackie McDonald in December.

And while the Unionist Forum meets, talks were also being held between Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Following the first meeting of the Forum, Mr Robinson said now was not the right time to pubish the long awaited Community Safety Initiative (CSI).

However, the First Minister said the Unionist Forum was the place for unionist and loyalists to get change, not through riots and protests on the streets.

The Task Force and eight working groups will now engage with the wider community on issues affecting the entire unionist spectrum.

Mr Robinson described the meeting as “useful and positive”.

“We want to move beyond protests to political action to get outcomes that are beneficial, not just to the unionist community but the whole community in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Asked if he would talk to loyalist paramilitaries, he replied: “We will talk to anyone who wants to talk to us about how we can move forward in an exclusively peaceful and democratic manner.

“We want to take people beyond the protest, we want to engage with people. Here is the mechanism for change.

“The protesters have highlighted issues. The forum is taking those issues forward.”

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said he had been struck by the breadth of representation at the meeting and the very positive nature of engagement.

Shadown Northern Ireland Secretary Vernon Coaker said that there was “consensus in the House of Commons on protests needing to stop.”

“But we must tackle causes of alienation and disengagement. That’s about more than just the flag.”

Mr Coaker is due in Northern Ireland later on Thursday and is expected to have “discussions on these issues with people on the ground in Northern Ireland” in the coming days.

Other politcians are attending the Unioist Forum including members of the Progressive Unionist Party, the Traditional Unionist Voice and the UK Independence Party.

Chaplain to the Orange Order’ Grand Lodge of Ireland Reverend Mervyn Gibson and its Grand Secretary Drew Nelson are attending.

Ahead of the meeting the Orange Order said the flag vote at Belfast City Hall was only the “latest manifestation of a long term campaign by republicans and nationalists to erode all symbols of Britishness” in Northern Ireland.

“These range from the removal of something as innocuous as a plaque presented by the RUC male voice choir to the shameful naming of a children’s play park after a republican terrorist.

“The ludicrous decision by Belfast City Council has acted as the catalyst which has highlighted and galvanised the current widespread discontent within the Unionist community.

“We hope this forum will act as an important vehicle to identify, articulate and address both past and present attacks on the symbols of Britishness permeating throughout many branches and levels of government and administration across the Province.

“We look forward to engaging positively on these and other matters of common concern to Unionists – including attacks on our parading culture; increasing alienation within the Protestant community; the demonisation of the Loyal Orders and all things Unionist; voter turnout; lack of capacity; and deprivation and educational underachievement in Protestant areas.

“By enabling a broad range of Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist opinion, we trust this new forum can ultimately serve to strengthen the cause of the wider pro-Union family,” added the Orange Order.

Rev Mervyn Gibson attending Unionist Forum

Rev Mervyn Gibson attending Unionist Forum

Also attending Thursday’s Unionist Forum was Winston Irvine from the loyalist North and West Belfast Parades Forum and the UDA’s Jackie McDonald.

The group was set up by unionist leaders to address many of the issues raised by the protestors, following the street violence that has erupted during the past number of weeks.

It is expected they will discuss the unrest over Belfast City Council’s decision to limit the number of days when the Union flag is flown from official buildings, parades, and increasing the voter turnout in unionist areas.

Mr Robinson, who is co-chairing the forum, said: “It will seek to channel unionist efforts through political means.

“All participants should share the core values of support for the maintenance of the Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, non-sectarianism, commitment to a shared future and commitment to the successful operation of devolution in Northern Ireland.”

Following the initial meeting, working groups may also be set up to reach into Northern Ireland’s wider unionist community.

The Union flag was flown at Belfast City Hall on Wednesday to mark the Duchess of Cambridge’s birthday, which is one of 18 designated days.

Belfast remained peaceful on Wednesday evening, following six consecutive nights of rioting in the east of the city, in which 66 police officers have been injured.

Meanwhile a planned loyalist rally in Dublin against the lowering of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall could be delayed.

Police in the Republic said they have taken part in “positive and constructive” discussions with a representative of Willie Frazer, who has been a prominent member of the Ulster People’s Forum.

Mr Frazer was one of the driving forces behind the protest which was due to take place in Dublin on Saturday.

He said: “The Garda want to facilitate this protest and we are prepared to work with them. But they said they need more time.”

 

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