Flag protests hurt cause: Robinson
Violent flag protests sabotaged a legitimate cause and tarnished the image of Northern Ireland, the First Minister has said.
Even though most unionists were appalled by the decision to limit the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall, they were also disgusted by the public disorder which ensued, Peter Robinson claimed.
In a keynote address at his party's annual conference, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader described the protests, which left scores of police officers injured and cost the economy £50 million in lost revenue, as one of the greatest tragedies of the past 12 months.
He said: "It was not only morally wrong, it was self-evidently counter-productive. Support drained away from a genuinely good cause when the trouble started."
Mr Robinson was speaking during the final day of the DUP's autumn conference at the La Mon Hotel in Co Down.
Last week he urged loyalists to reconsider staging a mass demonstration to mark the first anniversary of the controversial flag decision on one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
In a lengthy speech he also spoke about paramilitary violence, victims and the glorification of terrorism.
Although Mr Robinson declined to confirm whether his party would field a second candidate at next year's European elections, he said a decision would be made in the New Year and would be taken on the best interest of unionism generally.
He claimed Sinn Fein had lost the constitutional battle for hearts and minds in their communities after a census report published earlier this year revealed a rise in the number of people calling themselves "Northern Irish".
Mr Robinson said: " Does anyone believe that Sinn Fein adds to its support base by its glorification and commemoration of terrorism? I don't believe they do.
"I believe they risk retreating back onto territory from which they will not grow or expand - playing to the lowest common denominator in the hope that hold on to bellicose and belligerent republican support."
There was an apparent swipe at political opponents on the unionist benches of the power-sharing Stormont Assembly and the media, which he claimed rarely focused on political successes, did not escape unscathed.
With an apparent surge in violent attacks by loyalist paramilitaries - who shot a 24-year-old woman in east Belfast and a 15-year-old schoolboy in Co Londonderry - and dissident republicans, who this week forced a female bus driver to transport a bomb to a police station, Mr Robinson said there should be no distinction between the two outlawed groupings.
He added: "Those who deal in drugs - deal in death. Those who trade in prostitution and extortion debase their community. Those who agitate and organise unrest and disorder for their political advantage are a scourge on our society - blighting the lives and prospects of young people. There is a better way and we must ensure that the pathway to it is open to all."
Referring to controversial comments made this week by Attorney General John Larkin - who said there should be no more prosecutions for pre-1998 Troubles-related killings - Mr Robinson reiterated his opposition to any sort of amnesty.
Many relatives of people killed by paramilitaries or state forces in the Troubles reacted furiously to Mr Larkin's proposals, which also included halting further civil proceedings, inquests or state inquiries into conflict-related crimes.
Mr Robinson said: "I know from speaking to victims first-hand that events, now decades old, still haunt them on a daily basis. For them it's not about the past - it's their present and it's their future. One cannot fail to be moved by the suffering they have endured.
"Nothing can bring back murdered loved ones and for many who have suffered during the Troubles the emotional and physical scars remain. I don't know whether we will ever be able to agree a way forward on the past, but surely we can at least agree that people must not be re-traumatised in the future.
"I hope we can find a way to respect those who have suffered the most?"
The DUP conference got under way yesterday when deputy leader Nigel Dodds accused the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams of selective amnesia over the Disappeared Troubles victims.
Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland expressed frustration about Sinn Fein's "procrastination" over welfare reform while under-fire Health Minister Edwin Poots promised to crack down on the abuse of the NHS by patients from outside the jurisdiction.