TALKS aimed at ending nightly violence in east Belfast were held on Wednesday.
DUP leader Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt attended the private meeting at Rev Mervyn Gibson’s Wesbourne Church on the Newtownards Road.
Also involved in the discussions were local community workers and individuals with paramilitary connections.
Rev Mervn Gibson said: “If we can get the violence off the street then we need to address the underlying problems and engage the young people involved in that violence.”
On Wednesday evening, as the Union flag was lowered on Belfast City Hall, the Orange Order confirmed that Rev Gibson, chaplain to the Grand Lodge of Ireland and its Grand Secretary Drew Nelson, will attend Thursday’s first meeting of the Unionist Forum at Stormont as its representatives.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Order said the flag vote at Belfast City Hall was only the “latest manifestation of a long term campaign by republicans and nationalists to erode all symbols of Britishness” in Northern Ireland.
“These range from the removal of something as innocuous as a plaque presented by the RUC male voice choir to the shameful naming of a children’s play park after a republican terrorist.
“The ludicrous decision by Belfast City Council has acted as the catalyst which has highlighted and galvanised the current widespread discontent within the Unionist community.
“We hope this forum will act as an important vehicle to identify, articulate and address both past and present attacks on the symbols of Britishness permeating throughout many branches and levels of government and administration across the Province.
“We look forward to engaging positively on these and other matters of common concern to Unionists – including attacks on our parading culture; increasing alienation within the Protestant community; the demonisation of the Loyal Orders and all things Unionist; voter turnout; lack of capacity; and deprivation and educational underachievement in Protestant areas.
“By enabling a broad range of Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist opinion, we trust this new forum can ultimately serve to strengthen the cause of the wider pro-Union family.”
Wednesday afternoon’s private talks followed another night of trouble east Belfast, during which petrol bombs, fireworks, bricks and other missiles were thrown at police by loyalist rioters on the Lower Newtownards Road.
Police condemned those who broke into a community centre under construction for children with autistic needs and local advice shop.
Scaffolding police, bricks and masonry were taken from the centre and used as missiles against police.
While it wasn’t on the same scale as previous evening, three people were arrested and one PSNI officer was injured.
A Union flag protest was held on the Woodstock Road on Wednesday evening however police said the road is now re-opened.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers said the violence and rioting was “opening up opportunities” for dissident republicans to try and kill police.
She condemned the disorder and said that while over 60 officers have been hurt on the front line, they are also being left open to dissident murder bids while the trouble continues.
“They are putting police in harm’s way not just with bricks and petrol bombs but by opening up opportunities for attacks by dissident republicans, who relentlessly continue their attempts to murder police officers,” said Ms Villiers at the University of Ulster on Wednesday.
“It is vital that this issue comes off the streets to allow local politicians and community leaders the space to sit round a table and engage in a dialogue.”
The Union flag was hoisted once again at City Hall on Wednesday morning to mark the Duchess of Cambridge’s birthday, one of the 18 occasions during the year when it is allowed to fly under the new policy of designated days.
Prime Minister David Cameron said segregation between communities has contributed to the problem and challenged local politicians to break down the barriers.
In response to a question from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds at Westminster, the PM said: “We need to build a shared community in Northern Ireland where we break down the barriers of segregation that have been in place for many, many years.
“I think that is part of the challenge of the tension we have seen in recent days.”
Alliance MP Naomi Long welcomed Mr Cameron’s comments.
She said: “I welcome the emphasis that the Prime Minister has put on a delivering a genuine shared future in the context of addressing our current difficulties.
“The violence that we have seen in recent weeks further exposes the deep sectarian tensions in our community and highlights, in my view, the lack of both leadership and commitment from many parties to delivering on reconciliation in a meaningful way.”
The DUP also called for a further meeting with Mr Cameron over increasing the participation in politics of people in deprived parts of Northern Ireland.