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McGuinness calls for all party flag talks

The flag has been removed from City Hall.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has called for all-party talks on the issue of symbols and flags.

Friday, 14 December 2012
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It comes as protests continue across Northern Ireland over Belfast City Council's decision to stop flying the Union flag all year round.

Mr McGuinness said nationalist and unionist politicians should get together and look at how best to protect the symbols and emblems of both.

"Ultimately, any workable proposals needs cross community support," the Sinn Féin MP said. "I am confident that we can map a way forward on this basis.

"Any proposals which have the potential for moving us forward on this issue, will require cross community support. The sooner therefore that these discussions begin the better."

The party also revealed Belfast councillor Jim McVeigh has received a second death threat, after warnings were issued to a number of politicians.

Meanwhile in a joint statement, First Minister Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said they hope to reveal an initiative to defuse the flag protests next week.

These discussions need to address the meaning of mutual respect, parity of esteem and how to ensure that symbols and emblems are not used to promote division.

Martin McGuinness MP

They called for the demonstrations to be suspended, but said their party representatives could attend if they were happy that they would be peaceful.

The UUP and DUP said: "On Monday we will complete our brief consultation with some of the key interested parties in the unionist community.

"Following that, we will agree a way forward which will facilitate the announcement of a new initiate, involving people from across the unionist community, that will chart a positive way ahead to address many of the issues of concern that have been raised in recent days."

Further protests are expected to take place over the weekend, including in Scotland.

But not all are coming from one side - Saturday will also see a prayer vigil held at Belfast City Hall, while a one-hour peace gathering is due to be held there on Sunday morning.

Talks have also been taking place between UDA leader Jackie McDonald, the DUP and the UUP over the ongoing tension, as UTV revealed.

However the Alliance Party, which has been targeted by loyalist protestors since taking the decisive vote on the flags, said parties are still showing a lack of leadership.

East Belfast MLA Chris Lyttle said: "Unionist leaders have continuously said that the British identity is being undermined, further heightening fears and creating tensions.

"While Peter Robinson, Mike Nesbitt and Arlene Foster call for these protests to end, their elected representatives have supported them. Sinn Féin could also move to diffuse fears by making clear their commitment to a shared future for all identities in Northern Ireland."

Meanwhile former First Minister and UUP leader David Trimble has linked the flags row to the DUP's efforts to win back their parliamentary seat in East Belfast from Alliance.

Mr Trimble told the BBC: "I am surprised there is a problem, because the issue could have been foreseen, a compromise was available.

I cannot avoid looking at the fact that the Alliance Party, who provided the majority for this compromise at City Hall, is the party that defeated the DUP in east Belfast in the parliamentary election ...

David Trimble

"It seems rather strange the compromise has not been accepted. It's really strange that some parties who sit at Stormont and accept for government buildings the designated flag days, are out encouraging protests against designated days in other public buildings.

"I wonder if this is something to do with trying to regain support that went to the Alliance Party at that stage. In which case I think it's a really quite cynical thing for them to be doing.

"It's a pity some parties are now not accepting that compromise."

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell also questioned the DUP and UUP statement, which he described as "wrongheaded" and "aggravating".

He said: "It sends a message to businesses and citizens that unionism is not stepping back. It flies in the face of what people want to hear.

"The DUP and UUP jointly contributed to this situation. That was bad judgement, bad politics and bad for people. To now issue joint statements makes the situation worse and shows exactly the same bad judgement and politics and a lack of consideration for people.

"This new pan-unionist 'initiative' will be scrutinised very closely for evidence of the involvement of loyalist paramilitaries, who are strongly suspected of fomenting unrest over the period of the protests.

"If Mike Nesbitt is going to sleepwalk into unionist unity, despite the warning of his former deputy leader, he would do well to check the track record of his new bedfellows."