Northern Ireland

Unionist leaders launch flag forum

Mike Nesbitt and Peter Robinson
Image caption Mike Nesbitt and Peter Robinson have outlined plans for a forum to address the flags issue

The DUP and the Ulster Unionist leaders are inviting other unionist politicians and groups to join a forum.

Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt said the new grouping would address the flags issue and strengthen British cultural identity in Northern Ireland.

They said they want to channel unionist efforts through political means.

The statement follows a series of street protests, some violent, over restrictions on the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall.

Many businesses across Northern Ireland, and particularly in Belfast, have reported a drastic reduction in trading in the pre-Christmas period.

The protests followed a decision by Belfast City Council last month to fly the union flag over the city hall only on designated days,

Protestors are demanding that the flag be flown every day in the year.

First meeting

The two unionist leaders said they hoped the new forum would provide an alternative to the recent protests.

They want all participants in the forum to commit to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, non sectarianism and commitment to a shared future.

They said they wanted the forum to hold its first meeting at Parliament Buildings "as soon as possible".

In a joint press release, the DUP and UUP said the number of participants in the forum would be limited and working groups may be established to provide a more extensive reach across the wider unionist community.

The parties said all participants "would share the core values of support for the maintenance of the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain," commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, non-sectarianism, commitment to a shared future and commitment to the successful operation of devolution in Northern Ireland.

"The forum would not be a decision-making body, but would act as a body within which a consensus might be built and implementation of any actions left to individual organisations," the DUP and UUP said.

"It would seek to engage positively with representatives from all sections of the Northern Ireland community."

Possible items on the first agenda would include a strategy for addressing the flags issue, measures to increase voter registration and turnout in unionist areas, and proposals to address problems surrounding parading,

Other items would include proposals to tackle deprivation and educational underachievement in the unionist community.