UUP leader Mike Nesbitt: No more flag protests, tactics are counter-productive
The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party is calling for no street protests as the first anniversary of the decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall approaches.
In an internal bulletin to UUP colleagues, Mike Nesbitt said he believed the tactics used during the protests, which began on December 3 last year, had "alienated many who instinctively supported the cause".
He wrote: "I hear talk of rallies, parades and protests. As ever, I understand and support the right for lawful and peaceful protest.
"I acknowledge and defend the right to assembly, enshrined in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
"But I also say this: street protest will not get the flag back up at City Hall. I urge anyone thinking of taking to the streets to think again."
Mr Nesbitt is concerned about the impact any protests will have on the traders of Belfast, who count on Christmas sales to keep them in business.
He said: "I particularly urge you not to disrupt Belfast city centre and its traders in another run-up to Christmas.
"Remember the hundreds of thousands who assembled in front of City Hall nearly 30 years ago now, to demand an end to the Anglo-Irish Agreement?
"The agreement did not go away, but unionism lost friends and political position. The same has happened over the last 12 months.
"The tactics used to protest over the flag have alienated many who instinctively supported the cause.
"Now, Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce has produced figures that suggest the flag protests contributed to significant losses of earnings for Belfast traders.
"This comes as PwC predicts that, for a sixth year in a row, the people of Northern Ireland will suffer lower average earnings.
"Already, the average wage here is £6,000 behind Great Britain, according to the Northern Ireland Centre for Economic Policy."
The UUP leader said the solution was not white line protest, but "political strategy and negotiation".
"It's a tougher, more demanding route than street protest, but we must remain focused on the need to secure good outcomes," he added.
Flag protests, parades and roadblocks have taken place in locations across Northern Ireland, at varying intensity, since December 3, when Belfast City councillors voted in favour of the Alliance Party's compromise motion to limit the days the Union flag is flown from City Hall.
Loyalist protests are costing police more than £50,000 per day.