Sunday 20 April 2014

Belfast 'won't give up on hopes for peaceful future'

POLITICIANS in Northern Ireland have not given up on building a shared future, Stormont's First Minister vowed.

Peter Robinson said the only way to end violence was through the political process.

Almost 100 police officers have been injured during weeks of loyalist protest over the Union flag.

A second peace rally was held outside Belfast City Hall today.

Mr Robinson said: "We took some difficult decisions, some might say historic decisions, to build a shared society in Northern Ireland.

"I think it is important to tell the wider community in Northern Ireland and our friends in the rest of the United Kingdom that we are not giving up on that."

Mr Robinson and Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are due to meet with the British and Irish governments this week.

The DUP leader said talks with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Eamonn Gilmore would address all outstanding issues.

The First Minister added: "We are very much of the view that we are determined that we build the kind of society where everybody can have a peaceful and stable existence."

On Saturday some of east Belfast's worst rioting broke out since Belfast City Council decided to restrict the flying of the flag from the City Hall to designated days like royal birthdays at the start of last month.

Sectarian clashes between loyalists returning from a city centre protest and republicans living in Short Strand were broken up by police, who braved bricks, fireworks and other missiles thrown from the angry crowd. They responded with water cannon and non-lethal baton rounds.

Around a thousand people attended a peace rally at Belfast City Hall today.

Many young people and families joined the demonstration, but they pointedly stood on the pavement rather than blocking the road, a favourite tactic of loyalist protesters.

There were five minutes of noise - horns, shouting and whistling - to symbolise the silent majority speaking out, and a huge round of applause ended the gathering.

One said: "It is about taking back the streets."

Mr Robinson condemned those responsible for violence but told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show protesters in relatively deprived east Belfast had become alienated.

"There are political issues and people that feel disengaged and people that feel if we are trying to build a shared future they are not getting their share," he said.

A total of 99 officers were injured and more than 100 arrests made during weeks of sporadic trouble, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said.

Northern Ireland's most senior police officer praised his "courageous" colleagues. Chief constable Matt Baggott said the vast majority of people were grateful for their efforts.

Businesses in Belfast's city centre have struggled to cope as some customers avoided the area over fears of encountering trouble.

The Confederation of British Industry ( CBI) warned some investors may think again, and estimated £15 million was already lost to the local economy because of rioting.

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