Loyalist protests are playing into the hands of republicans, says leading UDA figure (Belfast Telegraph)

Veteran UDA leader Jackie McDonald has warned that loyalist protests cannot succeed in their aim to have the Union flag reinstated above Belfast City Hall — and are instead playing into the hands of republicans.

The prominent loyalist also revealed that one protester told him he would have “laughed” if dissident republicans had succeeded in killing a police officer and his family in east Belfast on Sunday.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, McDonald said it was clear that the Union flag is not going to be reinstated above Belfast City Hall all-year round after councillors voted to fly it on designated days only last month.

“I share the anger in the loyalist community but somebody needs to stand up and tell the truth, which is that the flag is not going to go up again without an election or agreement,” McDonald said.

“Sinn Fein has achieved this and until there is a change in the balance of power in City Hall, the flag decision won’t be reversed. There is no point giving people false hope.”

The Union flag flew constantly on City Hall until last month when nationalists tabled a motion to remove it permanently. However, they eventually supported an Alliance Party amendment that it be flown on a number of designated days, such as royal birthdays.

The council’s decision sparked a wave of protests in which roads were blocked and the Alliance Party was targeted for revenge.

The protest disruption also caused deep damage to Belfast retailers in the crucial Christmas trading period and, at times, erupted into violence which left police officers injured.

“Alliance won’t buckle or reverse their vote under this pressure. They may even get a bit of a sympathy vote out of the whole thing,” the senior loyalist added.

McDonald sympathised with the protests which are set to continue well into the new year. Four demonstrations were scheduled for yesterday, including a province-wide release of red, white and blue lanterns at midnight. One protest is expected to be held on Cambrai Street, north Belfast, today.

McDonald has attended several protests and stressed that he would support them if they persist.

Yet he strongly believes a new strategy is needed to replace them because they risk becoming counterproductive and spinning out of control.

“We are all angry,” he |argued.

“But people need to take stock, draw a deep breath and realise that everything they are doing is suiting Sinn Fein. We are just running about like headless |chickens.”

Just yesterday one person |involved in organising protests told him he would have laughed if the police officer who found a bomb under his car on Sunday had instead been blown up with his family.

“I told him that meant he had more in common with dissident republicans than he did with the police,” Mr McDonald said.

“That is the direction this thing could be heading, with the Protestant people even more divided.”

He called on police to meet with protesters and use more sensitive tactics to try and defuse the situation. “The only thing that is going to help is if loyalism and unionism get together and listen to each other’s point of view.

“People are saying they will never vote again, or that they |certainly don’t intend to vote for the DUP or Mike Nesbitt’s UUP |party.

“I say that if we want to reverse the flags decision, people need to register to vote and then turn out to vote when there is an election. If we had voted last time, this wouldn’t have happened.”

There will be a council election in 2014. In the meantime, McDonald called for a strategy that could “unite the entire Protestant family”.

However, he cautioned that plans for one single unionist party were impractical.

He called for talks with non-unionist parties, like Alliance and the nationalists, to try and agree an improvement on the present flags policy.

“Republicans brought the flag down. Instead of coming together and saying ‘we have to make sure this doesn’t happen again’, we loyalists are actually imploding and turning in on each other. It all suits Sinn Fein” he said.

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