Robinson: Rioters are 'enemies of democracy'

Rioters are the enemies of democracy, the North’s First Minister said today.

Peter Robinson also claimed the Union flag dispute was being exploited by elements seeking to destroy the peace process.

The DUP leader said: “This issue will never be solved on the streets but only through democratic means.

"You do not respect a Union flag if you are using it as a weapon to charge against someone. You are not showing respect for the Union flag if you need to wear a mask when carrying it.

“For many the issue of the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Council is now a cynical cover for the real political agenda which is to destroy the political process.”

The debate at Stormont comes after another weekend of disturbances in different parts of the North.

Civil unrest has blighted sections of the country for the past six weeks since Belfast City Council voted to restrict the number of days it flies the Union flag over the City Hall.

On Saturday, 29 police officers were injured when trouble erupted between loyalists and nationalists at an east Belfast interface.

There was also violence in areas of Co Antrim on Friday night.

Mr Robinson urged those engaged in the violence to desist immediately.

He said: “It is the ballot box that will decide Northern Ireland’s political direction. Those who are engaged in violence on the streets are not friends of Unionism, they are the enemies of democracy.

“We rightly condemn the violence that has taken place but, we must also set out a political way forward.

“Last week the leader of the Ulster Unionist party and myself convened a meeting of the Unionist Forum to draw together stands of Unionist thinking, both those who were elected to this house and those who were not represented.

“I believe this offers a vehicle for those who seriously want to discuss and address issues of concern.”

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin said that he believed a solution to the current impasse could be found.

Mr McGuinness said: “I think that the solution can be found in the example that was shown by all the political parties in the aftermath of the murder of two soldiers at Massereene; the murder of Stephen Carroll and the murder of Ronan Kerr.

“What works for us is the sight of all the political parties standing together against those who believe that violence has a way forward.”

However, Mr McGuinness claimed the disorder associated with the Union flag dispute was challenging the political institutions.

He said: “A challenge from people who do not have a mandate and who represent nobody but themselves.

“I do not believe that they speak for the vast majority of unionists within our society. These are people who are associated with the British National Party type politics.

“These are people who are clearly to some degree sectarian bigots.

“It is also quite clear that the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in east Belfast have played their part in the disturbances over the course of the last couple of weeks to the point where two of its leadership who are well known drug pushers in east Belfast have been the main instigators.

“Their organisation was involved in the attempted murder of a young police officer sitting in her car outside the offices of Naomi Long. This needs to end. Political leadership needs to be given.

“We all need to stand together and I absolutely believe that the PSNI need to do their job.”

The bill for policing the dispute has reached £7m (€8.5m). To date 101 police officers have been injured and over 100 people have been arrested.

Justice Minister David Ford, leader of the cross-community Alliance Party which has borne the brunt of much of the violence, claimed the Union flag protest had renewed sectarianism.

Mr Ford said: “We have seen 100 police officers injured and many others injured or put in fear.

“We have seen the damage to inward investment, we have seen young people being given a criminal record which will damage their prospects for life.

“We have seen in fact the re-sectarianisation of Northern Ireland.

“I believe it is time we saw a united approach.

“We need people to wind down the language and to not build up and hype up the language which got people on to the streets in protest.

“There has to be support for the police and not the constant criticism from people who do not like operational decisions one way or the other.”

Mr Ford also claimed that the line between peaceful protest and illegal pickets could not be blurred.

At times the debate became quite heated.

Finance Minister Sammy Wilson from the DUP said people should realise that violence does not pay.

He said: “Those who poked the fires, take responsibility for what you did. But, to those who keep those fires burning let me say, violence does not pay.

“Find a way of expressing your frustration.”

Most Read in Ireland