As senior loyalists prepare to meet First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson in flag crisis talks, a prominent UDA figure has warned that paramilitaries and protest organisers must be part of any solution.
Both the PUP and the Ulster Political Research Group, with links to the UVF and UDA, were invited to yesterday's talks.
This newspaper understands Mr Robinson has already met senior paramilitary figures, including Jackie McDonald. That meeting took place at Stormont on Monday, with another of the UDA’s so-called ‘brigadiers’ John Bunting also present.
Asked to comment, McDonald told the Belfast Telegraph: “If you try to come to a resolution without the people involved (in the protests) it won’t work.”
McDonald said the protesters won’t be told what to do.
“You have to ask them and involve them,” he said. “If they are part of the problem, then they have to be part of the answer.
“We can’t let it drift. We have to get a hold of it,” he said.
PUP leader and former Stormont MLA Billy Hutchinson also confirmed that he has been invited to today’s talks.
“I would hope to give leadership
about where we need to go next,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
He described “frustration” on the ground but said it needed “to be channelled in the right way”.
And on the continuing flag row and other issues, he said: “The focus must remain on Sinn Fein. Politics is about the art of compromise, not the art of surrender.”
Like McDonald, Hutchinson believes loyalists and not unionist political leaders are best placed to try to bring this crisis to an end. Asked what he would be saying to Mr Robinson, he said: “Leadership needs to be given. He needs to support others out there trying to bring this to an end.”
The backdrop to the talks is the continuing attacks and threats aimed at Alliance and other politicians, and Monday’s incident in east Belfast when police guarding the offices of Naomi Long MP were targeted in a petrol bomb attack. A woman officer had a lucky escape in the incident which is being treated as a murder bid.
Police have linked paramilitary figures to the on-going violence, but are not saying it is being centrally ordered by the so-called brigade staff and inner council leaderships.
Rather, the assessment is that some local leaders are pulling the strings in this violent street play.
A senior UVF figure in the Village is among those identified as being involved, as well as another of that organisation’s leaders in east Belfast. The breakaway UDA brigade in south east Antrim has also been linked to violence, as have members of the mainstream paramilitary group.
“That begs the question, what’s the point in having a centre?” a PSNI source commented, in a reference to the apparent inability or unwillingness of the central leaderships to rein their members in.
Ahead of today’s talks, Hutchinson said the UVF and Red Hand Commando leaderships were 100% behind his strategy of “unarmed resistance”.
In interviews yesterday he said paramilitary organisations should expel any of their members involved in the street violence.
He added the petrol bomb attack on police in Belfast had “sent shockwaves through unionism”.