What is needed is leadership from those meant to be the leaders

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Maybe the penny is beginning to drop – an understanding that one community talking to itself, while it might be therapeutic, can change nothing.

The Unionist Forum was a response to the City Hall flag row and the street protests that followed.

It brought representatives of the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist (PUL) community under the one Stormont roof, but for what purpose and to do what?

In our new world nothing changes unless the two communities speak – in the same room and at the same time.

Loyalist protestors outside PSNI headquarters at Knock, east Belfast this afternoon.


The key to agreement is a two-way dialogue, not a conversation in the mirror.

Now, a political grouping linked to the UDA has raised concerns about the Unionist Forum warning –  “it cannot be a stunt”.

That Forum, includes cross-party unionist politicians, loyalist representatives, the Orange Order and Apprentice Boys – but it has met just twice in full session.

The Ulster Political Research Group is represented by paramilitary ‘brigadiers’ Jimmy Birch and Jackie McDonald – the latter the most public and prominent of the many loyalist leaders.

It is his branch of the UPRG in south Belfast that has raised concerns about a lack of momentum.

“There is an underlying sense of frustration with regard to the Unionist Political Forum,” a statement said.

“We were promised initially that the Forum would be the vital piece of the jigsaw that would connect ‘us’ with the politicians at Stormont,” the statement continued.

“This in itself recognised a disconnect,” it added.

The statement said that disconnect was a failing on the part of politicians – and that issues of concern go much wider than the flag.

“Yes, it was about flags but no it was not just about flags,” the statement continued.

“There is a feeling of alienation, of injustice, of things being far removed from the new political dispensation that the post Good Friday Agreement promised to bring,” it said.

The statement was issued in the name of Paul Clissold – general secretary of the south Belfast Branch of the UPRG.

“We are on record as believing that, taken literally and with a dedicated attitude amongst all, the Forum could pinpoint areas of concern and most importantly address the concerns through action,” he said.

That hasn’t happened, and this statement reads of frustration and let down.:”Momentum is already being lost,” it said – asking:

“Where is the urgency? Where is the passion?”

Clissold said the two UPRG representatives “are working tirelessly” on the ground –  meeting groups and individuals and arguing  the need for “discussion, debate and calm deliberation.”

The statement then asked: “Is our pace being matched by the politicians?

“Frankly, no, ”  it continued – “and this is not acceptable.”

The UPRG accused Sinn Fein of a policy of “cultural exclusion” – and, on the work of the Forum, said:

“Efforts must be redoubled to get this Forum working and delivering.

“This cannot be a stunt – a token gesture,” it said.


The statement follows recent comments from the senior UDA figure Jackie McDonald.

He called for more interaction between politicians and protesters and said: “If the flag is not going to go up again, then the politicians should tell the people the truth.”

What we are hearing are concerns being expressed that this Forum could become a talking shop unable to deliver.

The protests and the marches that are part of the fallout will change nothing.

They won’t reverse the City Hall flag decision, and if there is a sense of alienation then that needs to be discussed in a much wider forum.

The headline in the period since the City Hall vote on December 3 has been a lack of leadership – political and policing failures.

Indeed, as politicians flounder, the PSNI has been pulled into this swamp, and we have watched a few hundred people do as they please on the streets of Belfast.

Now, in February, we hear rumblings about the marching season.

It feels like a walk back in time, a problem with a process that has pushed issues away rather than deal with them.

So, that big conversation needs to happen and sooner rather than later; not one community talking to itself, but with everyone involved.

There are those who are playing in it and with this situation, and what is needed is leadership from those who are meant to be the leaders.


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie


  1. A wayfaring American on

    “So, that big conversation needs to happen and sooner rather than
    later; not one community talking to itself, but with everyone involved.

    There are those who are playing in it and with this situation, and
    what is needed is leadership from those who are meant to be the leaders.”

    Couldn’t agree with you more, Brian

  2. John Loughran on

    Brian Rowan in his recent piece entitled, ‘What is needed is leadership from those meant to be the leaders’ has prompted a real concern on two levels. For me Brian Rowan speaks to a number of serious issues which will impact not only on the journey out of conflict but the political and community commitment within Unionism towards a shared future.

    From the outset it is however worth stating that it is the DUP who are in the political ascendancy within Unionism – it is they alone are the primary guarantors of the Union. Indeed the DUP work the political institutions as co-equals in a power sharing Executive with Sinn Fein on a day and daily basis. This brings me to my main points.

    At a personal level I am concerned about the type of divisive sectarian politics that is taking root. And at a societal level I am also concerned at the reluctance of some politicians to lead beyond their electorate. An emotive vacuum has now been created around the flag issues that has morphed into a wider sense of apathy and grievance that is perpetuating a narrative that runs counter to the politics of power sharing. This vacuum now acts as a real barrier towards any prospect of political positivity or generosity emerging from within Unionism. In other words that there is that Unionist leaders cannot espouse the politics of power-sharing and co-operation is actually reinforcing the zero sum nature of northern politics that the Executive is mandated to overcome.

    It is from this standpoint that I have made a number of questions and observations that have been prompted by Brian comments:

    If the Unionist Forum is “the most representative group in the Unionist community to meet in half a century” as our First Minister believes why has it only met twice in full session? Is this a design fault? Why was in not ‘shared future’ proofed at the design stage? The issue here is that northern politics and indeed our system of government needs strong and cohesive partners for the system to function. The reality is simply that nothing will happen or change in public policy terms unless Sinn Fein and the DUP agree. The question is will the Unionist Forum assist or mitigate against this outcome? Indeed it will be catastrophic if it only serves to further raise expectations not to deliver.

    Again the Unionist forum has eight working groups exploring variety of issues that affect Unionist communities – yet there are no timescales. It has also gone so wide in its remit that any concrete outcomes will be hard to quantify. For it to address social problems and contribute to new levels of confidence it must begin to detail methods of assessing success – this would assist the public measure the contribution of Forum.

    The problem here is what Political Unionism presented as a boost of imagination and leadership to address issues of identity and conflict is not seen to be delivering at the local level. That it has not actually delivered tangibles has in effect exacerbated internal tensions. This has prompted the key UPRG constituency to voice concerns which will in time question the long term viability of the Unionist Forum.

    The assessment by the UPRG actually evidences the disconnection that the Forum was set up to overcome. They assert that it basically lacks urgency, passion, momentum. It should sound alarm bells. It is evident that the UPRG are now questioning whether or not the Unionist Forum is no more than a stunt to placate the growing number of disenchanted and disillusioned people. It is clear that the UPRG and PUP have a different client base – for those who are protesting on the streets there is a clear class dimension to the current street protest. But it is clear that what happens on the streets is a problem for all who live here particularly as we face another summer that will be defined by a parades and protest.

    As Rowan stated: “In our new world nothing changes unless the two communities speak – in the same room and at the same time.” Again the Unionist Forum missed an opportunity to develop a strategic engagement with Nationalist and Republican partners – where are the voices that will engage in what Declan Kearney has referred to as difficult conversations’? I am assuming that many of the social issues transcend communal boundaries and will require a degree of public investment to resolve. Question is does such an approach simply reinforce the community alienation and ‘group think’ that the Forum is tasked to overcome.

    While these are cursory observations I am concerned about where this conversation will be as we face the impending parading season. I say that on the basis there are many complex problems in this society that are shared: they are everybody’s problems. That the Unionist Form hasn’t got out of the starting blocks should concern us all. That little has been heard of its work programme; and the fact that it has been unable to bring a halt to the street protests – leaves the work of the Forum susceptible to events on the streets.

    As Rowan has concluded it is simply now for the leaders of Political Unionism to lead their own electorate and also facilitate a new strategic engagement with Nationalist and Republicans. The reality is that the DUP and UUP work with Sinn Fein across local governments and through the Executive. This is not new or novel concept. What is required however is for those models of co-operation and collaboration with institutions to remodel attitudes at the local level. Not in terms of reinforcing old narratives but a positive and dynamic engagement towards the creation of a shared and better future. The fundamental design fault in the Unionist Forum is that it missed opportunity to initiate a new dialogue, a new imaginative engagement, with Republicanism and Nationalism beyond those in government.

    So where does that leave us?

    As a starting point the lack of an agreed shared future policy which facilitates and encourages political leadership risks – and which engages with issues of flags, parades and protest, legacy, segregation, division, and integration – undermining the progress made 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement.

    The First Minister has a responsibility beyond his own electorate. He must act and be seen to act as a leader for all. He must lead to affirmative engagement with Republicanism and Nationalism that empowers local communities work together on issues of commonality. Not to do so will define the Unionist Forum as a missed opportunity towards defining a politics that is not dominated by sectarian interests.

    As a starting point the Unionist Forum could start by framing grievance. In reality the problem isn’t between Nationalists and Unionists – it is about Unionists and Loyalists understanding what a peace and political process is actually about. Peter Robinson is the man at the helm – the guardian of the Union – notwithstanding the work of the Unionist Forum its over to him to lead!

    Good luck – this society needs you to succeed!

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