Northern Ireland

Loyalist leaders call for end to "wanton destruction" in east Belfast

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Media captionJulian O'Neill reports for BBC Newsline

Loyalist paramilitary leaders in east Belfast have called for an end to violence.

They issued a statement on Thursday afternoon along with church leaders and community representatives.

They appealed for peace following weeks of violence after Belfast City Council voted to restrict the number of days the union flag flies over City Hall.

"The rioting does absolutely nothing to promote any cause, but is damaging this community," the statement said.

"We would add that those who come into the area to riot and cause disturbance are not welcome.

"There have been issues with the PSNI and their tactics, however, these have and continue to be raised and dealt with at the highest level."

The statement said that those who had signed it, had their "individual views about the current protests, but all the signatories support the right to peaceful legal protests".

"This plea is about stopping the pointless violence; fear and wanton destruction being caused by a few.

"We who live, work, or who have a vested interest in east Belfast may have our differences of opinions about many matters, but we are united in our determination to stop this community from suffering further."

Gary Mason from East Belfast Mission, where the meeting was held, said the decision had been a "community effort from a number of people across the board".

"The primary plea today is that we're asking that the violence within east Belfast comes to an end," he said.

"It's not serving this community, it's demoralising this community, it's creating unemployment, so the violence must stop and that's the key message we want to get out."

In relation to the protests, Mr Mason said: "People within a democracy have a right to protest, and at the moment there are no conversations ongoing in relation to that.

"I'm sure there will be other conversations in the future about protests, politics, about democracy and all of those things undoubtedly need to happen."

Earlier on Thursday the first minister and deputy first minister held talks with the secretary of state and the Irish foreign minister on the recent protests and violence over the union flag dispute.

Teresa Villiers said it was time for "political dialogue" to replace street protests in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said Thursday's meeting, which lasted about two hours, had been arranged some time ago.

Discussions focussed not just on the flag protest, but on the need to address long-term issues, such as underlying sectarianism.

Image caption Theresa Villiers said Northern Ireland's leaders could find a resolution to the flag issue

Ms Villiers said the British and Irish governments were there to support politicians in uniting communities.

She said Northern Ireland leaders could find a resolution to the flag issue.

Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore, who is also the deputy prime minister, described the meeting with the secretary of state and First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness as "positive and productive".

He said the worrying images of violence that had been broadcast around the world in recent weeks had the potential to undo progress, so a positive message was required in response.

Mr Gilmore said there had also been discussions on a new round of European peace funding for Northern Ireland.

Ms Villiers visited east Belfast on Wednesday, and said the protests were counterproductive and had to stop.

The secretary of state, who met residents during her visit, described the recent violence as "intolerable".

She said it was vital that the loyalist protestors came off the streets so that a grown-up discussion could be held about how to resolve issues of identity, symbols and flags.

The Labour Party's Shadow Secretary of State Vernon Coaker said that Prime Minister David Cameron should help end the dispute.

"What is happening in Northern Ireland deserves the full attention of the Westminster government at the very highest levels," he said.

"After two nights of rioting in London in August 2011, the prime minister cut short his holiday and flew back to chair an emergency government summit.

"Given that we've had six weeks of serious violence on the streets of Belfast, shouldn't the prime minister take some responsibility and help sort it out?

"Ed Miliband has told Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness directly that he will do anything he can to help make progress."

Loyalist street demonstrations have been taking place since Belfast City Council voted to limit the number of days the union flag is flown at Belfast City Hall.

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

Since the vote was passed on 3 December, 102 police officers have been injured and there have been 118 arrests.

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