Leaders of Northern Ireland's main Protestant groups are hoping to ease tensions across Belfast by creating a special forum to hear the growing concerns of many working-class Protestants.
Several unionist groups met Thursday morning at the Northern Ireland legislature to establish the Unionist Forum in an attempt to quell the ongoing protests and riots that have shaken Belfast in recent weeks. Forum leaders said it was time protesters gave up their marching and rioting and brought their concerns to the organization.
"We want to move beyond the protests and into political action to try and get outcomes that are beneficial to the community," said Peter Robinson, Northern Ireland's First Minister and leader of the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party. He added that the Forum will create eight sub groups to tackle issues such as flying the British flag, school dropout rates, unemployment and cultural issues.
It's the first time in decades that unionist parties have worked this closely together, Mr. Robinson told reports.
"It is probably the most representative group within the unionist community to meet in probably half a century," he said. "The mood was very positive. There was a good engagement there were no angry words exchanged."
Mr. Robinson and other Protestant leaders have been scrambling for weeks to end violent clashes with police that have led to more than 100 arrests and 66 officers injured.
The protests started after city council voted on Dec. 3 not to fly the British flag on top of city hall every day. Instead a majority of councillors voted to fly the flag only on 18 designated days, mainly those recognizing Royal events. Catholic republicans view the Union Jack as a divisive emblem and say the decision was a fair compromise. Protestant unionists have denounced the move and many have taken to the streets in anger.
"We will try and get people beyond street protests and into a political forum where there is a much higher likelihood of actually delivering and achieving on objectives," said Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, who attended Thursday's meeting.
Part of the frustration felt by many Protestants, Mr. Nesbitt added, has been the political fallout from the peace process which began in 1998. Since then many republican paramilitaries, including members of the Irish Republican Army, have moved easily into the political realm and now hold seats in Northern Ireland's legislature, which was created in 2007. Protestant paramilitaries and their supporters did not follow that path and have been largely left on the sidelines.
As a result many Protestants "look at one side [of the legislature] who have people with clearly defined pasts right at the heart of government and then they look at their own community and see that the equivalent are not up on the hill engaged and involved in the way that republicans are," Mr. Nesbitt said.
It's not clear just how effective the Forum will be. One unionist group, the Ulster People's Forum, refused to attend the meeting and its de facto leader, Willie Frazer, has denounced Mr. Robinson and other Protestant politicians as being out of touch. Many Protestants in working-class parts of Belfast agree and have vented their fury at their political leaders. And there is no sign of the protests ending. There are reportedly plans by some to stage massive protests across Northern Ireland on Friday. Belfast police have also expressed concern that paramilitary groups are playing a key role in the protests.
Mr. Robinson acknowledged that there is a disconnect between unionist politicians and many constituents. "What I do recognize is that there are many people who feel that they are left behind, that they are disengaged with the political process," he said. He added that those feelings have been made worse by the recession.
Mr. Robinson said he is not against peaceful protests, but he believes the Forum is the better place to voice concerns. "Protests are only of value if they are going to change something and here is the mechanism for change," he said.
He also treaded carefully around whether the Forum will include paramilitary groups. The Forum's guiding principles are peace and a commitment to the democratic process, but Mr. Robinson said the group is prepared to talk to anyone.
"We have to convince people that this is the way forward," he said. "And that they should give up violence, that they should not be involved in violence and that this is the way to do it."