Teresa Villiers: Violent protests 'shame' union flag

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The union flag is being "shamed" by people who are using violence to try to protect it, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland has said.

Teresa Villiers made the remarks in an urgent statement to the House of Commons, following eight consecutive nights of trouble across the region.

The violence followed a decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the flag at the city hall.

Over the past week, 29 police officers have been hurt in loyalist protests.

Ms Villiers told MPs: "There can be absolutely no excuse or justification for this thuggish and lawless behaviour. It is despicable, we condemn it unreservedly and it must stop immediately."


She was speaking hours after a policewoman escaped injury as a gang of protesters threw a petrol bomb into the car she was sitting in on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast.

There have also been attacks on the homes and offices of members of the Alliance Party. Its East Belfast MP, Naomi Long, and two members of Sinn Fein have received death threats.

The trouble began on the night of 3 December, just minutes after council members voted to change their policy of flying the union flag on every day of the year at Belfast City Hall.

They backed a compromise motion, proposed by Alliance, to fly the flag only on designated days such as royal birthdays.

As the protests entered their second week, the Labour Party had called on the secretary of state to make an urgent statement, following what it described as the "worrying escalation in violence".


Ms Villiers told the Commons that attacks on politicians and property were "an attack on our democracy".

She said: "Let us be very clear, no-one can be in any doubt of the government's support for the union and its flag, Mr Speaker, but those people engaged in the kind of violence we've seen in the past few days are not defending the union flag.

"There is nothing remotely British about what they are doing," she said.

"They are dishonouring and shaming the flag of our country with their lawless and violent activities. They discredit the cause that they claim to support.

The NI secretary said the rioters were "doing untold damage to hard-pressed traders in the crucial run up to Christmas.

She added that they "undermine those who are working tirelessly day in and day out to promote Northern Ireland to bring about investment, jobs and prosperity".

Questioned on the role of loyalist paramilitaries in recent street protests, Ms Villiers said "there does not appear to be evidence of organised orchestration".

The Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Vernon Coaker, also condemned the violence and said it "cannot go on".

He said he had called on Ms Villiers to make the Commons statement because "Westminster's voice must be heard" on the issue.

The Labour MP said the violence "would not be tolerated in London, Cardiff or Edinburgh" and "shouldn't be tolerated in Belfast".


Referring to the death threat against Naomi Long, Mr Coaker said: "When a member of parliament is threatened and attacked, I view it as a threat and attack on all of us and everything we stand for."

The Alliance MP was cheered in the Commons when she got up to speak.

Ms Long wanted to know when the Prime Minster, David Cameron, would meet Northern Ireland's Justice Minister, David Ford, to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland.

On the question of creating a shared future in Northern Ireland she told MPs that required "strong, courageous and above all generous leadership, willing to give a little of their own position in order to gain a greater prize for the whole community".

The DUP MP, William McCrea, condemned those who had used violence in recent days and he particularly condemned the threats made to Ms Long and her Alliance Party colleagues. The South Antrim MP said he had personal experience of being threatened.

On the issue of flying the union flag, Mr McCrea said it "was not right to demonise those who wish to peacefully protest".

He told MPs the "union flag is the core of unionist identity".

'Dripping away'

The SDLP MP, Margaret Ritchie, said those parties who had agreed to designated flag flying days at Stormont "should not have exaggerated the significance of having the same policy at Belfast City Council".

Ms Ritchie also claimed leaflets issued by the DUP and UUP before the council vote had "contributed considerably to the unrest".

The Labour MP Kate Hoey, who was born in Northern Ireland, claimed unionists felt that a "shared future looks like a dripping away of their British identity".

The North Antrim MP, Ian Paisley, challenged the secretary of state over her comment that she was "not neutral on the union".

He asked her to come to Northern Ireland and "re-iterate Ulster's Britishness is not diminished whatsoever".