Belfast Telegraph

Parade discussions marked by tough talking and Twitter jibes

BY CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Two of the UDA's most senior leaders were taunted from within their own organisation as they took their seats at talks to resolve the parades issue.

Jackie McDonald and John Bunting – representing the UDA-linked Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG) – were two of the first to arrive in Belfast for the follow-up to talks that began in Cardiff in May.

But while they were inside, the West Belfast UPRG goaded them on Twitter, demonstrating emerging cracks at the top of the organisation.

"God will bless the peacemakers, not those attending [yesterday's talks] who are attention seekers and time wasters," the statement said.

The West Belfast UPRG is closely linked to a daily loyalist protest at Woodvale in north Belfast – which has cost £300,000 a week to police.

But sources also said that one of the 'moments' of the meeting came when Mr McDonald confronted Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly over his controversial speech at a republican commemoration in Castlederg. In it, Mr Kelly had stated that no unionist would ever prevent republicans "honouring our comrades who gave their lives in the struggle for Irish freedom and equality".

Mr McDonald described the meeting as a "positive, open and honest debate."

According to a talks insider, there were also clear tensions between loyalists and the PSNI throughout the meeting, which was attended by senior police, politicians, loyalists, republicans, academics and community representatives.

The Cardiff talks which took place in mid-May followed months of loyalist rioting in response to the decision to remove the Union flag from the City Hall. It was hoped the talks could defuse tensions ahead of the summer parades – but days of rioting ensued instead.

More than £28m has been spent policing the parades and protests since December. The Police Federation said last night that since July 1 last year, there had been 689 injuries to officers.

The figure had been officially reported in August to the media as being 350.

Speaking after yesterday's meeting, which lasted for over five hours, senior Belfast republican Sean 'Spike' Murray said: "There was no personal animosity aired. It was a mature, frank discussion and no punches were pulled in terms of the events of the summer.

"It was a review of those events – you can't go in and have a discussion and ignore those events."

He added: "I think it should assist the Haass process. If you'd gone in to the Haass talks without this frank discussion it would have made all our jobs more difficult."

Also present was Mervyn Gibson, Grand Chaplain of the Orange Order. Mr Gibson, who will be a DUP delegate at the Haass talks, attended the meeting as an individual and not as a representative of the Order.

Meanwhile, DUP junior minister Jonathan Bell said there was a commitment from all of the people present in the meeting to work to find solutions. He said: "We have had unresolved issues. We have a breakdown in relationships between communities and the police and we need to deal with those equally. The dynamic was, 'Let's talk openly and honestly about the problems that exist'. Loyalists and republicans and nationalists and die hard unionists like myself all together working at the relationships that need to be addressed."

It is understood that there will be a further meeting.

Belfast Telegraph

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