NI politicians hold marathon special meeting over Union flag protests
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.
Yesterday five politicians - two Sinn Fein representatives and three Alliance - were informed that packages containing bullets had been sent to Stormont addressed to them.
In tonight's 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.
Members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board met Chief Constable Matt Baggott today to discuss the flags crisis.
Afterwards board vice chair Gearoid O hEara said: "The chief constable reported to members on the extent of the policing operation over the last three weeks and was questioned on a range of issues including the threats to political representatives, attacks on property, violence directed at police officers and some of the resourcing challenges faced by the PSNI in responding to this situation.
"Events of the last few weeks have had a major impact for policing resources and have also caused major disruption to the lives and livelihoods of people in our community. Board members support calls for an end to the violence and any further attacks on our police officers."
While the DUP and UUP have established a 'Unionist Forum' as an alternative means for loyalists to convey their disquiet, the street demonstrations show no sign of abating.
Organisers are planning more pickets across the region tomorrow - a move that has dismayed traders who claim disruption has already dealt a heavy blow to their pre-Christmas trade.