Northern Ireland executive to meet after sixth night of unrest

Lisa O'Carroll and Rory Carroll
·6-min read

Watch: Emergency meeting to be held as violence resumes in Belfast

The Northern Ireland executive will meet on Thursday morning to be briefed on the ongoing unrest, after a bus was hijacked and set on fire in Belfast during a sixth consecutive night of violence.

The vehicle was set alight at an intersectional area between nationalist and unionist communities, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said. Stones were thrown at police while a press photographer was assaulted during the course of their work on Wednesday evening on the junction of Lanark Way and Shankill Road in West Belfast.

Tyres and bins were set on fire near the interface gates at Lanark Way, which open in a wall that separates the two communities. PSNI said they had closed the gates and advised people to avoid the area.

Northern Ireland leaders will meet to be briefed on the violence at 10am, an hour before the Stormont assembly is to be recalled to discuss the unrest.

Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, condemned Wednesday’s attack, tweeting: “There is no justification for violence. It is wrong and should stop.”

Police form a line on the Springfield in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Police form a line on the Springfield Road in Belfast. Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP

Foster said the protests "do not represent unionism or loyalism”, adding: “They are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland and only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.

The deputy first minister, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill said the executive would be briefed on the “violence and street disorder which is causing huge distress in local communities at this time”.

“Those involved in violence, criminal damage, manipulation of our young people and attacks on the police must stop,” O’Neill said.

Boris Johnson also condemned the violence. The prime minister tweeted: “I am deeply concerned by the scenes of violence in Northern Ireland, 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.”

Johnson’s Irish counterpart called on leaders in Dublin, Belfast and London to join forces to end violence. The taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said: “I utterly condemn the violent attacks on police, a journalist, and bus driver over recent days in the North. Now is the time for the two governments and leaders on all sides to work together to defuse tensions and restore calm.”

Footage circulating on Twitter appeared to show the bus being petrol bombed while still moving, with about a dozen masked people – including some who seemed to be children – being cheered on as they ran from the scene. The driver was reportedly uninjured.

Cars that people on the loyalist side tried to drive through the Peace Gates in Lanark Way, Belfast during further unrest in Belfast. Picture date: Wednesday April 7, 2021. (Photo by Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images)
Cars that people on the loyalist side tried to drive through the Peace Gates in Lanark Way, Belfast during further unrest in Belfast. Picture date: Wednesday April 7, 2021. (Photo by Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images)

Stormont infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon told the BBC the bus driver was “shaken” but “thankfully he wasn’t hurt and thankfully there were no passengers on this bus”.

A photographer was also attacked, tweeting that he had been “jumped from behind by two masked male … one pulled me to the ground and smashed @beltel [Belfast Telegraph] cameras”.

Foster described the attack as “disgraceful” expressing hope that the “bullies behind this are brought to justice”.

The PSNI chief constable, Simon Byrne, who has faced calls to quit, said the ongoing street disorder must stop.

He tweeted: “I am open to dialogue with anyone who is willing to work with me to resolve the issues facing our community. My message to those engaged in violence tonight is go home before someone is seriously injured, violence is not the answer.”

The loyalist gathering at Lanark Way was organised via social media, with Facebook posts shared on other platforms. Dozens of youths dressed in dark clothing gathered after 5pm, watched by others who appeared to have come for the spectacle. One elderly woman came in a bathrobe.

Some youths set a fire in the middle of the road while others collected rocks and distributed petrol bombs shortly before the attack on the bus.

Youths from the adjacent nationalist Springfield Road area had monitored the loyalist social media posts and responded with their own barrage of rocks and bottles on a loyalist district, prompting more than a dozen police Land Rovers to seal off the interface.

The wreckage of a Translink Metrobus on fire on the Shankill Road in Belfast during further unrest. Picture date: Wednesday April 7, 2021. (Photo by Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images)
The wreckage of a Translink Metrobus on fire on the Shankill Road in Belfast during further unrest. Picture date: Wednesday April 7, 2021. (Photo by Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images)

“It should be nipped in the bud,” said Cailin McCaffery, 25, a postgrad researcher, as black smoke plumed overhead. “The fear is that the disturbances will get bigger. We don’t want to relive what our parents lived.”

Since last Friday there has been nightly violence in parts of Northern Ireland, including in Belfast, Derry and parts of county Antrim, fuelled by loyalist anger over a recent decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin leaders over attendance at a mass funeral.

The Democratic Unionist party has expressed fury over the decision, with Foster, its leader, saying it reflects one rule for Sinn Féin and another for ordinary voters who have lost loved ones during the pandemic and have been unable to attend funerals.

Others have put the blame on people’s anger with Brexit, with Stormont’s justice minister, Naomi Long, saying Boris Johnson’s “dishonesty” over Brexit border checks has inflamed the situation.

The Northern Ireland Policing Board was briefed on the violence and disturbances by Byrne on Wednesday.

In a statement, NIPB’s chair, Doug Garrett, said it was “truly shocking that in a short space of time, 41 officers have sustained injuries” and said it was “undoubtedly concerning that so many young people have been drawn into the attacks on the police and the consequences that criminalisation may have for their lives”.

Garrett called for a “redoubling of efforts to calm tension and for continued dialogue between the community and policer officers at all levels of the PSNI”.

In an interview with the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast, the EU ambassador said he understood the “sensitivities” and the “delicate and volatile situation in Northern Ireland”, which he visited last year.

He said the EU was “fully committed in a constructive way to find solutions for those problems” but it had to be “within the limits of the protocol that we have agreed not long ago”.