Northern Ireland

Union flag protests: Peter Robinson says politicians not 'giving up'

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Media captionNorthern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson says the political process is "the only way forward"

The Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has said the political process is the only way forward following another night of violence in Belfast.

On Saturday, 29 police officers were injured in rioting after a loyalist protest over the union flag.

A peace demonstration attracted 1,000 people on Sunday but protesters and police were back on the streets later.

Mr Robinson said politicians had not given up on a "shared society".

"We took some difficult decisions, some might say historic decisions to build a shared society in Northern Ireland," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.

"I think it is important to tell the wider community in Northern Ireland and our friends in the rest of the United Kingdom that we are not giving up on that.

"We are very much of the view that we are determined that we build the kind of society where everybody can have a peaceful and stable existence."

Mr Robinson and Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness are due to meet with the British and Irish governments this week.

He said they would make "very clear" to the governments the condemnation that existed in the wider Northern Ireland community for the violence.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), in east Belfast, has said violent opposition to the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall must stop.

Speaking in an interview for a BBC Radio Ulster documentary, Inside The Flag Protests, a senior figure in the organisation, Jimmy Birch, said loyalists were playing into the hands of Sinn Fein.

"Every time they call a tune, we take to the streets," he added.

"We are wrecking our own areas, we fight with the police, we are burning our own cars and we stop our own people going to work and disrupt our own people's way of life.

"It is wrong, we need to step back and we need to stop being predictable."

On Sunday evening, more than 200 loyalists staged a protest, blocking Albertbridge Road and Castlereagh Street. A line of riot police kept them apart from a crowd which had gathered in the nationalist Short Strand estate.

Some missiles were thrown but there was no serious trouble.

At least 1,000 people gathered outside Belfast City Hall at lunchtime on Sunday to protest against the violence.

There were no speeches, but for five minutes they clapped, cheered, whistled, and banged drums in what they called an "anti-silence".

People said they were representing "the silent majority" who were opposed to violence and trouble.

The latest rioting began at about 14:30 GMT on Saturday, when loyalists and nationalists clashed at a sectarian interface in the east of the city.

Officers fired six baton rounds and used water cannon during the 40th day of street protests.

Demonstrators were passing the nationalist Short Strand area - after a 1,000-strong protest outside Belfast City Hall against the council's decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag - when the violence began.

The police said the "vast majority" of demonstrators broke away from an agreed return route on their way back from the protest.

Bricks, stones and missiles were thrown at police and four officers were taken to hospital with injuries - two were later discharged.

A car was later set on fire at the junction of Castlereagh Street and Templemore Avenue.

The violence subsided in the early evening but after 21:00 GMT it erupted as loyalists attacked police again at Castlereagh Street. Police used water cannon on rioters to push them away from the interface with the Short Strand.

A 32-year-old woman is to appear in court in Belfast on Monday in connection with the rioting. She has been charged with disorderly behaviour and obstructing police.

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Media captionThe BBC's Chris Page: "This dispute is proving very difficult to resolve"

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott said officers had used "exceptional courage" to bring the situation under control.

Mr Baggott said: "This was a difficult operation dealing with a large number of people determined to cause disorder and violence.

"My colleagues brought the situation under control with exceptional courage and professionalism. I know the vast majority of people will be grateful for their efforts.

"Police will continue to engage with all those committed to finding a solution to these issues."

Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Alliance Party MP for east Belfast, Naomi Long, said her party had no regrets over the decision to vote as they did over the flags issue in Belfast City Council.

She said NI had to move from being a divided society to a shared one.

"The damage we are doing to Northern Ireland's international reputation is immense," she said.

"The damage which is being done to individual people's lives and livelihoods is long term. We need to move forward. Unionists talking among themselves is not where a shared solution lies."

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.

Nationalists at Belfast City Council had wanted the union flag taken down altogether, but in the end voted on a compromise from the Alliance Party that it would fly on designated days.

The majority of the street demonstrations have passed without incident, but some have resulted in serious rioting.

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