Statement by Rt Hon Peter Robinson MLA

06 December 2012

DUP Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson comments on the violence of recent days and sets out a DUP motion at Stormont aimed at extending the number of days which the Union Flag flies at Parliament Buildings.

Peter Robinson MLA

DUP Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland

Peter Robinson

“There is no excuse for violence and the riotous behaviour we have witnessed over recent days.  Those who riot and engage in violent attacks do a disservice to the flag they claim to represent.  Such activities must stop immediately and must be condemned without qualification by everyone in the community.  This is a time for calm and for people to channel their energies into democratic activities and politics.  Homes, offices and individuals being attacked far from aiding any cause only damage and detract.  Such criminal behaviour also distracts from the real debate.

Those who supported the removal of the Union Flag on all but a handful of days from City Hall have started a debate which has undoubtedly damaged relationships in the Council and beyond.   The decision by nationalists to seek the removal of the Union flag was a divisive and provocative act.  Until recently relationships within Belfast City Hall were settled and indeed, Councillors from all Parties had a better working relationship than at any time in the past.  Sadly this has been disrupted and substantially damaged as a consequence of the decision taken by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance on Monday evening.  For some Councillors to indicate that the removal of the Union Flag completely from two Council buildings and from City Hall for around 350 days of the year is a compromise which is to be celebrated is perverse.

During the consultation process, both the public and staff emphatically rejected reducing the flying of the Union flag only on a handful of designated days.  It took nearly two years from the debate started until the decision was made.  Throughout that time unionism was not idle.  Unionists acted democratically, legitimately and politically.  Belfast’s unionist Councillors used every democratic means publicly and privately to prevent the Union Flag from being removed. Thousands of signatures were collected and tens of thousands of leaflets were distributed. These leaflets did not call on people to come on to the streets but asked people to engage in the democratic process.  Their views were to be communicated by letter, email or telephone.  The leaflet specifically asked people to be respectful at all times when making their views known.  This is and should remain the way all such matters are dealt with in a democratic society.

At no time did our Councillors call for a picket or protest.  Indeed, when others did, our Councillors called for it to be peaceful.  They did this because they knew the sensitivity of the issue and the risks involved in bringing large numbers of people onto the streets.

People’s right to protest is justified and legitimate and should be defended.  However, my advice is that street protests should be suspended by those responsible for organising them in the wider interests of a peaceful society and to ensure their protests are not used by others to launch a campaign of violence.

In Belfast City Council, unionists have come forward with a new proposal that Belfast City Council fly the Union Flag every day in the Garden of Remembrance.  I call on the other parties to support that measure.

At Stormont, the DUP has submitted a motion to the business office calling on the Commission to commence a process aimed at extending the number of days which the Union Flag flies at Parliament Buildings.  Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance have insisted that unionists accept the outcome of the democratic vote in Belfast City Council.  I trust that in that same democratic spirit they will accept the outcome of a democratic vote at the Assembly Commission.

A number of months ago commentators were surprised when I put down a clear marker with Alliance’s David Ford that he was not to remove Royal symbols from the Prison Service.  Perhaps now they will understand that the DUP realised where meddling with identity would lead.

Let no one be in any doubt, whether it is the Parades Commission, Alliance or Sinn Fein, the DUP believes in and wants to achieve a shared future for Northern Ireland, a shared future within the Union but that does not require and will not involve any diminution of our Britishness.

Britishness will not be progressed by acts of violence.  Anyone engaging in wanton violence or intimidation does not defend our national flag but disgraces it.”

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