PSNI arrests six over flag protests
The Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested six men this morning in relation to ongoing public disorder over the Union flag issue.
The arrests of the six men, ranging in age from 18 to 49, were made in Newtownabbey, Greenisland, Carrickfergus and the greater Belfast areas.
There was guarded hope last night of a possible end to the loyalist flag-related violence and disruption after a two-pronged initiative involving politicians and, separately, east Belfast loyalist paramilitaries, church figures and community activists.
As Stormont politicians sought to agree an “action plan” to address issues such as flags, parades and dealing with the past, loyalists in east Belfast started handing out 5,000 leaflets seeking an end to the “wanton destruction” over the British union flag.
What has raised particular hope is that two Ulster Volunteer Force figures who have been allegedly behind much of the violence in east Belfast have endorsed the leaflet which was headed “Violence Not Wanted in East Belfast”.
A group of 40 local church and community organisations, some with links to the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, signed up for the leaflet, which was distributed last night in east Belfast – from where most of the flags violence has emanated.
“This plea is about stopping the pointless violence, fear and wanton destruction being caused by a few,” the leaflet states. “The people of east Belfast plead that those involved in the current rioting to stop now. We would add that those who come into the area to riot and cause disturbance are not welcome."
The big test of whether this influence will work is coming this weekend. The group did not actually call for an end to the protests, with more held last night and more likely tonight and over the rest of the weekend. Most worrying will be the aftermath of the expected loyalist demonstration at Belfast City Hall tomorrow.
Last Saturday there was serious violence when loyalists returning through east Belfast clashed with nationalists at the Short Strand interface.
In tandem with this community /church/ paramilitary initiative, the leaders of the five main political parties – the DUP, Sinn Féin, Ulster Unionist Party, SDLP and Alliance – and their senior colleagues have been meeting to thrash out an action plan to address the current unrest.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness held talks about the protests at Stormont yesterday.
Mr Gilmore said the meeting was positive and productive. “Clearly some of the images which are coming out of Northern Ireland over the past number of weeks are worrying because of their potential to undo so much positive that has happened over the past number of years,” he said.
Ms Villiers said “political dialogue” must replace street protests in Northern Ireland.
The DUP First Minister and Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister held separate press conferences after the meeting, prompting further queries about why they could not present a united front in the face of the street violence.
Mr Robinson said he had been meeting Mr McGuinness regularly to try to chart a way out of the current trouble and agree a “common position”.
They both agreed that the violence must end, he said, but he also felt there was little point holding a joint conference at this stage when they differed over the specific issues causing concern.