A repeat of widespread loyalist protests in the run-up to Christmas would devastate beleaguered Belfast city centre traders, it has been warned.
Several weeks of rioting coincided with loyalist protests over the last Christmas and New Year period, resulting in a policing bill of £20m and hundreds of arrests.
The reluctance of shoppers and revellers to travel into Belfast due to the disorder resulted in a reported loss to business owners of more than £15m with many forced to close permanently.
First Minister Peter Robinson yesterday said he was aware of plans for protests throughout the coming months, as traders prepare for what should be their busiest time of the year.
"I have heard of some proposals to hold protests leading up to the Christmas period," he said. "I hope people will reflect on the damage that would cause to Northern Ireland and to traders in Belfast, potentially leading to a loss of jobs."
Speaking during Question Time at Stormont, the DUP leader also conceded the 'protest camp' at Twaddell over the blocked Twelfth of July march is disrupting people in the neighbourhood and adding to the pressures on the PSNI.
He was responding to the SDLP's Joe Byrne who said, even though the talks led by American diplomat Richard Haass are under way, "the business community in Belfast is very concerned that there might be more protest parades in the city coming up to the festive season".
The DUP leader said he had sympathy for Belfast traders who suffered following the council decision on the flag last December but described it as an issue of "competing rights".
"There is the right of people to carry out their daily business in the centre of Belfast. People carrying out protest activities have to take into account the rights of others and of the wider society," the First Minister added.
Last night, business chiefs said a repeat of the disruption which decimated trade for many in Belfast last Christmas would be disastrous.
Glyn Roberts of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association told the Belfast Telegraph: "We would urge people looking to hold protests to give it a miss this side of Christmas.
"We've got to ensure we don't have a repeat of what happened last Christmas."
Mr Roberts said the local hospitality and retail sector had lost more than £50m since the trouble around the flag controversy began.
Protests over the Union flag dispute have been taking place since December 3 last year.
Weeks of street demonstrations, some of which turned violent, cost businesses in Belfast an estimated £15m in lost earnings last Christmas because they deterred shoppers from visiting the city centre. Loyalists reacted after Belfast City Council voted to end the permanent flying of the Union flag from City Hall in favour of designated days only.