Talks aimed at ending flag protests

This Is Lancashire: A burning barricade on the Newtownards road area of Belfast, where police were targeted by rioters A burning barricade on the Newtownards road area of Belfast, where police were targeted by rioters

Politicians and church leaders are holding talks in Northern Ireland in an attempt to stem loyalist street violence over the flying of the Union flag.

After three nights of rioting and attacks on police, leaders are meeting at Rev Mervyn Gibson's Westbourne Presbyterian Church to try and forge a resolution.

But Robin Newton, of the Democratic Unionist Party, said a lack of engagement from protest organisers was making it difficult to see an end to the unrest. "We have to find a way out of this, but how we do it I don't know," he said.

Mr Newton, who is attending the talks with other DUP elected representatives, said there was confusion about exactly what demonstrators wanted, amid calls for an end to devolution. The East Belfast MLA said the British National Party and other far right groups had also been addressing recent rallies. "I think we need a bit of calm and reflection," he said. "We need to get wise heads together."

Michael Copeland, Ulster Unionist Party MLA for the area, said he was pessimistic about a positive outcome to the talks, because there were no apparent leadership to the demonstrations. "There doesn't seem to be any one person, or group of persons, that we can go to," he said.

Naomi Long, Alliance Party MP for East Belfast, who received a death threat over her party's role in the flags controversy, said she has not been invited to the talks. In the latest disturbances, frontline officers reported coming under gunfire yesterday. A 38-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder. In a sustained attack, a mob of around 100 loyalists hurled petrol bombs, fireworks, bricks and other masonry at officers, the PSNI said.

Officers dealing with the disorder in the Newtownards Road, Albertbridge Road, Castlereagh Street and Templemore Avenue areas of the city, used water cannon and fired three plastic bullets. One officer was injured and a number of arrests were made.

A special sitting of Belfast Magistrates Court on Saturday night saw 13 people charged in connection with the unrest. One woman and 11 men were remanded in custody, while another woman was released on bail.

Terry Spence, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said gunfire against police officers was a worrying development.

"What it quite clearly demonstrates is the fact that paramilitaries have hijacked this flags protest issue and they have turned now their guns on the police," he said. "There is no doubt that it has been exploited by the paramilitary grouping known as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and it is very clear that there are members of the UVF, leading members of the UVF, who are exploiting this and are organising and orchestrating this violence against police officers who are out there trying to uphold the law and prevent anarchy on our streets."

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