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Irish President Mary McAleese visits embattled east Belfast

Just days after east Belfast erupted in sectarian violence, residents from both sides of the community have welcomed Irish President Mary McAleese to the interface.

Mrs McAleese visited a community centre on the Short Strand and a mission shop on the Lower Newtownards Road.

Over 100 people turned up to the East Belfast Mission's Re:Store shop to get a chance to meet and shake hands with the President and her husband Martin.

Across the peace wall schoolchildren from St Matthew's Primary School lined the street, waving Irish tricolours as the President arrived at the Short Strand Community Centre.

There she met Belfast Lord Mayor and Short Strand resident Niall O Donnghaile, as well as some senior citizens and members of the local community.

Dressed in a fuchsia pink dress and matching jacket and shoes President McAleese and the First Citizen shared a conversation in Irish before they made their way into the main hall.

Mrs McAleese said it was "very special" to be accompanied by her husband as the first Irish Senator to come from the Short Strand and Councillor O Donnghaile, the first Lord Mayor from the area.

Over on the Newtownards Road, unionist politicians and former loyalist leaders were among the crowd which crammed into the East Belfast Mission store.

Mrs McAleese greeted Jackie McDonald like an old friend - as they kissed on the cheek.

Speaking afterwards, the UDA leader said her visit was "all the more significant" given last week's violence. "She's never been afraid to carry on," he said of the President. "The recent violence could have been used to say, 'I've other commitments', but she's the sort of person who says, 'there's been trouble but tomorrow's a new day', and I think that's a lesson she teaches everybody."

After shaking hands with everyone in the room, Mrs McAleese addressed the gathered crowd, telling them the cross-community and charity work they were doing was "phenomenal".

As she urged people to "end the culture of ugliness and begin a culture of good neighbourliness" it emerged that two men are due in court charged in connection with the rioting.

They were among six people arrested as part of a police probe into two nights of violence at the lower Newtownards Road/Short Strand interface last week.

Both men have been charged with riotous or disorderly behaviour and are due to appear at Laganside Magistrate's Court next month.

Two men aged 22 and 28-years-old who were arrested have since been released unconditionally.

Last night a spokesman for the police said the investigation was still "live" and that an extensive police investigation was underway to identify more individuals involved in the disturbances.

Mrs McAleese continued: "It's tempting when we get impatient to turn our backs on the people who don't want to help the process, but we have to love them, they're part of our lives, our neighbours," she said.

"Now is the opportunity to be patient, but patient in the kind of way that doesn't give up, that persists in doing that building. We need to give each other the courage to keep going."

Mrs McAleese was presented with a specially commissioned portrait of herself, made out of 4,000 images of east Belfast.

Belfast Telegraph