Defiant Peter Robinson seizes moment while pressure mounts for restraint
The street violence has laid down a direct challenge to First Minister Peter Robinson, not least because much of it is occurring in his own East Belfast constituency.
It is also turning increasingly into an attack on the DUP stewardship of the unionist cause.
Writing in Monday’s Belfast Telegraph, Mr Robinson makes his strongest appeal yet for the flag protests, which “have now become synonymous with violence”, to stop in order to give politics a chance.
The DUP leader has branded the flags protest violence as “mobocracy” and warned that they are damaging unionism. Instead of division and sectarianism, he calls for a shared future.
“In the past it was republicans who claimed that Northern Ireland was a failed political entity. Why on earth would any sensible unionist seek to prove them right through violence, disorder and attacks on the police?” he asked.
“Within unionism the overwhelming majority of people want the flags issue addressed politically but for some of those who remain on street protests, six weeks later, nothing short of the destruction of the present political process is their goal.” He warns: “Their spokesmen advocate a return to Direct Rule, demonise the police, and are prepared to destroy their own communities in order to push their own political agenda on the back of the protests... this is not a form of Britishness that would be recognised by the citizens of the rest of the United Kingdom.”
Mr Robinson has prepared the ground carefully before tackling this challenge head-on. The recent meeting of the Unionist Forum in Stormont ensured that there will be no snapping at his heels either from other unionist parties or the paramilitary leadership.
On Sunday Jimmy Birch, the East Belfast UDA leader who sits on the Forum, echoed Mr Robinson’s analysis. He argued that the violence plays into the hands of republicans, and acknowledged that the flags decision in Belfast City hall was a democratic decision that could only be changed by democratic methods.
Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the PUP which advises the UVF, also called for a political way forward.
This all leaves those organising the protests, including some local UVF leaders in East Belfast, under pressure to come into line. The Ulster People’s Forum, which organises the protests, is now talking of a political way forward and hope to hold a conference to discuss this in the coming days.
This creates space for Mr Robinson and, now that he has got his ducks in a row, he seems intent on seizing the moment.
He points to the need to engage with others, including non-unionists, to combat extremism and find a way forward.
“An engagement process with the wider community has already commenced,” he said.
“The only way that we can and will succeed is with the support of the people of Northern Ireland. As a community we have come too far for us to be thrown off course by dissident republicans or by those elements within unionism who would seek through street violence and death threats to plunge us back to the past.”