Flag protesters' demands may be extended to include a return to direct rule from Westminster, according to one of the organisers. High-profile victims' campaigner Willie Frazer, who has emerged as a leader of the protests, said that even if the Union flag was returned to Belfast City Hall it would not end the demonstrations.
He said that the focus of the protests would now shift from the flags issue to forming a pressure group to influence the unionist parties on a range of issues. The protesters hope to hold a meeting within days to form an umbrella group which they hope will take their movement forward and radicalise unionism.
One of the main items on the agenda will be whether to attend the Unionist Forum, established by UUP leader Mike Nesbitt and DUP leader Peter Robinson to address the protesters' concerns. "Many of these protest groups are meeting individually and possibly collectively to see if they will attend the proper Unionist Forum and it is reasonable to give them some time to do that," a senior Ulster Unionist source said.
Both UUP and DUP sources expect the forum to hold its inaugural meeting next week.
In the meantime, the protesters have the initiative and appear to be broadening, or perhaps losing, their original focus after the row erupted at Belfast City Council in early December.
Protests have been ongoing since Belfast councillors voted to stop flying the Union flag above City Hall year round, and will now fly it on designated days only.
The move has led to widespread protests, street disruption, threats and attacks against the Alliance Party and riots.
Police said up to 300 loyalists had blocked roads in Carrickfergus last night. The crowd, some of whom used scarves to hide their identity, gathered at a roundabout between Albert Road and Belfast Road. The demonstration ended peacefully after about an hour.
The DUP last night said that North Belfast councillor Guy Spence had received a death threat.
Fellow DUP councillor William Humphrey said: "This is the latest threat which has been issued to public representatives across a number of political parties. These threats and the physical attacks on other representatives are nothing short of raw terrorism but they reinforce the need to demonstrate that politics is the only way forward."
While the protests have tailed off over the Christmas period, they are expected to escalate in the coming weeks.
Mr Frazer said that flag protesters now had new demands. "The flag may have been the straw that broke the camel's back but that back was ready to break anyway," he said.
"One of the things we have discussed is a return to direct rule. We want direct rule back because our politicians aren't fit to govern a henhouse. Under direct rule at least the flag of the country was being flown."
Mr Frazer outlined other grievances, including former republican prisoners in government and alleged misuse of agricultural subsidies and grants to victims' groups. He believes that European funds have been misused, sometimes even creamed off by the IRA, and wants Europe to launch an official investigation.
Mr Frazer, a member of the victims' group FAIR, predicted that over a hundred separate organisations could attend a protesters' meeting later this week. He said they included victims groups, marching bands and groups of former soldiers. These people had, he said, either served in Northern Ireland or sometimes alongside Northern Ireland soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Those interested in attending the protesters' forum do not include any of the loyal orders. "The Orange Order is too interested in the £4m in grants but individual Orangemen will be involved," Mr Frazer said.
He hopes to take the protest to Dublin, perhaps as early as January 13. A previous 'Love Ulster' parade in 2007 was abandoned on police advice when widespread rioting broke out.
Other protest organisers are working on legal challenges to the policing of protests. Jonny Harvey of the United Protestant Voice and his father John have both consulted a solicitor about alleged police brutality and are considering an approach to the Police Ombudsman. "We have no comment to make until legal proceedings are complete," Mr Harvey Jnr said last night.
Where does the widespread protest kickstarted by the City Hall flag row go from here? Leading campaigner Willie Frazer answers questions posed by Liam Clarke.
Q: Do you believe protesting will get the flag up on City Hall?
A: I wouldn't concede that it is unlikely to get the flag back up on City Hall, but I am saying that if the flag went up on City Hall in the morning it wouldn't solve the problem. The problem has now gone further than the flag on City Hall. That is just the issue that united people, but putting the flag up now would not be acceptable on its own. The flag may have been the straw that broke the camel's back but that back was ready to break anyway.
Q: What do you see coming out of the protests? What would be acceptable?
A: One of the things we have discussed is a return to direct rule. We want direct rule back because our politicians aren't fit to govern a henhouse. We never thought we would say that we would actually ask for direct rule. The DUP told us, 'you will have a united Ireland if there is direct rule', but we will have no united Ireland. Englishmen cannot force it on us but our own people can give away our birthright. I have spoken at 46 venues since this started and I know the feeling. People are saying 'we might as well have direct rule'. Why are we paying out millions to have government up on the hill doing nothing for us? Under direct rule at least the flag of the country was being flown. There were no special inquiry teams being set up to investigate the soldiers over Bloody Sunday and there was no children's parks being called after mass murderers.
Q: What will happen beyond protest?
A: We are convening a meeting very shortly. They are looking for a large enough venue now to accommodate it.
Q: Will an umbrella group be formed?
A: Yes, but it will not be a political party. It will be more like a pressure group. There are enough parties already but we want to put pressure on the existing unionist parties to deliver.
Q: Who do you expect to attend?
A: I know of over 100 different groups. Some are community organisations, some are bands and some are protest groups. Some are also ex-military people who served here and think it is an utter disgrace. There are others who served out in Afghanistan and Iraq along with soldiers in Northern Ireland.
I have been asked to speak at six different venues in Scotland alone.
Q: When are you going to Dublin and is it true you are demanding the Tricolour be removed from the Dail?
A: I think it will be Saturday week. We will liaise with the guards to avoid trouble. The Tricolour on Leinster house is only one issue. I wouldn't really expect them to remove it and as a matter of fact I would be quite offended at the suggestion if I was them. It is more a rhetorical point saying, 'how would you feel if it was your flag being taken down?' We will be saying the Irish government can't continually ask for enquiries into things like Pat Finucane and Bloody Sunday when previous Irish ministers were heavily involved in helping to set up the IRA. Either this whole witch hunt against the UK security forces stops or we need an inclusive look that takes in the Irish government's involvement with the IRA and Libya.
Q: Aren't you afraid the peace process could unravel if power sharing was ended?
A: This peace process has brought nothing to us except more intimidation, more threats of violence and the erosion of everything we believe. I don't prefer an Englishman to rule this country. I would rather have our own people ruling, and that includes nationalists and unionists and even the Shinners.
But, if the Shinners are serious about reconciliation, the men with blood on their hands should be taking a step back. It should be a new generation of republicans with no terrorist record in government.