THE only way to end violence in Northern Ireland is through the political process, the First Minister has said.
Peter Robinson condemned those responsible for injuring dozens of police officers and costing the local economy millions but said protestors had become alienated.
“There are political issues and people that feel disengaged – and people that feel if we are trying to build a shared future, they are not getting their share,” he said.
The chief constable meanwhile praised his “courageous” colleagues after sectarian rioting left 29 members of the force injured on Saturday.
Matt Baggott said the vast majority of people were grateful for their efforts as fireworks, bricks and other missiles rained down on them.
Violence broke out in east Belfast between republicans and loyalists returning from a protest in the city centre over a council decision to restrict the flying of the Union Flag at City Hall to 18 designated days.
Police used water cannon and fired six baton rounds as they forced the two sides apart.
DUP leader Mr Robinson, who represents East Belfast where the violence has been fiercest, yesterday told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that those throwing petrol bombs did not support his party.
“While we have been able to tackle the issue of getting political structures up we needed to win the support of the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“We had to show them that devolution worked. It is no accident that the violence is occurring predominantly in those areas that are considered to be suffering from deprivation.”
And Mr Robinson added: “The only way forward is through the political process that has been endorsed overwhelmingly by the people in Northern Ireland. It won’t change anything to be involved in violence.”
He said the decision supported by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party to restrict the flying of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall to designated days like Royal birthdays was a big mistake.
He said: “It was a bad decision but the only way of addressing the bad decision is through the democratic process.”
He said unionists were providing leadership – he joined Ulster Unionist head Mike Nesbitt in establishing a Unionist Forum to discuss issues – and reiterated the flag was not going to go up again “because someone threw a petrol bomb at a policeman”.
He said a meeting between himself, his Stormont deputy Martin McGuinness, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Eamonn Gilmore this week would address all outstanding issues.
“We are determined that we will build the kind of society where everybody can have a peaceful and stable existence,” he said.
Mr Robinson added: “We took some difficult decisions, some might say historic decisions, to build a shared society in Northern Ireland.
“I think it is important to tell the wider community in Northern Ireland and our friends in the rest of the United Kingdom that we are not giving up on that.”
Irish Tánaiste Mr Gilmore has also condemned the unrest in Northern Ireland. He said the violence was being orchestrated.
“Those behind it are known criminals, intent on creating chaos,” he said. “This has nothing to do with real issues around flags and identity in a shared society which are the subject of intensive political discussions at present.”
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he welcomed the news that Mr Gilmore will be meeting with Ms Villiers and the First and Deputy First Ministers.
Mr Martin said: “While the flags violence has dominated the headlines, in my view it is a symptom of a much wider malaise in Northern Ireland rather than the core problem.
“The problem in the north is a wider failure of politics. The dominant parties in the northern Executive have failed to demonstrate to northern society that democratic politics works.”
Green Party leader Steven Agnew has appealed for calm.
The North Down MLA said: “The Green Party in Northern Ireland respects people’s right to peaceful protest. However, we utterly condemn the violence which has blighted Belfast for the past number of nights.
“While the removal of the Union Flag at the City Hall may have been the spark which ignited the powder-keg of loyalist working class frustrations, it is actually a symptom of more profound underlying problems such as high unemployment, educational under-achievement and poverty of opportunity. These issues cannot be resolved overnight and we do need short-term actions to end the violence and disruption.”
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams called for an “all-party, cross-community response to the flags protests and the violence which has accompanied them”.