Unionist Forum says it will listen to anyone... but action will be months away
The newly established Unionist Forum will not meet again in full session for a month — signalling no quick fix to the chaos gripping Northern Ireland’s streets.
While a task force set up by the group intends to waste no time in getting down to talks at grassroots level, any real action is at least several months away.
Forum leaders plan to meet groups in east Belfast today — with protests scheduled to take place across Northern Ireland tonight.
The pan-unionist body wants to be seen to be hitting the ground running, and attempting to register itself ahead of expected renewed protests across the province this evening.
Its initial on-the-ground meeting outside Stormont will take place at a church in the east of the city this afternoon.
The task force agreed at the forum’s first meeting yesterday will not be based at Stormont, but plans to go out across the province.
But the first formal reports from a series of working groups which were also set up are expected to be ready for the next full forum meeting in about four or five weeks.
DUP leader Peter Robinson, who chaired the two-hour session with his Ulster Unionist counterpart Mike Nesbitt, said: “We will talk to anyone who wants to talk to us.”
The First Minister made clear that would include senior paramilitary figures blamed by police for orchestrating some of the flag-related violence of the last month.
And Mr Nesbitt said he also hoped it would include people sympathetic to the cause of the protesters.
The meeting yesterday also set up groups to look at specific issues affecting the unionist community, including flags, parading, culture and identify, educational under-achievement, unemployment, “capacity building” in local communities and voter registration.
The meeting included senior DUP and Ulster Unionist figures, two representatives of the Traditional Unionist Voice — leader Jim Allister was unable to attend — sole Ukip MLA David McNarry and independent David McClarty, both formerly of the UUP.
Among the loyal order representatives were Drew Nelson and the Rev Mervyn Gibson, who has been pivotal in organising on-the-ground meetings in east Belfast.
The UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party was represented by Belfast councillor John Kyle and Winston Irvine.
Party leader Billy Hutchinson was absent.
And the Ulster Political Research Group, which advises the UDA, was represented by Jackie McDonald and Jimmy Birch.
Afterwards, only Mr Robinson and Mr Nesbitt, flanked by DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds and the UUP’s sole Executive minister Danny Kennedy, spoke to the assembled media in Stormont’s Great Hall.
Mr Robinson said there had been no anger voiced at the meeting and it had accomplished all it could have reasonably been expected to at this early stage.
“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 emphasised.
“This is quite unique, this is something that no one has seen for decades in Northern Ireland and I think it gives us immense opportunities to take the unionist community forward in a cohesive group.”
Mr Nesbitt insisted: “The lesson of the last 15 years is that the only thing that works, the only thing that sticks, is inclusive dialogue.”
The Orange Order said: “It is deeply encouraging to witness the coalescing of the wider pro-Union family. All strands of unionism now have a real and tangible vehicle to work together.”
Mr McClarty said “there is a recognition that it has to be done quickly”, and the TUV’s Sammy Morrison said “stopping the violence and controlling what is happening seems to be the main problem, and there were no easy answers to that”.
The Unionist Forum has set |up eight working groups to address the following topics:
e Strategy for addressing the flags issue;
e Measures to increase voter registration and turnout in unionist areas;
e Strengthening British |cultural identity in Northern Ireland;
e Proposals to address problems surrounding parading;
e Proposals to tackle deprivation and under-achievement in the unionist community;
e Broader political and |economic matters;
e Steps to increase capacity building in unionist areas;