Loyalist leaders back end to flag riots
LOYALIST paramilitary leaders have called for an end to the sectarian violence that has rocked Northern Ireland's peace process.
A statement was issued after British and Irish government officials held crunch talks with the First and Deputy First Ministers on the Union flag crisis.
Leaflets appealing for the rioting to stop have been endorsed by 41 different organisations including paramilitaries, church leaders and community groups.
They said: "The people of east Belfast plead that those involved in the current rioting stop now.
"We would add that those who come into the area to riot and cause disturbance are not welcome.
"The rioting does absolutely nothing to promote any cause but rather is damaging this community and causing further suffering."
Violence has erupted across parts of Northern Ireland since councillors in Belfast voted to limit the number of days the Union flag is flown over City Hall.
The outlawed loyalist gang - the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)- has been accused of orchestrating much of the disorder during which more than 100 police officers have been injured and 116 arrests have been made.
The leaflets, which are being distributed, acknowledge the right for peaceful, legal protest but those who signed it said they wanted pointless violence and wanton destruction to stop.
Westbourne Presbyterian Church minister Mervyn Gibson, Methodist Church leader on the Lower Newtownards Road Gary Mason and loyalist community worker Jim Wilson backed the peace statement.
Mr Mason said he hoped the collective message would be seen as a turning point.
Mr Gibson said: "I believe there were relations built over the years which hopefully will see us through over the coming months and years."
Earlier, the First and Deputy First Ministers held talks with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State and the Irish foreign minister to discuss the flags issue.
Theresa Villiers, who visited east Belfast on Monday, reiterated appeals for the road blocks and pickets to end.
"The violence is intolerable and these protests have to come off the streets.
"They have to be replaced by dialogue," she said.
The Secretary of State also said she supported the attempts to persuade people away from violence.
Ms Villiers added: "I would certainly support any efforts that people are making out into the communities to persuade people that this violence is wrong and counterproductive.
"It needs to stop, it's damaging Northern Ireland's reputation abroad and it is actually getting in the way of resolving the situation around identity."
Meanwhile, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said the discussions at Stormont Castle included the possibility of securing further funding from the European Union.
He said: "There is a proposal that there would be another round of EU funding for a peace programme in Northern Ireland.
"And, among the things we were discussing were the kind of projects and kind of improvements in the day-to-day life and the economy in Northern Ireland that could be achieved by such additional funding."
Mr Gilmore also welcomed the peace statement.
He added: "I think that is showing very strong community leadership and I want to commend community leaders who are doing so.
"The end of this street violence and the promotion of a positive Northern Ireland is what is going to attract investment and tourists that will help the Northern Ireland economy grow."
Meanwhile, against normal protocol, the First and Deputy First Ministers spoke separately about the meeting.
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have not been seen publicly since the flag crisis erupted.
The DUP leader Mr Robinson said: "Both the Deputy First Minister and I do not have a joint position on it.
"I am not in the business of hypocritically coming forward and trying to put a face on issues.
"We are agreed that violence should come to an end.
"We are agreed that the only way forward is by exclusively peaceful and democratic means.
"But it is important that we have a political process that deals with the issues that are causing concern.
"Real progress is being made on that.
"I am reasonably confident we will be able to have a joint way forward."
Mr Robinson also deflected claims that he would not be comfortable walking the streets of east Belfast, which have seen the worst of the flag-related violence.
He added: "I have not been out of east Belfast in the last number of weeks.
"Of course there are people who are as much against me as they are against others, that is very clear.
"There are people who are against the process of which I am a part.
"They are entitled legitimately to their opinion.
"I am talking to people everyday, people who are involved in the protest.
"But I don't think that the best way to do that is in front of the cameras, grand-standing and making a big play about it."
Meanwhile, Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness said he was hopeful agreement could soon be found but noted that establishing a solution was not easy.
He said: "I welcome the fact that, albeit it hasn't happened collectively, but individually all party leaders have called for an end to the protests.
"We all understand that the violence is very damaging to our society, to the community and to our economic prospects."
Mr McGuinness, who this week met Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable Matt Baggott to discuss the police response to violent protesters again called for robust action.
He added: "These are people who have their own nefarious political agenda which is about destroying the peace process.
"They are made up of a gather-me-up group of people who are British National type tendencies, people who are rabidly sectarian and this element within east Belfast attached to the Ulster Volunteer Force led by two drug pushers who have been at the heart of most of the conflict that has occurred in the last number of weeks."
Protests have taken place in parts of Northern Ireland almost every day since December 3.
Most demonstrations have passed off without incident but traders, particularly in Belfast city centre, said business has been badly affected.
Colin Neill, chief executive of Pubs of Ulster, said some were at breaking point.
"The nature of our business makes us very dependent on predictable cash flows and the truth is we have been very badly affected for a sustained period of time," he said.
"We have now reached crisis point and this week jobs have been lost.
"Looking ahead, we are predicting that 200 to 300 casual and on-call jobs across the city centre will be lost before the end of the week."
The Belfast Chamber of Trade and the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) also met the chief constable this afternoon to discuss the on-going security issues.