Union flag dispute: McGuinness wants more from political leaders

Martina Purdy reports for BBC Newsline

Northern Ireland's deputy first minister has said more is needed from political leaders to end violent protests around the union flag issue.

Martin McGuinness was speaking on a visit to the Short Strand area of east Belfast.

He said political leaders needed to stand "shoulder to shoulder".

Mr McGuiness also said police and the courts needed to deal with "lawbreakers". A total of 101 police officers have been injured in riots.

"This is an occasion where we do need to be seen to be standing together - not just Peter Robinson and myself - but all the political leaders in the assembly need to be speaking with one voice and making it absolutely clear that we are not going to bow the knee, we are not going to bow the knee to anti-democratic forces, whether they be so-called loyalists or so-called republicans," Mr McGuinness added.

Mr McGuinness was asked about comments by his Sinn Fein colleague Alex Maskey who said he would defend his home if it was "coming under attack".

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

Mr McGuinness said: "Let me put it like this, if, God forbid, a police officer was killed tonight by so-called violent republicans, I would unreservedly condemn it and I would call on anybody within the community with any scrap of information to give that information to the police.

"Some people who challenge Alex Maskey have a brass neck.

"I haven't heard one unionist politician over the course of the last five weeks say what I have just said.

"I haven't heard them calling (for) people to be arrested and I haven't heard them call on people with information about those involved in these violent riots to bring that information to the police."

Divisions

Mr McGuinness also also said that a statement issued by the office of Northern Ireland first minister and deputy first minister after a meeting of NI political leaders at Stormont Castle last month was not as strong as he would have liked.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has called on the Irish Deputy Prime Minister (Tanaiste) Eamon Gilmore to visit east Belfast when he is in Northern Ireland on Thursday for political talks.

Speaking in the Irish parliament, Mr Adams, who represents Louth, said he would like Mr Gilmore to meet with residents in the Short Strand and "the adjacent loyalist areas".

Northern Ireland's Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said that political leaders must make bold moves to address sectarian division and bring the violence to an end.

She met community and church figures in east Belfast on Wednesday.

Ms Villiers said it was important for all politicians to be forthright in condemning violence and calling for real progress on building a shared society.

"I am encouraging them to continue to work together and send out a signal strongly that Northern Ireland is open for business," she said.

"They need to make progress on unfinished business for some in Northern Ireland.

"There remains deep-seated divisions on sectarian lines. It is hugely important we have bold moves to try and address that."

On Monday evening, petrol bombs were thrown by rioters towards St Matthew's Catholic Church in Short Strand.

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.

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 launch retaliatory attacks on Protestant homes.

On Saturday, there was rioting at the interface as a flag protest made its way 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.

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.

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

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