Union flag protests: Nationalist to begin court challenge

Julian O'Neill reports for BBC Newsline

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A nationalist resident is to challenge the legality of loyalist flag protests in east Belfast.

There have been violent exchanges between loyalist protestors and nationalist residents near Short Strand following several of the demonstrations.

Nationalists argue the weekly Saturday protest is an illegal parade.

Protests have been taking place since Belfast City Council voted to change its union flag policy on 3 December.

One regular aspect is a protest at the council every Saturday when protesters come from east Belfast, demonstrate outside the city hall and then return on foot in a group.

Meanwhile, police have said senior officers had a frank and constructive dialogue with a group involved in organised union flag protests.

The meeting with the Ulster People's Forum took place on Tuesday.

The group has now called on people involved in protests to stop blocking roads.

The majority of the street demonstrations have passed without incident, but some have resulted in serious rioting and injuries to more than 100 police officers.

Main roads have also been blocked on many occasions.

A police spokesperson said: "Police were explicit that all protests need to be lawful and peaceful.

"Discussion also took place in relation to the human rights framework that underpins policing, breaches of the law and the associated criminal justice strategy that is being implemented.

"Police welcome the announcement from the Ulster People's Forum which encourages legal, peaceful protest. Senior police officers have agreed to meet with the Ulster People's Forum in the future."

In its statement, the Ulster People's Forum said: "The Ulster People's Forum (UPF) have a consensus that those who took part as representatives of their various areas on Saturday feel that the peaceful protests should move to a new phase of white line protests and also localised protests outside council offices to coincide with monthly meetings in each respective area," a statement said.

"The UPF feel this move to white line protests is a positive step which has been born out of calls for leadership from the grassroots protestors and we feel that we have the beginning of a process that will provide a strategy for moving forward."

'Flag dishonoured'

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has said claims that Northern Ireland's Britishness is being eroded are "simply untrue".

She said this was illustrated by Belfast City Hall itself, a building steeped in British cultural tradition and symbolism.

She made the comments in an address to young Conservative members in Belfast.

Ms Villiers told members at Queen's University on Wednesday evening that Northern Ireland's place in the UK was "probably stronger now than at any point in history".

She said those who had engaged in violence had dishonoured the flag, damaged the economy and risked weakening support for the union.

"In other words, these people are undermining the very causes they claim to believe in," she said.

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