Northern Ireland: Stormont condemns 'deplorable' violence after sixth night of unrest

8 April 2021, 10:59 | Updated: 8 April 2021, 18:00

Ewan Quayle

By Ewan Quayle

Political leaders at Stormont have condemned "deplorable" violence in Northern Ireland after the sixth night of unrest which has left several police officers with serious injuries.

The disorder, which began last week, has flared up in various parts of the region, including Belfast, where rioters from both nationalist and unionist communities on Wednesday night began attacking each other, police and journalists.

A joint statement from the NI Executive said: "We are gravely concerned by the scenes we have all witnessed on our streets over the last week, including those at Lanark Way interface last night.

"Attacks on police officers, public services, and communities are deplorable, and they must stop. Destruction, violence and the threat of violence are completely unacceptable and unjustifiable.

READ MORE: Police in Northern Ireland attacked with stones after call to suspicious object

"No matter what concerns may exist in communities, those who would seek to use and abuse our children and young people to carry out these attacks have no place in our society.

"While our political positions are very different on many issues, we are all united in our support for law and order and we collectively state our support for policing and for the police officers who have been putting themselves in harm's way to protect others.

"We and our departments will continue to work together to maximise the support we can give to communities and the psi to prevent further violence and unrest."

Locals gathered at the remains of a burnt out bus on the Shankill Road, Belfast, on Thursday
Locals gathered at the remains of a burnt out bus on the Shankill Road, Belfast, on Thursday. Picture: PA Images
Several police officers were left injured after rioting in Belfast on Wednesday
Several police officers were left injured after rioting in Belfast on Wednesday. Picture: PA Images
Rioters rammed cars into the gates at Belfast's peace wall
Rioters rammed cars into the gates at Belfast's peace wall. Picture: PA Images

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said a bus and two other vehicles were hijacked and a press photographer was attacked on Wednesday night.

"All of which is completely inexcusable and will be investigated thoroughly by the PSNI going forward," he added.

Following the meeting, Stormont MLAs met to discuss the violence after the parliament was recalled by Alliance leader Naomi Long.

Opening the debate, the Justice Minister said her thoughts are with police officers who suffered what she said "could be life-changing injuries".

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"It is a mercy that no one has lost their life as a result of this appalling violence and I would appeal again for everyone with influence in our community to use it to end this," she said.

"The scenes over the last week have been as depressing as they are disgraceful."

Hinting at the suspected use of children as young as 12 by paramilitary organisations, she said: "This is nothing short of child abuse."

It follows calls from unionist politicians, including DUP leader Arlene Foster, for the resignation of PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne over the handling of the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey last year, which is being partially blamed for the clashes.

Mrs Foster said she would not communicate directly with the police chief until his resignation but confirmed on Thursday morning that they had called each other to discuss the escalating situation.

"Those responsible must be subject to the full rigour of the law," she tweeted.

Her comments have attracted criticism from opponents and experts, including Northern Ireland's former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O'Loan.

The crossbench peer also criticised the UK Government for acting on the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland without agreement from Brussels, saying if ministers take the law into their own hands "it does encourage others to do so".

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill also condemned the violence and told MLA's she is saddened that the debate is needed.

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"I think it's incumbent upon us all as Assembly members, as political leaders to meet and to publicly express our deep concern at the recent violence and ongoing street disorder," she said.

She said she had spoken earlier with PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne, who also briefed a special meeting of the Executive on the police response.

In several loyalist areas of the country, many still in the grip of paramilitaries, sporadic rioting has since flared.

Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus and Ballymena have all witnessed scenes of violence that many hoped had been consigned to history.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to "show leadership" and bring all parties together to resolve the issue.

Asked whether the violence was a consequence of Brexit and the Irish Sea trade border, he said: "There are concerns in Northern Ireland about Brexit, there are concerns about the promises that the Prime Minister made which haven't been kept.

"They don't justify the violence, let's be very, very clear about that.

"There is no justification for this violence, particularly the violence against the police service in Northern Ireland.

"What the Prime Minister needs to do now is step up, show leadership, convene all-party talks and talk to the government of Ireland of course as well, and resolve this with pragmatic political solutions."

The PM on Wednesday night said he was "deeply concerned" by the scenes, "especially attacks on PSNI who are protecting the public and businesses, attacks on a bus driver and the assault of a journalist".

"The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality," he tweeted.

For many loyalists, the funeral controversy has hardened a long-standing perception that state institutions, including the police force, afford preferential treatment to republicans.

Rioters threw petrol bombs and fireworks at each other on Wednesday night
Rioters threw petrol bombs and fireworks at each other on Wednesday night. Picture: PA Images
Fireworkers were launched at groups of people on both sides of the Belfast peace lines
Fireworkers were launched at groups of people on both sides of the Belfast peace lines. Picture: PA Images

Mrs Foster said the PSNI leadership had “compromised itself to a point where it needs to change” by allowing the funeral last June to go ahead.

But her lack of communication with the police chief during a time of escalating violence, and weeks after she met with representatives of loyalist paramilitaries to discuss the Brexit fallout, has drawn sharp criticism from political rivals.

Non-unionist parties have accused her and other politicians of stoking up tensions but the DUP leader and other prominent unionist voices insist they are only reflecting genuinely held concerns they say must be addressed - specifically by way of Mr Byrne's resignation and the scrapped of the controversial NI Protocol.

It already follows a flare-up in tensions over claims by loyalists that the Brexit Protocol has undermined their place in the Union.