Loyalist flag protesters organising a mass rally in Belfast city centre on one of the busiest shopping days ahead of Christmas should think again, the Northern Ireland Secretary has urged.
A group calling itself Loyal Peaceful Protesters has applied to the Parades Commission to hold a parade, envisaging 10,000 participants and supporters, on November 30 to mark one year since Belfast City Council voted to limit the flying of the Union flag on City Hall.
Theresa Villiers urged the organisers to reconsider after she met city centre traders who were negatively impacted by the disruption caused by last winter’s flag protests.
Ms Villiers said engagement with the ongoing talks process being chaired by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass to find resolution to the issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past was a more appropriate means of raising concerns.
“I certainly think they should think again about this,” she said.
“There are other ways that they can make their point about flags.
“There is a process under way to try and find a way forward on flags which recognises the perspectives of everyone across Northern Ireland.
“They have had many opportunities to make their point via protest, there are better ways to achieve what they want to achieve - that is through conversations and through the sort of dialogue that is going ahead under the auspices of Dr Haass.”
Major protests were staged across Belfast for weeks in the wake of the city council decision on December 3 last year, many of which descended into serious unrest.
While the numbers involved have since dwindled, a rump of protesters still stage a weekly picket at the front of City Hall every Saturday.
But loyalists are intending to upscale the demonstrations again as the first anniversary approaches.
The Parades Commission is due to consider whether to apply restrictions on the parade, which is proposed to incorporate 40 bands, on November 19.
Ms Villiers said potential further economic damage in Belfast would have a ripple effect across the region.
“They are very economically damaging,” she said of the protests.
“Not just for the retailers that I have been meeting this morning but for Northern Ireland as a whole.
“Belfast is an important driver of economic prosperity in Northern Ireland - we need a successful Belfast, a successful city centre and that is very difficult to deliver if there is major disruption every Saturday afternoon.
“There is a better way to resolve issues around parades around flags.
“The Executive have set up a process which is going forward. Richard Haass is an excellent chairman. I know he is determined to make progress. That is the way to get issues resolved, not by bringing the city centre to a halt on a regular basis, as sadly it was this time last year, with some very difficult economic consequences.
“Retailers as a whole across the UK are finding it difficult. We may be starting to get on the path to recovery but it is still difficult for retailers like this, they really don’t need another winter of disruption.”