Leaders ‘not agreed’ over flags crisis (UTV)

The First and deputy First Ministers said they disagree over how to tackle the flags issue, but are working together to find a resolution.

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were speaking after talks with the Secretary of State and Irish Foreign Minister about the effect of protests and riots on the economy.

Questions had been asked of the leaders because they hadn’t stood together in public over the unrest which has followed changes to Belfast City Hall’s flag policy in December.

They gave separate interviews after Thursday’s meeting at Stormont but said they are making “real progress” on how to take things forward.

Mr Robinson said: “If Martin McGuinness is talking and I’m shaking my head and I am talking and Martin McGuinness is shaking his head, that certainly would give a message out there.

There are issues upon which we are agreed, what we have not yet agreed is how we take this process forward and the mechanisms involved

Peter Robinson
“We are making real progress in doing that and as soon as we do that and we have a way forward, then of course we should be out there saying this is what we are agreed on and this is how we should move forward.”

Mr McGuinness said: “Sometime people decide they want to do something in a different way.

“I might disagree with that way, in fact I do disagree with that way, but I have to respect the fact that they have made a political judgement and I have to deal with the hand that is being played.”

Theresa Villiers said she is confident the political parties can find a way to end the violence which local traders say has “decimated” business in city centre since December.

“The message that we would both like to take out here to the wider community and to the wider world is one that the violence is intolerable and these protests have to come off the streets,” explained Ms Villiers.”They have to be replaced by dialogue.

“But I think we should also keep this in proportion and reassure the rest of the world that Northern Ireland is still a great place to do business in and still a great place to visit.

“I am confident that the political parties will find a way forward in Northern Ireland to addressing the kind of concerns that have been addressed in recent weeks.”

The NI Secretary played down the fact that the DUP’s Peter Robinson and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness have not yet stood together to speak about the issue in public, adding: “The First and Deputy First Minister are working incredibly hard on these matters.

“They are working together on these matters. It is a tradition after these quad meetings for the Secretary of State and the Tánaiste to conduct the press conference.”

Eammon Gilmore described the latest talks as productive.

He said: “We reaffirmed, the four of us, the condemnation of the street violence and our support for the PSNI in the challenging work that they have to do.

“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.”

Protests have been held across NI following Belfast City Council’s changes to the flying of the Union flag at City Hall at the end of last year.

They have caused widespread disruption to traffic and some have been followed by violence, during which more than 100 police officers have been injured.

According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), an estimated £15m was lost to the economy over Christmas because shoppers avoided Belfast.

City traders met on Wednesday night to voice their frustrations over how the situation has been handled, with some saying the politicians are “out of touch”.

Talks have also taken place between the Belfast Chamber of Trade, NI Independent Retail Trade Association and PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott on security issues.

Following the meeting on Thursday at City Hall, a joint statement from the business groups said: “This was a very useful meeting with the Chief Constable to discuss the current security and public order issues arising out of the protests.

“Both our groups urged the Chief Constable to encourage his officers to ensure Belfast City Centre is as accessible as possible to support our struggling retail and hospitality sectors in the city.

“Our organisations will be working together to jointly lobby ministers & political leaders for greater support for members who are currently experiencing incredibly difficult trading conditions.”

The council has agreed a rates freeze to help Belfast businesses, while more talks have been scheduled for loyalist and community groups in the east of the city for Thursday as efforts to resolve the ongoing dispute over flags continue.


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