Official 'pulled' from flag meeting
Senior civil servants have been blocked from briefing a Stormont scrutiny committee about the impact of the flags dispute on the local economy, it has been claimed.
Bill Montgomery, head of international investment with Invest Northern Ireland was due to address the Assembly's enterprise committee but was withdrawn at the last minute because the Enterprise Minister wanted to deal with it herself.
Committee chairman Patsy McGlone said the move suggested there was still some nervousness around the Union flag protests.
The SDLP MLA said: "We had wanted to give assurances to the business community about what was happening regarding foreign direct investment projects, overseas projects and what feedback was coming back from overseas on the flags issue. We wanted to hear what Invest NI was doing to give confidence to the business sector but the official was pulled from the agenda by the minister who said that she wanted to handle the matter herself."
Plans to hold a special session between the committee and Arlene Foster next week have also been put on hold because the Minister is unavailable.
During the meeting Mr McGlone said: "I hope it will happen long before Easter. If not we will have the officials back."
Loyalists have taken to the streets in areas across Northern Ireland almost every day since December 3 to demonstrate opposition to restrictions on flying the Union flag over Belfast City Hall.
Violence which erupted at some protests in areas like east Belfast, Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey has left more than 100 police officers injured and resulted in over 100 arrests.
Earlier this month Northern Ireland's most senior police officer, Matt Baggott revealed that the cost of policing the pickets had reached £15.6 million - more than twice what was spent during last year's marching season.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has also warned that negative images of the riots have damaged the economy. A number of businesses in Belfast city centre and in east Belfast said they had been forced to close because of lost trade as a result of the regular Saturday pickets.