Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Martin McGuinness met flag protesters

Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness speaking at the Sinn Fein Conference 'A City of Equals on an Island of Equals' in the Europa Hotel yesterday

MARTIN McGuinness has revealed he secretly met some loyalist protest leaders at the height of the recent flags crisis.

The Deputy First Minister said politicians had a responsibility to relieve police of the burden of dealing with difficult scenarios.

His comments came as Matt Baggott made history by becoming the first PSNI chief to address a Sinn Fein-organised event.

The Chief Constable was among almost 300 delegates who attended the Belfast: A City of Equals on an Island of Equals conference at the Europa Hotel.

Senior Sinn Fein figures sat with delegates including former PUP leader Dawn Purvis and Pastor Gary Mason from the East Belfast Mission at yesterday's event.

Mr McGuinness had to run a gauntlet of abuse from loyalist protesters outside the Europa, the target of IRA bombers many times during the Troubles, but vowed to continue reaching out.

He said he would have liked to shake the protesters' hands and invited them inside.

During his address, Mr McGuinness revealed he had met some loyalist leaders in an attempt to find a solution to the flags protests earlier this year.

"During the flag protest I actually met with some of the leaders of the protests. One of them said to me, politically I feel British but culturally I feel Irish," he said.

"Even the comment I am politically British but culturally Irish was common ground that I would stand on with someone that was seen to be in the leadership of the flag protests.

"I think solutions to all of these big challenges can be found."

Mr McGuinness also defended his decision to shake hands with the Queen during her visit to Belfast last year, and extended his best wishes to Prince Philip who is in hospital.

Later, during a historic five-minute address, Mr Baggott hit back at critics who claimed that he had not been impartial during the flag protests and defended the restraint shown by his officers at the time.

Calling for dialogue around policing, he said there should be further discussion on what constitutes public interest.

"I do think we are dragged relentlessly into areas which have become increasingly toxic and are holding us back from protecting people in the here and now, and that is for me the past and parades," Mr Baggott said. He added: "At the moment we are spending a lot of time, huge resources, because we are required by law to relentlessly go back into the '70s and the '80s and the '90s whether that is through inquests or inquiries."

Mr Baggott said the way the PSNI dealt with public order was restrained compared to other countries. He criticised comments from politicians who questioned his impartiality.

"I'm not sure, in the last six months, all political parties saying the chief constable is not impartial is helpful in terms of rebuilding trust in communities, so we need to be careful about that," he added.

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