Unionist political leaders in Northern Ireland have indicated a willingness to talk directly with loyalist paramilitaries involved in orchestrating violence associated with the Union flag protests.
Stormont First Minister and Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt stressed the importance of inclusivity in their bid to find an alternative to the ongoing street demonstrations.
Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable Matt Baggott has blamed members of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) for directing the rioting linked to the dispute that has erupted in east Belfast.
Mr Nesbitt and Mr Robinson yesterday chaired a special meeting of unionist and loyalist representatives to discuss the flag row and other issues of concern.
The Unionist Forum at Stormont was convened in response to the controversy sparked by Belfast City Council’s decision to limit the number of days the flag flies over City Hall and further protests are planned for the coming days.
Mr Robinson said the meeting witnessed “the most representative group within the unionist community to meet probably in half a century”.
Loyalists have held protests across Northern Ireland in the six weeks since the vote by Belfast council, with a number ending in violence. East Belfast has seen the worst of the disorder, with six successive nights of rioting in the new year.
The forum was attended by members of the loyal orders, community leaders and some paramilitary representatives.
Asked if the task force would engage with loyalist paramilitaries involved in the riots, Mr Robinson said: “We will talk to anyone who wants to talk to us about how we can move forward in an exclusively peaceful and democratic manner – that’s the way forward for Northern Ireland.”
The forum also agreed to set up eight working groups to focus on a series of issues of concern within the loyalist community.