Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Loyalists can help solve flags row by taking it off the streets

Billy Hutchinson used the flag protests to revive the PUP's fortunes. But the UVF remains the elephant in the room, says Brian Rowan

Loyalist protestors and PSNI officers pictured at Belfast City Hall on 22 December 2012
Loyalist protestors and PSNI officers pictured at Belfast City Hall on 22 December 2012
Loyalist protestors pictured at Belfast City Hall

In the play that is the flag row and protests, we are also watching political manoeuvrings and, for one party in particular, an attempt to put itself back on-stage.

Billy Hutchinson, a former life sentence prisoner and now leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), has had a significant role in the developing street script: in that pre-Christmas crisis, he became one of the voices and faces in this story.

Hutchinson is a former MLA and city councillor and the latest in a line of party leaders as the PUP has struggled to keep itself relevant since the sudden death of David Ervine almost six years ago.

But now there is an issue and a target. And Hutchinson's focus has not been on Alliance; on the party that has taken so much of the blame and has been the attention of attack and threat since the City Hall vote to reduce the flying of the Union flag to designated days.

Rather, the loyalist leader has chosen to concentrate on the long-time republican enemy. And not just on the issue of flags, but on the question of the past.

He believes the exploration of the conflict and the search for truth is a one-sided, Sinn Fein strategy. Recently, on his Twitter account, he wrote: "All of this needs to stop."

We know that he has asked his party to produce a paper and proposals for dealing with the past, which should be ready early in the New Year.

But, whatever else is going on in the wider frame, it is the flag row that in the here and now has served as a platform for Hutchinson.

It has made him relevant again in terms of media interest and important, also, to those in politics whose task it is to sort this out.

Hutchinson can speak the language of the street and can communicate with those in loyalist/unionist working-class communities disconnected from the political process.

So, alongside a commentary that accuses Sinn Fein of acting outside the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement on issues relating to culture, the PUP is also arguing that people in their communities must get registered to vote and must re-connect with politics.

On the party's Twitter account the message is community first. But Hutchinson, like David Ervine, Dawn Purvis and Brian Ervine before him, has another issue to address.

It's on his own doorstep: the PUP is politically aligned to the UVF.

And, in the flag row, and in those circumstances when protest has turned to street violence, elements of that organisation have been at play.

The intelligence assessments on this do not suggest central leadership organisation, or orchestration.

But in south Belfast and in the east of the city - and in that specific order - there are traces of UVF involvement.

There is also a suggestion that the associated Red Hand Commando (RHC) was linked to an incident in Newtownabbey.

But there is not yet a definitive assessment of the attack on police in east Belfast, when a petrol bomb was thrown inside a car and a woman officer had a lucky escape.

For Hutchinson and the PUP to make their community/political project work, they need the UVF to go away and in a manner that is believable.

And, somehow, they need to get this row off the streets before someone is seriously hurt, or worse.

The UVF and UDA still have the authority and clout within their communities to stop this.

And those in the loyalist leadership - both paramilitary and political - know that street protests and violence will not change the City Hall vote and decision.

This matter needs to be talked out, not fought out in some pointless street battle.

It needs dialogue on the big pieces of unfinished business; marching, a shared future and some process that attempts to address the unanswered questions of the past.

And the talking won't work if it is confined to one community. It needs to involve all sides and every side.

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