SOUTH Down Independent Unionist MLA John McCallister has thanked the Banbridge PUL Forum for the opportunity to speak to them last Wednesday night in Rathfriland Orange Hall.
Mr. McCallister engaged in a question and answer session with approximately 25 locals after setting out the case for progressive, liberal unionism.
Following the event, Mr. McCallister said: “I have a track record of going before any audience to make the progressive, liberal case for the Union.
“Needless to say, this means not always agreeing with those who invite me to speak. The Banbridge PUL Forum takes a very different view to my own on how politics in Northern Ireland needs to change, and I made this point at the meeting.
“Pro-Union opinion in Northern Ireland is very diverse. I do not see this as a weakness - it is normal, British politics. In Scotland, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat strongly disagree on a wide range of policies but support the Union.
“I also made the point at the Forum that I, unlike others, make no apology for my support of the Belfast Agreement. The Agreement brought an end to decades of death and violence.
“Yes, there were difficult aspects to the Agreement, but without it Northern Ireland would have witnessed more death and more destruction. Rather than apologising for it, pro-Union opinion should be confidently asserting that it was the Agreement which cemented a more peaceful Northern Ireland’s place in today’s United Kingdom.”
Addressing the specific issue of the City Hall flag, Mr McCallister told the meeting that the protests were “a disaster for Northern Ireland.”
“It was the wrong fight at the wrong time and just turns people off while republicans revel in it. These images were around the world and back and the economic damage has been immense. I like to see our flag flown with respect – not tattered and torn from lamp posts.”
Responding to opinion from the floor that the Union was under threat, Mr McCallister tried to reassure the meeting this was not the case.
He said, “What evidence is there to suggest that Northern Ireland is not safe? Every measure of public opinion is that the Union is safe. Unionism has a crisis of confidence but we have a great message to sell. No-one is leaving the UK. Northern Ireland is not leaving the United Kingdom – the dissidents know we are not moving and that is why they are reacting in the way they are.”
“I thank the Banbridge PUL Forum organisers for their invitation to speak at the event. Despite our disagreements, I hope that such genuine democratic dialogue - rather than street politics and the threat of violence - will characterise the future of Northern Ireland politics.
“I would also welcome the opportunity to meet with other groups across the constituency or if anyone would like to talk to me please call 07833 668 602.”