Northern Ireland

Robinson happy to debate with direct rule unionists

DUP leader Peter Robinson
Image caption Peter Robinson said he was happy to debate with unionists who called for the return of direct rule

DUP leader Peter Robinson has said he is happy to debate with unionists who are calling for a return to direct rule but that they are "out of touch."

Earlier, Mr Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said the first meeting of the Unionist Forum would take place on Thursday.

The forum was set up to address the ongoing flag protests.

Mr Robinson declined to name those invited to the forum saying it was "up to them to say who they are".

A campaign of street protests has taken place since Belfast City Council voted to fly the union flag over the city hall only on designated days.

Several protests in Belfast have been followed by violence and rioting, most notably in the east of the city.

'Overwhelming majority'

Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt said they hoped to "channel the protests through political means".

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Robinson claimed that the overwhelming majority of unionists supported the political parties represented in the assembly.

Referring to the protests, he said: "We're talking about a small layer of unionism and the fact that a group purporting to represent the protestors is now referring to the PSNI as terrorists and Nazis, I think indicates how far removed they are from the broad mass of the unionist community."

"The fact that they're asking for direct rule indicates how out of touch they are and the lack of political forethought that they have in terms of the way forward.

"We're happy to debate with them on the issue of how good direct rule would be for Northern Ireland because we've had experience of direct rule and it wasn't good for Northern Ireland."

The DUP leader said the new forum would be "an obvious place through its working groups for those discussions to take place".

While declining to reveal who had been invited to the forum, he said they included "a number of organisations representative of the breadth of the unionist community".

'Major organisations'

"Elected representatives have been tasked to go out and speak to a wide range of people. You simply can't have everybody round the table, there's no table big enough to have the full spectrum of the opinions that there might be out there," Mr Robinson said.

"What you do is bring the elected representatives and the major organisations within the unionist community and you work from there."

He said they were offering a political channel to take things beyond protest and it was hoped to make progress on the issue of flags, parades and increasing the unionist vote

"There are those who are against the process in which we are involved so they're not going to change their opinions overnight but what we can do is ensure that people are not left behind," he said.

"They have the opportunity to be connected to the unionist political leadership and they have the opportunity to have their views heard. If they don't take up that opportunity then that's entirely a matter for themselves."

He said he wanted to ensure no section of the community was left behind but he was not going to give way "to those who want to bring down the process because that would be anti-democratic".