PUP leader Billy Hutchinson: Treating loyalists like white trash is not going to work
A day ahead of a hugely contentious parade through the heart of Belfast, PUP leader Billy Hutchinson speaks to Chris Kilpatrick about the real motivation behind loyalists bringing the city centre to a standstill
What do you believe this parade is about?
For me the whole basis of this parade is to mark a year since the flag was taken down from City Hall. But if you're asking other people they will all have different ideas and that's because people feel aggrieved how they have been treated by police, by other sections of the community – the media, politicians. They think, no matter what they do, it is wrong. It's about all of those things, and it's showing you can protest without violence.
The vast majority of protests have been totally peaceful.
You said the PUL (Protestant, unionist, loyalist) community feels aggrieved. In what way?
I've been dealing with this for 40 years. People are being charged in connection with things they shouldn't be. They watch republicans walk from court who have been charged with murder and they watch republicans bailed when charged with withholding information on murders. There is that perception.
Give me some examples of how loyalists feel alienated or discriminated against.
It goes back to (Tony) Blair. When he wanted the Good Friday Agreement pushed through he decided to support the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein at the time.
He said he would look after republicans and the Chief Constable could look after loyalists, so he created that whole notion – that's where it started. From then there has been a bad taste in the mouth. It has become a derogatory term.
And more recently?
There's been lots of things. You look at the collapse of the supergrass trial which cost £10m, loyalists arrested under the HET (Historical Enquiries Team), police harassment of loyalists, in many ways stuff around the PUP. It all feeds in. Others have been trying to ensure the negative image of loyalists is maintained. We get slaughtered all the time.
What is it you think has to be done for that sense of alienation or frustration to change?
There are social problems in working-class communities and until they try to deal with creating jobs and tackling educational underachievement we have a problem.
Those at the Assembly have had quite some time to do it, but we haven't seen anything.
We need unionists to recognise we need to deal with the past.
Everybody's views need to be heard. Republicans can't be allowed to tell us how to deal with the past. Parades and the past are connected to flags and parades. If we don't, we will continue to talk about parades and the past for 50 years. I think Haass will give us that opportunity.
What can be done to end the protests, to end the stalemate.
That's the problem facing Mr Haass (US envoy Dr Richard Haass) and good luck to him. Our problem has been people have ignored the cracks appearing for too long. Unless we have some way of agreeing how we move forward collectively it won't work. Treating loyalists like white trash won't work.
Loyalists have, in some ways, taken the place of republicans, without the use of terrorism. That's not the place loyalists should be.
If the Union flag went back up tomorrow would that end it?
I don't think it's just about the flag, it's about how people feel they've been treated.
So, from that point of view, I'd imagine if we deal with the issues Haass is talking about and we reach conclusions which are fair and equitable, then we can reach a point where we can move on.
At the minute people can't move on until they are dealt with.
The two outstanding issues at the minute, as I see it, are the flag and the finishing of the Ligoniel parade in north Belfast.
There are a lot of conversations we need to have. If people want to sit at a table, let's work it out.
There is no quick fix. The problems we have are the problems of the past. Why are they there? Because we didn't deal with them. They were parked.
I think Sinn Fein rue the day they took the flag down, but they won't admit it. They didn't expect the backlash.
Shouldn't the protests be taken from the street and the issue decided at the ballot box?
People need to make their vote count. They need to get their votes on a card. If they do that then you can get a political process that works. Do we need an opposition? Certainly we need to have that discussion.
How do you see tomorrow's parade panning out?
I don't see anyone or hear of anybody planning anything other than a protest parade. Therefore I presume we all believe the same thing – we will gather to mark that time and mark it in the sense that this is a British city and the flag should be flown.
Is the UVF behind this protest?
No they're not, they didn't organise it, I've said it 100 times. If the UVF and PUP got together to organise this there would be thousands and thousands of people on the streets every night.
Why aren't they? They are allowing people to organise their own protests.
So who is behind it?
My understanding is it's individuals involved in flag protests from December last year. I think they're ordinary people, but I don't know their names.
Should the organisers come forward and make themselves accountable?
Well, I don't like getting involved in protests if I don't know who's organising it for the simple reason that, because of Facebook, Twitter etc, it's very easy to organise anything, but who's behind it?
I'm always dubious about that. From what I hear these people have met the police. My advice to anybody organising protests is have a meeting, make sure there will be no surprises.
Traders and unionist politicians, including the First Minister, have urged protesters to have a rethink about staging such protests on Saturday afternoons, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. Why are they being ignored?
This really annoys me about traders. If people want to put the blame anywhere they should put it on Sinn Fein for taking the flag down on December 3, in the run-up to Christmas.
From my point of view, I've been in the town when there are protests. Royal Avenue was bunged, people were walking from shop to shop.
But the real issue is that we are in an economic recession worldwide.
We also have the internet. If I wanted to buy something I can do it at the click of a button. We have competing areas, out-of-town shopping centres.
It's quite clear those have effects on the city centre.
Do you understand the concerns of traders?
People need to show me where it says the tills are down because of parades. There is no way anybody can prove that.
I've asked on a number of occasions for people to give me the evidence and how they calculate whether parades do any damage.
Most people will be in the shops so the protest will not affect them. This is a red herring.
In saying that, we need to work to help the traders. Belfast City Council needs to work to help them by looking at things like rates, at easing the burden.
So the protest won't put people off coming into the town?
My experience from going to protests on a weekly basis is that I don't see any impact on the town.
What I see is people moving about. I don't see an impact, but if there is, then show us it.
We had a bomb at Victoria Square the other night, would that not be on people's minds?
Let's be real. The dissidents have upped the ante here and there's a fear factor of the work of the IRA.
Wouldn't the cessation of protests free up police resources to help tackle that threat?
It's black propaganda by the police. It's about scaring people off. I don't buy their argument. You don't need all of the officers they employ at protests. It's overkill.
Are we likely to be having this conversation this time next year?
I would hope we aren't. I would hope we can make progress, that people would want to sit down. All shades of unionism should be sitting down to see how we move forward.
We need a society that isn't just for one side of the community, or for the middle-classes.