Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore met Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to discuss the Union flag protests.

More than 100 police officers have been injured by petrol bombs and other missiles since a 3 December vote by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union flag over City Hall.

Mr Gilmore described today's meeting as positive and productive.

He said the four had reaffirmed "the condemnation of the street violence and our support for the PSNI in the challenging work that they have to do".

He added: "Clearly some of the images which are coming out of Northern Ireland over the past number of weeks are worrying because of their potential to undo so much positive that has happened over the past number of years."

Ms Villiers, who visited east Belfast on Monday, reiterated appeals for the road blocks and pickets to end.

She said: "The violence is intolerable and these protests have to come off the streets.

"They have to be replaced by dialogue.

"But I think we should also keep this in proportion and reassure the rest of the world that Northern Ireland is still a great place to do business in and still a great place to visit.

"I am confident that the political parties will find a way forward in Northern Ireland to addressing the kind of concerns that have been addressed in recent weeks."

She played down the fact that Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness had not yet appeared together in public to speak about the flag issue.

Mr Robinson said: "Both the Deputy First Minister and I do not have a joint position on it.

"I am not in the business of hypocritically coming forward and trying to put a face on issues.

"We are agreed that violence should come to an end. We are agreed that the only way forward is by exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

"But it is important that we have a political process that deals with the issues that are causing concern.

"Real progress is being made on that. I am reasonably confident we will be able to have a joint way forward."

Loyalist leaders call for end to violence

Meanwhile, Loyalist leaders in east Belfast have called for an end to "pointless" violence.

Church leaders and community workers united to appeal for peace following weeks of rioting.

"This plea is about stopping the pointless violence, fear and wanton destruction being caused by a few," they said.

Westbourne Presbyterian Church minister Mervyn Gibson, Methodist Church leader on the Lower Newtownards Road Gary Mason and loyalist community worker Jim Wilson endorsed the peace statement at the east Belfast Mission.

Leaflets are now being distributed, calling for an end to the trouble.

A total of 41 organisations and churches backed the initiative.

They said they support the right to peaceful and legal protests.

"The people of east Belfast plead that those involved in the current rioting stop now. We would add that those who come into the area to riot and cause disturbance are not welcome," they said.

"The rioting does absolutely nothing to promote any cause but rather is damaging this community and causing further suffering.

"We who live, work or have a vested interest in East Belfast may have our differences of opinion about many matters but we are united in our determination to stop this community from suffering further."

Mr Mason said it was important a message went out from the community that the violence had to end.

"Everybody is coming together collectively and saying this must stop. We hope it is a turning point," he said.

Mr Gibson said ties had been developed between the two communities during past periods of strife.

"We have been here before. I believe there were relations built over the years which hopefully will see us through over the coming months and years," he added.