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East Belfast: Meeting in loyalist heartland hears pleas for voice from working-class

The Raven Social Club is perched in the very heart of loyalist East Belfast.

Situated on Castlereagh Street, it was a favourite haunt of late PUP leader David Ervine and an apt location for a discussion on the future of unionism.

Last night's event was held in Ervine's honour, his widow Jeanette among those in the audience.

The area was the epicentre of loyalist anger after the City Hall Union flag row and there are ongoing tensions around parading and interface issues.

The general election may be looming, but no deal has been struck between the unionist parties over a unity candidate in East Belfast in a bid to overthrow Alliance's Naomi Long.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said after the May poll there could be up to three unionist MPs in Belfast - or none. But he wouldn't be drawn on his party's plans.

"Because we are talking - and it's not secret but it is private - to say anything would potentially endanger the success of those talks," he said. "They are very, very important. Just to look at Belfast, we have a situation currently where of the four constituencies only one is held by a unionist MP."

John Kyle, who joined the PUP after being inspired by Mr Ervine, was also part of the panel, as well as another former party leader, Dawn Purvis. There too were the DUP's Westminster candidate Gavin Robinson (no relation to Peter), Mr Nesbitt (who is related to Gavin) and commentator Alex Kane.

Chaired by journalist Brian Rowan, the wide-ranging discussion covered everything from the fall-out from the flag decision to voter apathy and the perception that working-class loyalism has been left behind by the peace process.

"It was working-class areas like this that were affected (by the Troubles) on both sides," one audience member said. "So it's areas like this where the money needs put in, where the regeneration needs to happen.

"I would like to see a working-class loyalist of some party in government and giving us a voice."

Mr Robinson said he took issue with any suggestion working-class unionism's voice was not being heard. "When we talk about whether East Belfast has benefited through the peace process or not I understand when people say they don't feel it," he said.

"And I understand when people say they don't see it. And when that perception is real for you, it's real. And when it's real we need to deal with it."

Mr Kyle said politicians on their own couldn't solve the problems.

"I think where unionism has fallen down is that unionist politicians have been disengaged, perhaps for decades from local communities," he said.

"There's a real challenge for us to reconnect."

Belfast Telegraph