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Statement to the House on the flying of the Union Flag

Statement by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland following protests relating to the decision taken by Belfast city council on the flying of the Union Flag.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Over the past week protests have taken place relating to the decision taken by Belfast city council on the flying of the Union Flag.

A number of these have witnessed violence, rioting and attacks on police officers.

Yesterday evening a masked gang threw a petrol bomb inside an unmarked police car; a young policewoman miraculously escaped injury.

This is now being treated by police as attempted murder.

As I made clear in the House last Wednesday, there can be absolutely no excuse or justification for this kind of thuggish and lawless behaviour.

It is a disgrace.

We condemn it unreservedly. 

And it should stop immediately.

I welcome the motion passed unanimously yesterday in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which unequivocally condemned “rioting and the campaign of intimidation, harassment and violent attacks on elected representatives”, and re-affirmed “the absolute and unconditional commitment of all its Members to respecting and upholding the rule of law and the pursuit of their political objectives by purely legal and political means”.

Let us be very clear.

Nobody can be in any doubt about the government’s support for the Union and its flag.

But those people engaged in the kind of violence we have seen in the past few days are not defending the Union Flag.

They are dishonouring and shaming the flag of our country.

There is nothing remotely British about what they are doing.

They discredit the cause that they claim to support.

They are also doing untold damage to hard-pressed traders in the run-up to Christmas.

And they undermine those who are working tirelessly to promote Northern Ireland to bring about investment, jobs and prosperity.

In addition to outbreaks of violence … wholly unacceptable threats have been made against elected politicians, including a death threat to the Hon Member for East Belfast.

I know that the whole House will join with in expressing our complete solidarity with the Hon Lady and her colleagues in the Alliance Party and all of the people who have been threatened and intimidated over the last week.

The right of elected representatives to go about their daily business without the threat or fear of intimidation is one of the hallmarks of our democracy.

And the actions of those who carry out such threats are nothing less than an attack on democracy.

I have stayed in close contact with the Chief Constable.

27 police officers have been injured in the line of duty since last week.

I pay tribute to the brave men and women of the PSNI who once again find themselves in the front line tackling violence.

And once again they have shown themselves to be fearless guardians of the rule of law whenever and from wherever it comes under attack.

I received another update from the Chief Constable this morning. 

He informed me that his officers had made nearly 40 arrests since last Monday

Those who are engaged in violence should be in no doubt of the determination of the Chief Constable and the PSNI to apply the full force of the law.

I have also discussed with the Chief Constable the threats to elected politicians.

Again I am in no doubt as to the seriousness which he, like the rest of us, attaches to this.

And I can assure the House that the PSNI is doing all that it can to enable elected politicians to carry out their duties and serve their constituents.

For our part the UK Government will continue to give its fullest backing to the PSNI.

That’s why in the face of the deteriorating security situation the government inherited we secured an exceptional additional £200 million from the Treasury reserve.

And we will continue to do all that we can to assist him in keeping the people of Northern Ireland safe and secure…whether from so-called dissidents or so-called loyalists.

Yet responsibility for resolving the underlying issues that have led to the violence does not rest solely with the police or with UK Government.

The House will be aware that after many years of negotiations and agreements issues like the flying of flags, at Stormont or on council buildings, are devolved.

And it is right that local politicians in Northern Ireland take the lead in trying to reach agreement on the way forward.

Yet in tackling these issues I believe that everybody has a responsibility consider carefully the impact of their words and deeds on wider community relations.

Once again the trouble we have seen in Belfast and elsewhere underlines the urgent necessity of working towards a genuinely shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland.

And we’ve made clear that where the executive takes difficult decisions we will back them.

It would be a mistake to let Northern Ireland politics continue to be defined by questions of identity.

It needs to focus on the wider issues of the economy, jobs and delivery.

Mr Speaker,

The scenes of the past few days have been deplorable.

At the same time we shouldn’t let them detract from the positive progress Northern Ireland has made in recent years.

That was highlighted last Friday by the visit to Belfast of US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

She rightly pointed to the many difficult decisions taken by local politicians and the leadership they have shown in bringing us to where we are today.

Those politicians will not allow the achievements that have been made to be undermined by lawless violence of the kind we have seen over the last week.

And I am sure that this House will remain united in support of the efforts to move the peace process forward towards a genuinely shared future for Northern Ireland.

Published 11 December 2012