First Minister calls for end to protests

Published Thursday, 06 December 2012
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Northern Ireland's First Minister has called for an immediate end to violence over the issue of flags and the suspension of street protests, in order to prevent peaceful demonstrations being hijacked.

First Minister calls for end to protests
Protestors and riot police gather in Glengormley on Thursday evening. (© Pacemaker)

DUP leader Peter Robinson hit out over the rioting that has marred communities in recent days, sparked by a council vote to restrict the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.

A number of people gathered in the Antrim Road area of Glengormley and outside the Alliance Party offices in east Belfast, causing traffic disruption on Thursday evening.

"People's right to protest is justified and legitimate and should be defended," Mr Robinson said.

"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."

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott has already warned that police will be taking action against anyone orchestrating violence.

"The community can be assured we will be studying social media websites very carefully indeed and we will be investigating anyone who has been inciting this violence," he said.

Mr Robinson has also defended the leaflets distributed by unionist parties over the flag issue.

Those who riot and engage in violent attacks do a disservice to the flag they claim to represent. Such criminal behaviour also distracts from the real debate.

First Minister Peter Robinson

"People's right to protest is justified and legitimate and should be defended," Mr Robinson said.

"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."

Mr Robinson also defended the leaflets distributed by unionist parties over the flag issue.

"These leaflets did not call on people to come on to the streets, but asked people to engage in the democratic process," he said.

"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 - because they knew the sensitivity of the issue and the risks involved in bringing large numbers of people onto the streets."

Following the vote by Belfast City Council, the Union flag will only be flown at City Hall on 17 designated days - in line with the protocol at Stormont.

But Mr Robinson said that his party has now submitted a motion at Stormont aimed at extending the number of days the Union flag flies there.

"Sinn Féin, 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," he said.

The First Minister also called for other parties to support a unionist proposal that Belfast City Council flies a Union flag in the Garden of Remembrance all year round.

His comments come after deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said unionist leaders must call on those involved in trouble to stop.

"This is an attack on the democratic decision taken in Belfast City Hall by those who are democratically elected to represent the people of this city," the Sinn Féin politician said.

"Political unionism needs to accept that. They need to call for an end to these protests and for those involved to step back."

Meanwhile, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell has slammed DUP minister Edwin Poots and Sammy Wilson for comments he deemed "reckless" in the current climate.

According to Mr McDonnell, the suggestions that the policy regarding the flying of the Union flag on designated days at Stormont needs to be re-examined could serve to heighten the existing tensions.

He said that the position at Stormont was already clear and added: "Edwin Poots and Sammy Wilson are aggravating matters by suggesting the current policy should be reviewed at a time when we need leadership and a moderate response.

"We have two DUP ministers consciously, recklessly and deliberately inflaming the situation rather than calling for calm."

There is no chance of doing something further in respect of flags at Stormont and this type of comments by two ministers only escalates the situation further.

Alasdair McDonnell, SDLP

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott has said he will be meeting the leaders of Northern Ireland's political parties over the ongoing flags issue.

Speaking out over the rioting in areas including Belfast, Bangor and Carrickfergus, he said: "There can be no excuses whatsoever for intimidation and violence.

"Their actions are shameful and they put innocent people's lives at risk."

The political war of words only escalated in the wake of the violence, with the Alliance Party targeted in a number of attacks.

Alliance leader and Justice Minister David Ford has already called for the Assembly to be recalled to discuss the issue and show "united opposition" to attacks on elected representatives - a call backed by the SDLP.

"Since Monday night, we have witnessed a growing campaign of violence and intimidation against the Alliance Party - but attacks on any one political party are attacks on democracy itself," Mr Ford said.

"In Carrickfergus, we have an office destroyed, with our office in Bangor coming very close to a similar fate. We have witnessed threats made against our councillors, with the home of two hard working and dedicated North Down councillors attacked.

"All parties must come together to show that this behaviour will not be tolerated."

On Thursday evening, the First and deputy First Ministers asked the Stormont Speaker to bring forward Monday's plenary sitting of the Assembly to discuss an agreed motion on the disturbances.

Members are now expected to meet earlier than the normal midday start.

The Assembly must unite to show that an attack on our democracy will not be accepted.

David Ford, Alliance

Unionist politicians have condemned the violence, but also reacted angrily to the Alliance Party's comments.

Sammy Wilson said Mr Ford is "out of touch" with how people feel.

"Let me make something clear, a Pandora's box was opened in Belfast aided and abetted by the Alliance Party," the East Antrim MP told UTV.

"David Ford may be getting carried around in his police land rover and not be aware of how ordinary people feel, but if Alliance does not understand what was going to happen as a result of this, they are totally out of touch with people in Northern Ireland."

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt accused Alliance of using the violence to "portray themselves as victims".

He said: "It's taking the focus off what the Alliance Party has done in terms of the flag of Belfast City Hall and allowing them to portray themselves as victims.

"What they have done is demonstrate that they are not a kind of cuddly form of unionism, but they're actually anti-British in some ways and that is where the focus should be - not on the fact that they're being attacked, which is utterly wrong."

© UTV News
Comments Comments
125 Comments
Roy Jenkins in GLENGORMLEY wrote (716 days ago):
The UNIONJACK flag should never pulled off city hall.
Ryan in Belfast wrote (717 days ago):
@Shankill, in Shankill. Shankill, to put it easy for you so that you can understand, the Union flag will not be going back up on city hall except for the 17 days a year. The DUP, Shankill, have absolutey no power to have the Union flag back up on city hall and nor do the UUP, only SF/SDLP and Alliance have the power to put it back up and we all know theres more of a chance of the Brazilian flag being put up there than the Union flag when it comes to SF/SDLP lol. This was a democratic vote, when your protesting and rioting in the streets shankill, your not attacking SDLP/SF or Alliance your attacking DEMOCRACY, thats how the whole world views this and this is exacty what it is, Loyalism vs Democracy and democracy will win hands down, thats why the NI secretary of state refused to condem the choice by BCC when asked to do so in the house of commons by the DUP. Hilary Clinton even condemmed the loyalist violence. This is a democracy shankill, your orange statelet doesnt exist anymore, EVERYONE is equal in the 6 counties now, get use to it.
Dee in glengormley wrote (718 days ago):
This is the essence of loyalism. Are we really surprised? Loyalism has a tradition of opposing democracy since it's inception. I was gonna talk about Carson and 1912 and their complete disregard for democracy but it would be completely lost on some of the posters here and the people who are out on the streets with their faces covered burning Irish tricolours. It truly is depressing. The sad fact is, despite the image we try to portray as a modern, progressive city we are just an inward sectarian backwater that continually spawns this kind of loyalist extremism on a regular basis. For heavens sake we are only a matter of weeks past since the last episode of sectarian bigotry around the St Patricks chapel issue. What I would also say is that there are serious concerns about the police handling of these protests. I am not the first observer to think had these been nationalist/republican protestors would we have seen a different approach?
michael in Derry Londonderry or whatever!!!!! in Derry City wrote (718 days ago):
To the whole lot of you wise up your antics would be laughable if they were not so serious . You are however making us the laughing stock of the whole world in the 21st Century. Burning a tri colour when the Irish Government gave to projects here in Derry the apprentice boys and the siege museum so the very freedoms you hold so dear can be explained to those you think of as less enlightened. Oh and by the way its the union flag you can only refer to it as the union jack when it is flown at sea.
maggie in north west wrote (718 days ago):
Why attack the Alliance councilor's home .the place to do the attack is the next elections. In Many places the Alliance depended to Protestant votes to get seats. How silly they were to forget that...No more will I vote Alliance or SDLP..It is not the flag its the very fact they voted with the murderers of my friends...the civil rights marches were not about one man one vote.because many Protestants had bad houses and no vote. Rev Ian was correct it was for a United Ireland because they cannot stand the sight of anything British otherwise they would have left the flag alone
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