Unionists must co-operate: PUP boss
Republican attempts to isolate loyalism from mainstream unionism must not be allowed to succeed, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party has told his party conference.
Billy Hutchinson said the best way to maintain Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom was by ensuring different strands of unionism worked together and co-operated.
The PUP's conference in Lurgan came after a year when the party has placed itself at the forefront of loyalist protest campaigns over contentious parades and the Union flag controversy.
While this stance has raised the profile of the party - Mr Hutchinson today claimed membership had tripled in 12 months - it has been on the receiving end of heavy criticism from nationalist and republican political rivals, in particular Sinn Fein.
But Mr Hutchinson told around 150 delegates at the conference that republicans were intent on marginalising loyalist opinion.
"Unionism remains divided and one of the key tactics of Irish Republicanism has been to isolate loyalism from mainstream unionism," he said after the event.
"Today the Progressive Unionist Party reiterated its commitment to Unionist unity, recognising that this is the best way to maintain the Union while also addressing in partnership the complex issues that affect our most disadvantaged communities."
One of the keynote speakers was Noel Dornan, the editor of the Irish News, Northern Ireland's main nationalist paper.
Among resolutions passed was one in support of gay marriage. Members also voiced concern about educational under-achievement in working class communities.
"One of the biggest barriers to equality is education and sadly many of our children and young people are receiving a poor education, limiting their lifetime opportunities," said Mr Hutchinson.
"Protestant children living in deprived neighbourhoods receive the worst education and the Progressive Unionist Party has established an agenda to address this. Other unionist parties do not take the issue seriously."
Mr Hutchinson said the conference reaffirmed the "party's tradition of promoting and encouraging equality, diversity and respect in the context of the Union".
"I was delighted with the breadth and depth of the issues discussed today, all of which demonstrate the Progressive Unionist Party's commitment to a socially progressive politics based on equality of opportunity for everyone, regardless of their background," he said.
"It also reinforces our belief that this equality is best delivered within the context of a strong United Kingdom."
He added: "I think today has reinforced the revival within the Progressive Unionist Party that has taken place over the past 12 months, with membership tripling. We have reinforced our position as the major socially progressive party in Northern Ireland and the only party that is serious about tackling issues ranging from educational under-attainment through to housing inequality."