'Protests damaging NI's reputation' - FM

'Protests damaging NI's reputation' - FM

First Minister Peter Robinson has said the ongoing flag disorder in Belfast has been "very damaging" to Northern Ireland's reputation around the world.

Mr Robinson has called for any further protests to remain peaceful, advising people who are frustrated within the Unionist community to turn to politics.

He said the ongoing disruption has already impacted the Northern Ireland economy.

He spoke as he prepared to chair the first meeting of the Unionist Forum this week, which was set up to address the flag dispute and other areas of tension within unionism.

"We've worked for a very long period of time to overcome the image of Northern Ireland as a place where there is violence and instability," he told UTV.

"Already we have had investors, both people who have invested and people who were about to invest asking questions, and we are having to give reassurances to them," he said.

It's bad for our image, it is bad for our opportunities to bring jobs to Northern Ireland, and that ultimately means that it is bad for ordinary people on the ground who will not have the opportunity to work in those jobs that could have been created.

Peter Robinson

Nigel Smyth, Director of CBI Northern Ireland said those involved in violence and disruption are having a "detrimental impact on local business, as well as damaging prospective tourism and investment for the year ahead".

This year, Derry/Londonderry is celebrating its role as UK City of Culture and world leaders will gather in Fermanagh for the G8 Summit before the World Fire & Police Games.

"The eyes of the world are now on Northern Ireland, and we have grave concerns about the damage these violent protests are doing in our communities, the negative images being portrayed around the world and the impact this will have on deterring visitors from attending these events," Mr Smyth said.

He added: "We are already aware of investors who have lost interest in Northern Ireland because of these disruptions."

Loyalists have held protests across NI, with many supporters draped in flags and blocking roads.

While some have been peaceful, others have descended into violence that has seen police come under attack.

There is now a very real risk of job losses as the very livelihood of the business owners and staff in the communities affected is threatened.

Nigel Smyth, CBI Northern Ireland

Stewart McAleese, who runs a chip shop on the Newtownards Road, said he has lost £2,000 a week because of the disorder.

"If it keeps going much longer we will not be able to sustain it. At the minute we are at a loss as a result, because we are not taking enough to cover our overheads," he told UTV.

Mr McAleese believes people are staying away from the Newtownards Road area because they are not sure when a demonstration will begin. On Saturday afternoon, customers were escorted out the back door of the shop after protestors took to the streets.

"The petrol bombing and everything else it's not doing any good to the businesses in these areas," he said.

"If it keeps going it's not just this small business, it's every small business in east Belfast and it's not just the small business, it's the businesses that they buy from, their suppliers, they're losing the trade over it," he added.

Secretary of State for NI Theresa Villiers has also expressed concern that continued violence in Belfast could cost jobs and further investment.

Ms Villiers said she believed Northern Ireland has a lot to offer, but the ongoing disorder may come at a high price.

She said the UK Government is trying to showcase NI as modern and forward-looking.

"I'm confident that we can deliver a safe and secure and successful G8 summit regardless of the demonstrations, but I do really worry about the impact that they are having on inward investment in Northern Ireland," she said.

We are in a global race for jobs and investment and the last thing we need is pictures of petrol bombs and bricks being thrown at police on the streets of Belfast.

Theresa Villiers

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott has blamed members of the UVF for orchestrating the violence, but Ms Villiers said she believes the paramilitary group's ceasefire is still intact.

"As far as I'm aware, it's still in place. But I think the Chief Constable is absolutely right to speak out very strongly against those individual members of paramilitary organisations who are involved in these violent protests," Ms Villiers said.

"I, like him, would call on everyone involved in those violent protests to stop - because this is doing huge damage to Northern Ireland's image abroad, doing huge damage to the economy. It's seeing police officers injured.

Ms Villiers said the disorder was "unacceptable and appalling," before conceding that those involved in the unrest were not listening to politicians.

"I am deeply concerned about that," she added.

The Conservative MP said that she has been urging all the political parties' leaders to engage in dialogue to find a political solution.

"It's vital these protests come off the streets and so, that we can have a sensible and informed debate and a way forward on flags which reflects different perspectives, the different identities and the different traditions in Northern Ireland."

The Secretary of State said the episode demonstrated how urgent it is that progress is made on a shared future.


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