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Northern Ireland's Political Leaders Pledge To Tackle Tensions

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First Minister Peter Robinson, at Stormont Castle, speaks to the media after talks with the Orange Order on the Belfast riots
First Minister Peter Robinson, at Stormont Castle, speaks to the media after talks with the Orange Order on the Belfast riots

Northern Ireland's political leaders have pledged to tackle tensions over controversial parades that sparked rioting for the last three nights in Belfast.

This comes after unionists were criticised for calling for the scrapping of the commission that rules on contentious marches after it placed restrictions on a loyalist band that played provocative music outside a Catholic church.

Loyalist paramilitaries were then blamed for orchestrating riots near the same area following a republican parade this week, with more than 60 police officers injured in the disturbances.

First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness tonight met representatives from the north Belfast area where the riots took place.

The two unionist and republican leaders then held separate press conferences condemning the violence that saw police caught between rival sectarian gangs.

But Mr McGuinness warned that all sides had to respect the rulings of the Parades Commission or risk renewed violence.

"Our position in Sinn Fein is very clear, people need to abide by the rule of law," he said.

Mr McGuinness said the recent marching dispute had seen "terrible displays of bigotry and sectarianism" and he called for mutual respect.

"If people are not prepared to abide by these determinations then what they are effectively doing is sowing the seeds for further conflict within our society.

"And I think they are making a big mistake.

"And they need to reflect that if we are in a position of political leadership, you actually have to lead."

riots

More than 60 police officers were hurt in the recent disturbances

The discussions took place at Stormont Castle, where leaders of the Orange Order subsequently arrived for a private meeting with Mr Robinson.

Mr McGuinness called on the order to end its opposition to talks with republicans or with nationalist residents groups who oppose their parades.

He said loyal orders had successfully taken part in dialogue on parades in Londonderry and called for similar talks in Belfast, where a major loyalist parade is planned for the end of the month.

Mr Robinson said political leaders would foster private discussions ahead of the September 29 parade to avoid any repeat of the violence.

The DUP leader said he wanted to see all sides obeying the rule of law around parades and predicted agreement could be brokered over the forthcoming march.

Mr Robinson said he and all other politicians involved in the meeting condemned the violence without reservation.

He said of the talks: "There was also a very strong view that we needed to put all of our efforts into resolving the issue.

"I have also had contact with the Orange Institution. I was greatly encouraged by the views that were expressed during the course of that meeting."

He said the police had been placed in a very difficult position and he planned to meet the Chief Constable with Mr McGuinness tomorrow.

"If there is goodwill, and again I go back to this issue of mutual respect, I believe we can overcome the difficulties," said the First Minister.

Mr Robinson said he believed dialogue would help break down divisions over parades.

He defended his decision to sign a letter opposing the Parades Commission over issues including the restrictions it imposed at St Patrick's Catholic church on Belfast's Donegall Street.

"The letter was one that actually recognised the fact that the band had apologised and I would have thought that was the appropriate thing to do.

"I look at these things on the basis of how would I feel if these things were to happen in the reverse.

"And if there was any indication of disrespect outside my church I would not be happy about it."

He added: "Again, we come back to the issue of respect, and it is respect for all of our traditions. That is the only way forward."

In a joint statement Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness later said: "Our meeting with elected representatives from North Belfast is an important step in the process of finding a resolution.

"We are very encouraged by the determination of all those who attended today's meeting to work together to agree a way forward. All agreed that there is no place for violence.

"There is a recognition that all the interested parties, not just politicians, have a role to play in the parades issue.

"We will be chairing a further series of meetings in the coming days with the aim of reaching a successful resolution ahead of the march on the 29th September. Beyond that we will be resuming efforts to find an agreed approach to dealing with all contentious parades."