Frantic behind-the-scenes efforts to defuse plans for a mass rally at Belfast City Hall over the Union flag crisis were on-going last night.
Attempts were being made to contact the organisers of the protest which could seriously disrupt city centre shopping tomorrow on the third weekend before Christmas.
Hundreds are being invited via social media to gather at the hall this afternoon and bring three Union flags — “one to wave, one to tie around you and one to tie around a pole or anything in range”.
Fears of further violence and damage to Northern Ireland’s international image were growing ahead of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to the province today.
First Minister Peter Robinson sought to bring calm to an increasingly inflamed atmosphere by calling for all protests, including today’s, to be suspended.
But at the same time, contacts between his party, the DUP, and Ulster Unionist and Progressive Unionist councillors in Belfast on drawing up a common statement appeared to have foundered yesterday.
Unionist councillors who have been vocal in recent days over the flags issue were unwilling to make comment in case they further fuelled growing tensions.
As traders voiced fears over the potential impact of the protest on crucial Saturday trading, Progressive Unionist councillor John Kyle said: “All three unionist parties at City Hall are working to see what we can do to try to calm the situation. There are fears that Belfast city centre could be seriously damaged by disorder on the second last Saturday before the main Christmas week.”
Police, meanwhile, said they will be “closely monitoring” the situation and would respond “in an appropriate and measured way”.
The PSNI also confirmed officers have been speaking with local businesses to advise them of the potential for planned protests.
Glynn Roberts, chief executive of the NI Independent Retail Traders Association, said: “This is a crucial Christmas because many traders need to have a good sales period or they are not going to be there next year.
“The organisers should be asking themselves about the potential impact of this on the city centre and, as the Chief Constable (Matt Baggott) has said, is a city centre or town centre the appropriate place for a protest? The right to protest is fundamental in any democratic society but I would urge the organisers to think about the location of this and if they are going ahead to ensure it is peaceful.”
The protest comes after a week of tension, protest and violence was sparked by Monday night’s meeting of Belfast City Council at which it was decided to reduce the flying of the Union flag at the City Hall to designated days.
Police officers were injured when violence erupted outside the hall. There has also been a spate of attacks against Alliance property and politicians, including the burning out of Stuart Dickson’s constituency office in Carrickfergus on Wednesday night and threats against Alliance councillor Laura McNamee.
A planned Christmas event by the Children’s Heartbeat Trust in support of families of children affected by life-threatening heart conditions which had been due to take place at the City Hall at lunchtime tomorrow has now been cancelled.
The trust’s executive officer Sarah Quinlan said hundreds were due to attend the ‘family party’ but “unfortunately the situation is too volatile to go ahead”.
Belfast City Council officials said they are aware of the planned picket but the Christmas market would continue as normal.
There’s no excuse for this unrest and it must stop, Robinson demands
By Liam Clarke
DUP leader Peter Robinson has called for a halt to street protests over the flags issue, including today’s planned demonstration for central Belfast.
The move is part of a joint initiative by the First and Deputy First Ministers to take control of the situation and defuse the mounting tension in time for Hillary Clinton’s visit today.
The two men recalled the Assembly on Thursday night so that MLAs could discuss an agreed motion in relation to the recent disturbances.
Mr Robinson condemned the disorder of recent days, in which an Alliance office was destroyed and some of its members intimidated in their homes.
He said: “There is no excuse for violence and the riotous behaviour we have witnessed over recent days.
“Those who riot and engage in violent attacks do a disservice to the flag they claim to represent. Such activities must stop immediately and must be condemned without qualification by everyone in the community.”
The First Minister also called for calm and urged people to channel their energies into democratic activities and politics.
“Homes, offices and individuals being attacked far from aiding any cause only damage and detract,” he added.
However, he condemned the decision of Alliance and the nationalist parties to reduce the number of days on which the union flag was flown at Belfast City Hall.
“Those who supported the removal of the Union flag on all but a handful of days from City Hall have started a debate which has undoubtedly damaged relationships in the council and beyond. The decision by nationalists to seek the removal of the Union flag was a divisive and provocative act.”
Citing an equality impact assessment which called for change, Sinn Fein and the SDLP proposed removing the flag altogether but unionists insisted that it continue to fly every day. Alliance produced a compromise motion that it be flown for 20 “designated” days a year as it is in Stormont and Lisburn council.
This was followed by attacks on Alliance by loyalists and a loyalist mob broke into the City Hall precincts following the vote.
Mr Robinson said: “For some councillors to indicate that the removal of the Union flag completely from two council buildings and from City Hall for around 350 days of the year is a compromise which is to be celebrated is perverse.”
Addressing accusations that unionists had stoked tensions, the party leader added: “At no time did our councillors call for a picket or protest.”
DUP sources say that the party had wanted a joint unionist statement calling for no street protests on Monday but had failed to reach agreement with other parties.
“Our councillors called for it to be peaceful,” Mr Robinson said.
He supported a new motion to fly the flag every day on the cenotaph beside City Hall, but that would also require support from non-unionists to be carried.
On Monday, the Assembly will consider an Alliance motion noting “the democratic and legitimate decision of Belfast City Council that the Union flag |be flown above Belfast City Hall on designated days”, condemning the violence which followed and calling for any future protests to be carried out within the law.