Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

As the flags row shows no sign of ending, what does the First Minister Peter Robinson see happening?

Loyalist protesters on their way to Belfast City Hall
Police clear road of debris on the lower Newtownards Road. Jan 8 2013
Loyalist protestors pictured at Belfast City Hall

Peter Robinson answers questions from Liam Clarke

Q Who is invited to the Unionist Forum?

A We have invited people who have a mandate and an established position within the unionist community. The fact that there are a number of views beyond those groups mean that we will be taking the opportunity, through a task force, to take in the wider viewpoint.

Q Was the Belfast flag vote a democratic decision?

A I think it was a bad decision but it was a bad democratic decision and will only be changed by a good democratic decision. I don’t see the present council reversing it. That is why we need to increase voter representation and turnout in unionist areas. You can’t complain about decisions unless you vote.

Q Is this a winner-takes-all situation depending on who has a council majority?

A Some people say that if Belfast can take a majority vote so can Lisburn, and you have the thing rolling out that way. That is why it is important that we have a unionist position so we can then discuss it with some other parties.

Q In the absence of an agreed approach, will you advise councillors not to score victories where they can?

A I will give advice to councillors and it is important I give that advice to them directly. We need to reach agreement, where possible, within the broader unionist community and also with other parties.

Q Are you prepared to negotiate on flags with non unionists?

A I met with David Ford yesterday, I also met with Alasdair McDonnell and have had a number of conversations with Martin McGuinness. I will meet with him this week. Once we get a more coherent position within unionism we still have to deal with the people we share the province with and we have to come to arrangements.

Q Surely we shouldn’t have such a major crisis over a vote on a council?

A If anyone thinks it is just a few protesters out in the streets who are angry about the flag coming down then they don’t understand the unionist psyche. The overwhelming majority of unionists are very angry but they are moved away from protest by the violence.

Q Can protests change the position on flags?

A Protest draws attention to an issue, politics changes the issue. If there is going to be change it will be through the political process and that means engaging with everyone. People must realise you cannot change the number of days a flag is going to fly in Belfast City Hall by throwing a petrol bomb at a policeman. That will not have any effect on it at all. The people who are throwing petrol bombs at the police are not part of the process of which I am a part or who I have influence over.

QThen how will you connect with them?

A All you can ever do is show that you have a political way forward. People are invited to be part of that political way forward and if they don’t take it, it is a matter of policing.

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