Leaders gather to seek resolution to flag protest violence

Politicians and church leaders are holding talks in the North this afternoon in an attempt to stem loyalist street violence over the flying of the Union flag.

Leaders gather to seek resolution to flag protest violence

Politicians and church leaders are holding talks in the North this afternoon in an attempt to stem loyalist street violence over the flying of the Union flag.

After three nights of rioting and attacks on police, leaders are meeting this afternoon at Rev Mervyn Gibson’s Westbourne Presbyterian Church to try and forge a resolution.

But Robin Newton, of the Democratic Unionist Party, said a lack of engagement from protest organisers was making it difficult to see an end to the unrest.

“We have to find a way out of this, but how we do it, I don’t know,” he said.

Mr Newton, who is attending the talks with other DUP elected representatives, said there was confusion about exactly what demonstrators wanted, amid calls for an end to devolution.

The East Belfast MLA said the British National Party and other far right groups had also been addressing recent rallies. “I think we need a bit of calm and reflection,” he said. “We need to get wise heads together.”

Michael Copeland, Ulster Unionist Party MLA for the area, said he was pessimistic about a positive outcome to the talks, because there were no apparent leadership to the demonstrations.

“There doesn’t seem to be any one person, or group of persons, that we can go to,” he said.

Naomi Long, Alliance Party MP for East Belfast, who received a death threat over her party’s role in the flags controversy, said she has not been invited to the talks. In the latest disturbances, frontline officers reported coming under gunfire yesterday.

A 38-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. In a sustained attack, a mob of around 100 loyalists hurled petrol bombs, fireworks, bricks and other masonry at officers, the PSNI said.

Officers dealing with the disorder in the Newtownards Road, Albertbridge Road, Castlereagh Street and Templemore Avenue areas of the city, used water cannon and fired three plastic bullets. One officer was injured and a number of arrests were made.

A special sitting of Belfast Magistrates Court last night saw 13 people charged in connection with the unrest.

One woman and 11 men were remanded in custody, while another woman was released on bail.

Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said gunfire against police officers was a worrying development.

“What it quite clearly demonstrates is the fact that paramilitaries have hijacked this flags protest issue and they have turned now their guns on the police,” he said.

“There is no doubt that it has been exploited by the paramilitary grouping known as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and it is very clear that there are members of the UVF, leading members of the UVF, who are exploiting this and are organising and orchestrating this violence against police officers who are out there trying to uphold the law and prevent anarchy on our streets.”

Mr Spence said 65 police officers have been injured since the protests began, some of whom have been hospitalised. “Certainly I think it is the most challenging period that we have had in the last decade,” he added.

The SDLP said there was an attack on the home of their South Belfast councillor Claire Hanna. Shots from a high powered ball bearing gun were fired at her front windows and door seven times, they said. Cllr Hanna, her husband and baby daughter, were not at home at the time.

SDLP leader and South Belfast MP, Alasdair McDonnell, said unionist leaders and protest organisers needed to take full responsibility for the attack.

More than 1,000 demonstrators marched on Belfast’s City Hall yesterday, but despite tense scenes and some scuffles the rally passed off without major incident.

There was a heavy police presence, including officers in riot gear with dogs stationed within the historic civic building itself and on surrounding side streets.

But as the flag-waving crowds dispersed, ugly scenes flared again – for the third night in a row – on the Newtownards Road in the traditionally unionist east of the city.

A section of the road was shut down because of the sporadic disorder.

Loyalist violence on Friday night saw 18 people arrested and nine police officers injured.

More than 30 petrol bombs, along with fireworks, ball bearings and masonry were hurled at officers during a sustained attack in the east of the city. Up to 300 people were involved in the disturbances.

The PSNI said it would be seeking further arrests in the coming days in relation to the disorder and have appealed for witnesses.

On Thursday 10 police officers were injured during a demonstration in east Belfast.

Street protests have been going on for more than a month now against the decision to reduce the number of days the Union flag is flown from Belfast City Hall.

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