Union flag 'may soon fly again'

The Union flag could soon be flying over Belfast City Hall again, a senior loyalist politician claimed today.

Union flag 'may soon fly again'

The Union flag could soon be flying over Belfast City Hall again, a senior loyalist politician claimed today.

Billy Hutchinson said he believed the process that led to restrictions on the number of days the flag is flown was illegal and should be challenged.

The Progressive Unionist leader said: “It may have been a democratic decision between people in the City Hall but, I think that the process was flawed.”

Mr Hutchinson was speaking after about 1,000 protesters brought traffic to Belfast city centre to a standstill for the second Saturday in a row.

He refused to be drawn on the specifics of action being taken but said a number of challenges were being explored and hinted there could be a development within the next few days.

He said: “We believe there are a number of decisions that we can take because we believe that there was (sic) illegal actions taken.

“I am not going to make promises to anybody. What I am saying is that we are going to try to put the flag back. I want to be very careful about this. I don’t want to lead people up the wrong road. But the idea is that it might be back. But, we will have to see.

“There can be challenges. I would hope by the middle of next week we would have a better understanding. We believe the process was flawed.”

Traffic in Belfast city centre was gridlocked after hundreds of people waving Union flags and carrying banners gathered in front of the city hall this afternoon.

The protest passed off peacefully but roads were blocked for about an hour.

Numbers were significantly lower than last weekend when 2,000 people turned up.

Politicians from the main unionist parties had this week called for street protests to stop.

Earlier several hundred peace campaigners formed a human chain around Belfast City Hall in response to the recent unrest.

They linked arms and prayed for five minutes during the vigil.

Church leaders including former Methodist Church president Harold Good who oversaw the IRA decommissioning in 2005 were among those taking part.

Mr Good called for an end to the demonstrations.

He said: “There must be another way of sitting down to talk about where these feelings and fears have come from.

“The last thing we must do is manipulate them and exploit them and I fear that has been happening.”

Organiser Andrew Masters said the event had sent out a powerful message that people in the North supported peace.

He said: “We feel that this year has been in many ways incredibly positive through the ’Our Time Our Place (tourist board campaign). But, what the past 10 days have shown us is that we have come so far, we still have quite a journey ahead of us.

“We just wanted to stand and pray for hope and peace.”

There has been widespread disorder across the North since Belfast city councillors voted on December 3 to reduce the number of days it flies the Union flag from 365 to 17.

The controversial vote followed a public consultation on the issue of flags.

Almost 30 police officers have been injured in the trouble and more than 40 people have been arrested for public order offences.

Naomi Long, an MP for the cross community Alliance Party, received a death threat from loyalists after her party agreed to fly the flag on designated days.

A number of Alliance councillors have also been advised by police not to return to their homes.

Senior Democratic Unionists Jeffrey Donaldson and Edwin Poots have also been informed of threats, apparently from dissident republicans, after speaking out in favour of flying the flag.

The PSNI said they believed loyalist paramilitaries were orchestrating the violence and intimidation.

Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton raised concerns that some elements would use today’s protest to engage in violent confrontation with his officers.

He said: “Everyone has the right to peacefully protest and police will endeavour to facilitate that right where possible.

“However where protest activity is unlawful we will take action and there will be consequences for those breaking the law.

“Those intent on violent confrontation should consider themselves warned that if they break the law they will face the consequences of their actions in court.”

Meanwhile, east Belfast community worker Jim Wilson, who joined the city hall picket, said the protests would continue for as long as it takes.

He said: “It is not going to change the attitude in the city hall but it might waken up the unionist community. I think that Sinn Fein has lit a fuse under our people and I believe that the fuse they have lit will ignite in the next election.”

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