New flag row 'big threat' to trade
Any resurgence of the Union flag protests would have disastrous consequences for Christmas trade in Belfast, the Justice Minister has warned.
David Ford said business owners feared for their future if sectarian tensions which erupted into violence last year re-emerged during this festive season.
"If there are further problems in the run up to Christmas this year they will be devastating for many businesses in Belfast city centre and indeed many services," he said.
Mr Ford was speaking during Question Time at the Stormont Assembly.
He told the chamber politicians had a collective responsibility to dissuade people from participating in illegal street protests.
Millions of pounds worth of trade was lost last December when thousands of loyalists took to the streets over a controversial decision to limit the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall.
Rioters broke into the City Hall and clashed with police after councillors voted to restrict dates that the flag is flown from every day to designated dates such as royal birthdays.
Large-scale weekly protests continued well into January -- some of which descended into public disorder.
A small contingent of loyalists continue to show their opposition every Saturday.
Last week First Minister Peter Robinson appealed for anyone thinking about ramping up the frequency and scale of flag protests to consider the impact on jobs.
SDLP MLA for South Belfast, Dr Alistair McDonnell said: "Such protests are a big threat, as they were last year, to trade in Belfast city centre and we all have a collective responsibility to do all that we can to reduce that threat to the retail trade."
Tensions have also been high among loyalists over parading difficulties particularly in north Belfast where Orangemen have set up a protest camp over the banning of a contentious march past a flashpoint area with a history of violence.
Mr Ford said community leaders should strive to find a peaceful resolution to the situation.
He added: "We all have a responsibility to encourage people to obey the law, to desist from confrontational activity to ensure that we do not continue with the £60,000-a-night expenditure on policing Twaddel Avenue, Ardoyne which is unnecessary.
"I do hope we will see a reduction in tension both around the city centre and around Woodvale and Ardoyne."