Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Defiant Peter Robinson seizes moment while pressure mounts for restraint

First Minister Peter Robinson urged people to cancel further protests over the flying of the Union flag in Belfast
First Minister Peter Robinson urged people to cancel further protests over the flying of the Union flag in Belfast
Riot police stand next to a burned out car after loyalist protesters attacked police lines in east Belfast
Loyalists attack the police as the protesters make their way back to east Belfast past the nationalist Short Strand
Loyalists clash with PSNI officers on the Newtownards road in east Belfast this afternoon.
Loyalists react after being attacked by nationalists throwing stones from the nationalist Short Strand area of Belfast
Loyalists clash with PSNI officers on the Newtownards road in east Belfast this afternoon.
A police officer is injured after loyalist protesters attacked police lines at the Albertbridge Road near the nationalist Short Strand area of Belfast
Loyalists clash with PSNI officers on the Newtownards road in east Belfast this afternoon.
The Union flag demonstration at Belfast City Hall today.
The Union flag demonstration at Belfast City Hall today.
A PSNI officer is treated after being injured following rioting which occurred after Saturday's Union flag protest in Belfast city centre.
A PSNI officer is treated after being injured following rioting which occurred after Saturday's Union flag protest in Belfast city centre.
A PSNI officer is treated after being injured following rioting which occurred after Saturday's Union flag protest in Belfast city centre.
Loyalists protesters march through Belfast city centre
Rangers fans show their support to the Union flag protesters in Belfast during the Irn Bru Scottish Third Division match at Ibrox, Glasgow.
Loyalists protesters march through Belfast city centre
Willie Frazer pictured at Belfast City Hall.
A peace protester pictured at Belfast City Hall before the loyalist protest arrived.
A PSNI officer is injured during rioting in the Newtownards Road area of east Belfast on Saturday afternoon as a loyalist flag parade returned from Belfast City Hall.
Loyalist leader Billy Hutchinson on the Newtownards Road on Saturday afternoon
A loyalist pictured in east Belfast after Saturday's flag protest at City Hall
A loyalist protester at Belfast City Hall during Saturday's flag protest
A loyalist pictured in east Belfast after Saturday's flag protest at City Hall
A loyalist woman wheels a child through police lines on East Bridge Street as the protest makes its way back to east Belfast.
Loyalists attack police at the bottom of Castlereagh Street.
PSNI officers pictured at the bottom of Castlereagh Street.
Loyalists protesters pictured at Belfast City Hall on Saturday afternoon.
A injured police man is helped by a colleague after trouble broke out following Saturday's Union flag protest.
Loyalist youths confront police at the bottom of Castlereagh Street.
Loyalists protesters pictured at Belfast City Hall.
Loyalists protesters pictured at Belfast City Hall.
.
Saturday's Union flag protest at Belfast City Hall.
Loyalist protesters make their way through the city centre to east Belfast.
Loyalists attack the police as the protesters make their way back to east Belfast past the nationalist Short Strand
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
Loyalists carry out a protest in Great Victoria Street, Belfast last night
Loyalists carryi out a protest on Great Victoria Street, Belfast last night
Loyalists carry out a protest in the Sandy Row are of south Belfast last night
Loyalists carryi out a protest on Great Victoria Street, Belfast last night
Loyalists carry out a protest in the Sandy Row are of south Belfast last night
Loyalists carry out a protest in the Sandy Row area of south Belfast last night
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 11th January 2013 - General view of Loyalists carrying out a protest in the Sandy Row are of south Belfast this evening.Loyalists have been protesting across Northern Ireland after Belfast City Council restricted the number of days the Union Flag can fly over Belfast City Hall.Picture by Kelvin Byes / Press Eye.
Nick Williams goes over to score for Ulster, tackled by Glasgow's Josh Strauss
Ulster's Nick Williams celebrates scoring his try
Ulster's Jared Payne celebrates scoring a late try with Paul Marshall
Jared Payne scores for Ulster
Ulster's Craig Gilroy is tackled by Glasgow's Tom Ryder and Duncan Weir
Ulster's Tom Court celebrates after the game
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
Loyalists carry out a protest in the Sandy Row area of south Belfast last night
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 11th January 2013 - General view of disturbances in O'Neills Road Newtownabbey this evening.Loyalists have been protesting across Northern Ireland after Belfast City Council restricted the number of days the Union Flag can fly over Belfast City Hall.Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 11th January 2013 - General view of disturbances in O'Neills Road Newtownabbey this evening.Loyalists have been protesting across Northern Ireland after Belfast City Council restricted the number of days the Union Flag can fly over Belfast City Hall.Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
General view of disturbances in O'Neill's Road, Newtownabbey last night
Loyalists carryi out a protest on Great Victoria Street, Belfast last night
Loyalists carry out a protest in the Sandy Row area of south Belfast last night

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.”

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