Theresa Villiers: Union flag protest violence 'damaging NI image'

Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers said the flag protests were "counter-productive"

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Violence during flag protests is damaging the image of Northern Ireland internationally, the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, has said.

Ms Villiers made the remarks the day after 10 police officers were injured during a riot in east Belfast.

The trouble flared during a loyalist protest against a council decision to limit the number of days the union flag is flown at Belfast City Hall.

Further protests are taking place across the city on Friday evening.

Translink said some Belfast metro bus services have been withdrawn.

Ms Villiers said the violence that had resulted from some of the demonstrations in recent weeks was "completely unacceptable".

"The incredibly damaging thing is the image it projects of Northern Ireland around the world, she told BBC Radio Ulster's Evening Extra programme.

Start Quote

Political leadership in Northern Ireland has grappled with more difficult than this one”

End Quote Theresa Villiers NI Secretary of State

"Northern Ireland is in a global race for investment and jobs and we need to be projecting the reality of a forward-looking, modern Northern Ireland, not one which is tied up in the kind of conflict which is associated with its past rather than its present."

'Concern'

Street protests have been taking place, almost on daily basis, since councillors voted to change their long-standing flag policy on 3 December.

The secretary of state said retailers representatives had expressed "a huge amount of concern" to her about the impact the violence had on pre-Christmas trade.

"Thankfully no investor has come to me directly to say that this is affecting their decisions - and I certainly hope it won't - but there must be a risk that it does, and that's one of many reasons why these flag protests are damaging and they're actually counter-productive.

"They're undermining the cause they are seeking to promote," Ms Villiers said.

She called on all political parties in Northern Ireland to engage in dialogue to resolve disputes over flag and emblems,

Police at flag protest Ten police officers were hurt during rioting over the union flag in east Belfast
'Sectarian division'

"Political leadership in Northern Ireland has grappled with more difficult than this one," she added.

"It does demonstrate that it is crucial there is a push to address division in society, to address sectarian division and build a genuinely shared future, because if we do that, then surely it's possible to make these kind of decisions in a way which is far less fraught with tensions than we've seen in recent weeks," Ms Villiers said.

The secretary of state confirmed that she has not spoken directly to the leaders of the two main unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, since they announced they were setting up a unionist forum to deal with cultural issues such as flag on 18 December.

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