Various news outlets have reported the formation of the Ulster People’s Forum on 3rd January. Initial reports in the media about who was involved in the leadership were inaccurate (for example see here). In this post I want to tie in the formation of this Forum with what I have previously written about who is involved in the protests and why.
Internet forums have been quick to profile the leaders of the forum and, in some cases, ridicule and belittle them. If we want to have a mature response to the protests it seems to me this is unhelpful for two reasons. Firstly, the people who seem to be doing the profiling do not know the individuals themselves, nor have they spoke to them, and appear to be basing a lot of their assumptions on internet research and hearsay. Secondly, there is no doubt this new Forum does represent a certain minority within the Unionist/Loyalist population. Further demonising and ostracizing protesters will achieve nothing. Creating spaces for dialogue between everybody involved in the protests is the way forward.
What is interesting about the Ulster People’s Forum is that it was formed so soon after First Minister Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt announced the formation of their own Unionist Forum. The establishment of an alternative forum shows that those behind it are not willing to be part of a mainstream Unionist/Loyalist agenda in what they perceive to be a move to pacify the protesters. This alone tells us something about how they position themselves in relation to mainstream Unionism. My guess is that their initial intention is to bring together those with similar views and to provide themselves with a stronger negotiating position should dialogue with other groups develop.
A closer look at the aims they announced for the forum also confirm that they are reluctant to engage with Stormont and would prefer the end of power sharing and the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Among their aims are the following:
1) A return to direct rule because of the failing of our political representatives
2) The Union Flag to be flown from every Council building across Northern Ireland
Anyone who is old enough to remember life in Northern Ireland before the Good Friday Agreement will know that this is not a radically new viewpoint but is simply one that has not shifted since the Troubles (I would call this traditional Unionism/Loyalism). How much support the Ulster People’s Forum have for this viewpoint is uncertain. What is certain is that they do not represent everybody involved in the flag protests. The PUP and the UPRG, the traditional political voices of Loyalism, who are, generally speaking, supportive of power sharing and the peace process, have not joined the Ulster People’s Forum. While the Ulster People’s Forum will appeal to old school Unionists and Loyalists who oppose power sharing with Republicans and Nationalists, mainstream Loyalism appears to have remained committed to their role in the peace process. The Ulster People’s Forum no doubt reflects the views of some of the protesters (see here for a breakdown of the various groups involved) but is not representative of them all. Its formation may well result in a split among the protesters themselves.