Union flag protests: Suspend demonstrations says Peter Robinson

Mr Baggott said that paramilitaries had been present at some of the protests

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Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson has appealed for loyalists to suspend all Union flag street protests.

He was speaking after a spate of violence over the vote to stop flying it every day at Belfast City Hall.

Police have been attacked in rioting and premises of the centre-ground Alliance Party have also been targeted.

In Ballymena on Thursday night, there was minor trouble when a small group of loyalists attacked police Land Rovers and cars in Linenhall Street.

They ran away when riot police moved in. Police are still in the area but traffic is now moving freely through the town centre.

The PSNI said that some roads had been blocked by loyalist protesters in north and south Belfast.

Mr Robinson said he wanted a "shared future" but added that this would not involve a "diminution of our Britishness".

"People's right to protest is justified and legitimate and should be defended," he said.

Analysis

The plan to remove the Union flag from Belfast City Hall was conceived by nationalists, yet Alliance, a party neither nationalist nor unionist, became the target for loyalist attacks.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Alliance holds the balance of power on Belfast City Council, and could have voted down the original motion to remove the flag on all days.

Instead it came up with a compromise, suggesting that the Union flag should be flown only on designated days.

"However, my advice is that street protests should be suspended by those responsible for organising them in the wider interests of a peaceful society and to ensure their protests are not used by others to launch a campaign of violence."

protest at glengormley Protesters have been blocking a number of roads

The DUP leader was heavily critical of the decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag to about 20 designated days, saying to celebrate the move as a compromise was "perverse".

He called on the council to back a plan to have it flown every day near the cenotaph in the Garden of Remembrance at City Hall, and said his party was seeking to extend the number of days on which the Union flag flies at Stormont.

The PSNI's Chief Constable Matt Baggott criticised the violence surrounding the protests.

Mr Baggott said that paramilitaries had been present at some of the protests and police would examine if there was a "conspiracy".

"Loyalism can never be an excuse or adherence to a flag can't be an excuse to compromise democracy," he said.

"To use mob rule and violence as way of asserting people's will is compromising the rule of law.

"I call on people to take a step back - there is far too much at stake for the future and for the here and now."

Mr Baggott said that since Monday, 19 officers had been injured in trouble associated with protests and seven people have been arrested.

"Clearly we do have paramilitaries involved, some are involved as individuals, some are involved within their communities but we will be looking very carefully indeed to see whether there has been any conspiracy and a degree of orchestration," he added.

A loyalist mob set fire to an Alliance Party office in Carrickfergus in County Antrim on Wednesday night and the home of two councillors in Bangor was attacked.

The damage to the Alliance Constituency Office in Carrickfergus There was rioting in Carrickfergus and the Alliance Party office was attacked

A 20-year-old woman appeared in court on Thursday charged in connection to the violence in Carrickfergus. A 17-year-old female and a 15-year-old boy have both been charged with affray and unlawful assembly following disturbances.

They are to appear at Belfast Youth Court on Friday.

There was also an attempted arson at the Bangor constituency office of Alliance Minister Stephen Farry.

The leader of Northern Ireland's Alliance Party, David Ford, called the attacks an "assault on democracy".

Mr Ford said if people were called onto the streets in a "charged atmosphere violence is almost inevitable".

Mr Ford, who is also the Stormont justice minister, said police are monitoring social media with a view to prosecuting anyone involved in organising violence.

The Northern Ireland Assembly is to discuss the attacks at a special meeting on Monday.

This follows a request from Mr Ford for an immediate recall, which was backed by the SDLP's Pat Ramsey and two Ulster Unionist assembly members, Basil McCrea and John McCallister.

However, Sinn Fein preferred holding any special session on Monday, before other scheduled business is dealt with, arguing that a divisive debate at Stormont might fuel tensions over the weekend.

On Monday, at Belfast City Council, nationalist councillors had wanted the flag at Belfast City Hall taken down altogether, but they voted on a compromise from the Alliance party that it would fly on up to 20 designated days.

The vote was 29 to 21, with unionists accusing Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance of attacking their cultural identity.

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