Northern Ireland

Union flag dispute: Alex Maskey stands by 'defend' comment

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Media captionPetrol bombs, stones and bottles were also thrown at homes and buildings close to a church at a sectarian interface

The chairman of the assembly's justice committee, Paul Givan, has said comments made by Alex Maskey about violence in the Short Strand were not within the members' code of conduct.

Following recent loyalist attacks on Catholic homes in the area, Mr Maskey said he would defend his home if it was "coming under attack".

He declined a request by the DUP to withdraw the remarks.

Mr Maskey said any homeowner coming under attack would act the same way.

In the assembly on Tuesday, Mr Givan expressed concern that Mr Maskey was not acting within the MLAs' code of conduct with regard to upholding the rule of law and promoting good community relations.

The Speaker told Mr Givan that it was a matter for the standards and privileges committee.

Residents living in the Catholic Short Strand area and in Protestant areas off the lower Newtownards Road and Albertbridge Road say their houses have been attacked during the recent violence linked to a decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the number of days the union flag is flown at city hall.

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Mr Maskey made his comments following weekend attacks on the homes of Catholics in Short Strand.

"What I was saying very clearly and what I would make no apology about it was that if my home was coming under attack I would defend my home," he said.

"What has been happening is absolutely shameful.

"I do not want to see one single attack on any home, on any police officer or on any resident whatsoever from any community."

Mr Maskey told MLAs that no-one in the Short Strand should stone another Protestant home, adding: "I'm making it very, very clear - I want not one stone thrown. But you cannot fault a family who has no other option other than to defend their home."

He said the DUP had not complained when Edwin Poots was shooting when someone invaded his home. But Mr Poots cautioned against Mr Maskey's use of words.

The DUP's Peter Weir has referred Mr Maskey's comments to the assembly's Standards and Privileges Committee.

On Monday evening, petrol bombs were thrown by rioters towards a Catholic Church in Short Strand.

Image caption The PSNI said they have maintained a large police presence at the Short Strand interface

William Ward, a church worker at St Matthew's, said loyalists attacked homes beside the church with stones, bottles and petrol bombs.

The church hall was hosting a social event for children with special needs and their carers at the time.

Mr Ward said it was a "very frightening" experience for the children as they were helped to safety.

The church stands where the Catholic Short Strand area meets the Protestant lower Newtownards Road.

Police said they came under attack as they responded to reports of petrol bombs being thrown from Pitt Park towards St Matthew's Church.

Jim Wilson, a Protestant community worker in the area, told the BBC that he believed loyalist youths had initiated attacks on Catholic homes.

He said this had led nationalists to which led to launch retaliatory attacks on Protestant homes.

On Saturday there was rioting at the interface as a flag protest made its want back into east Belfast from the city hall.

Twenty-nine police officers were injured in rioting at the Short Strand interface after a "breakaway crowd" of loyalist protesters marched past the nationalist area on their return.

'Trauma'

Earlier on Monday, Chief Constable Matt Baggott apologised to residents living in the Catholic Short Strand area.

Mr Baggott said: "Residents should not have been put through that. I'm sorry they were put through that trauma."

Loyalist street demonstrations have been taking place for almost six weeks, since Belfast City Council voted to change its longstanding union flag policy on 3 December.

The majority of the street demonstrations have passed without incident, but some have resulted in serious rioting in which 101 police officers have been injured.

To date 112 people have been arrested, of whom 85 have been charged.

On Saturday there was rioting as a flag protest made its want back into east Belfast from the city hall.

Image caption Short Strand is a nationalist enclave in loyalist east Belfast

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