Northern Ireland

Irish Republic committee to discuss union flag protests

Union flag protest in Belfast Image copyright PA
Image caption Irish parliamentarians are to discuss the flag protests

A committee of the Irish parliament will discuss the impact of the union flags protests on the Belfast economy.

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement will hear from independent traders spokesman Glyn Roberts.

Committee chairman Joe McHugh TD said they were "extremely concerned over the past two months at violent protests".

He said they would explore how they could help mitigate the "damage done to the image of the city".

"It is estimated that city retailers lost about 20m euro in lost trade, with shops, bars and restaurants in the city centre reporting a downturn of up to 50% since the disruption started in early December," he said.

"As the violence has subsided somewhat in recent days, we are encouraged by business leaders' resolve to proactively engage in rebuilding the image of the city."

He added that, as well as the economic implications of the disruptions, the committee was very concerned at the impact of the developments on community relations.

On Wednesday, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said the public could expect to see a firmer response from its officers at union flag street protests.

A senior officer said they would arrest people who blocked roads, masked their faces or were involved in violence.

Parades commission

The PSNI has set up a dedicated team in a "major incident room" to gather evidence of criminal activity.

They are also being advised by two senior Metropolitian officers, who oversaw handling of the London riots.

The PSNI said the Met officers would not be "directly involved" in policing the flag protests, but are providing the investigative team "with expert advice and peer support".

More than 100 PSNI officers have been injured during loyalist protests since the campaign began on 3 December, following a council vote to limit the number of days the flag is flown at Belfast City Hall.

Most of the street protests have passed without incident but some have resulted in serious rioting, injuries and arrests.

So far 174 arrests have been made since the flag campaign began and more than half of those arrested are under the age of 21.

The police are also in discussions with the Parades Commission to establish whether it should make a legal determination about flag protests at Belfast City Hall on Saturdays.

The commission was set up to adjudicate on contentious marches in Northern Ireland.

Large flag demonstrations have take place in central Belfast on every Saturday since the vote was passed by councillors.

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