independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Leaders hold talks on flag protests

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt and First Minister Peter Robinson were among those holding talks about the Union flag dispute in Belfast

Northern Ireland's political leaders have held a marathon special meeting to discuss the loyalist Union flag protests.

After almost eight hours of talks inside Stormont Castle in Belfast, the region's five main parties issued a joint statement.

The collective response condemned the violence that has marred some of the demonstrations but did not go as far as to call for an end to the pickets. The intensive session was the first time all the party leaders had met since the demonstrations began three weeks ago.

It is understood most of the negotiations between the Democratic Unionists, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionists, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Alliance Party centred on efforts to formulate the agreed statement.

The protests were triggered when Belfast City Council voted to reduce the number of days the flag flies at City Hall. Some have descended into serious disorder, with scores of police officers having been injured in rioting. One police woman was subject to a murder attempt in east Belfast.

A number of elected representatives have received death threats and earlier this week a council meeting in Carrickfergus was stormed by a masked loyalist gang.

On Wednesday five politicians - two Sinn Fein representatives and three Alliance - were informed that packages containing bullets had been sent to Stormont addressed to them.

In a joint statement, the DUP's Peter Robinson, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, the UUP's Mike Nesbitt, the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell and Alliance's David Ford welcomed the opportunity to "meet and engage in a discussion" on the situation.

The statement continued: "Party leaders reaffirmed their commitment to the rule of law and the primacy of the political process and deplored violence, attacks on the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), as well as threats to elected representatives.

"Recognising the importance of culture and identity within the community, and conscious of the impact on business, political leaders re-emphasised that their task was to find political solutions and to ensure peace and stability for the people of Northern Ireland." It said talks would reconvene between the leaders in the new year.

Press Association

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