The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, has flown to Belfast for emergency talks to calm tensions as police revealed that around 600 people were involved in disturbances on Wednesday, in what they described as a scale of violence not seen for decades.
With parts of Belfast scarred and amid a growing political crisis, the Northern Ireland assembly united in its condemnation of a seventh night of rioting – including the petrol-bombing of a bus – and agreed a motion calling for an end to the violence and support for the rule of law.
Lewis was due to hold virtual meetings with leaders of all five parties in the Northern Ireland executive including the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), Sinn Féin and the Alliance party.
Northern Ireland was plunged into crisis after violence escalated at the intersection between loyalist and nationalist communities in the Shankill and Springfield areas, with a petrol bomb attack on a bus driver who was steering clear of protests and missiles hurled over a “peace wall”.
Police said rioters had thrown petrol bombs, bottles, masonry and fireworks, and a Belfast Telegraph photographer was attacked. Police fired six plastic bullets known as attenuating energy projectiles, or AEPs, on Wednesday night. Eight officers were injured in the unrest and two men aged 28 and 18 were arrested on suspicion of riotous behaviour.
Some signs of tensions easing emerged on Thursday as the Ulster Political Research Group, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association, called for an end to the violence, saying “street disturbances will not solve our issues”. The Loyalist Communities Council, which represents loyalist paramilitary groups, reportedly met on Thursday afternoon but failed to reach agreement on a statement condemning the violence.
Sources said a meeting of party leaders including the DUP, Sinn Féin, Alliance and the SDLP may take place on Friday morning.
Lewis said: “I will be meeting with community, faith and political leaders. Following engagement earlier today, I welcome the statement from the executive and join them in appealing for calm. I will do all I can to continue to facilitate further constructive discussions on the way forward over the coming days. I remain in close contact with the prime minister to keep him updated.”
The meetings follow an emergency session of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive to debate the ongoing violence.
Simon Byrne, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), briefed party leaders on the security situation on Thursday before the debate. Arlene Foster, the first minister and DUP leader, spoke with Byrne, marking a sharp turnaround from her refusal to meet him earlier this week despite escalating violence.
The DUP has demanded the chief constable’s resignation over policing of republican funerals, but Foster did not repeat that demand in a tweet after the meeting. She condemned the violence as unjustified and unjustifiable. “Those responsible must be subject to the full rigour of the law,” she said.
The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Louise Haigh, accused Boris Johnson of being responsible for a loss of trust in the loyalist community, citing his statements about Brexit in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
“It is Northern Ireland’s deep misfortune that the person who bears a shared responsibility for safeguarding the agreement has placed such little value on his words, and has shown such little regard for the consequences of his decisions.
“To make a promise as he did when he stood up in Northern Ireland and vowed to the unionist community that he would never impose a sea border, and then just a few months later do exactly that, showed a profound lack of integrity,” she said.
There were reports that loyalists are planning fresh protests this weekend, a prospect that will alarm the British and Irish governments.
Officers were injured on Wednesday night when masked youths in the loyalist Shankill Road area hurled petrol bombs and rocks and sent a burning, empty bus careering down the street. Kevin Scott, a Belfast Telegraph photographer, was assaulted and his camera smashed.
Youths on the adjacent nationalist Springfield Road hurled missiles over a “peace wall” on to the loyalist side, triggering a fusillade in response. Mobs skirmished when one of the gates in the wall was prised open and set alight.
“Calm is needed on BOTH sides of the gates before we are looking at a tragedy. These are scenes we hoped had been confined to history,” the Police Federation tweeted.
At least 55 police officers have been wounded during the seven nights of disturbances, with trouble switching between Belfast, Derry, Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus.
Loyalist anger at policing, a perception of nationalist ascendance and the consequences of Brexit, along with criminal gang activity, have fuelled the riots. It is among the worst rioting since the 2013 flag protests, and comes as Northern Ireland prepares to mark the centenary of its foundation dating from the 1921 partition of Ireland.
Unionist parties have been accused of tacitly encouraging unrest by demanding the resignation of the chief constable over the force’s alleged favouritism towards Sinn Féin during the policing of republican funerals, notably that of Bobby Storey, which drew an estimated 2,000 people including Sinn Féin leaders last June during lockdown restrictions.
The divisions in Northern Ireland have long been along political lines about how it should be governed, and by whom, and also along religious faultlines.
Unionists, also called loyalists, are loyal to the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Historically they have mostly been Protestants, and often refer to the area of Northern Ireland as Ulster – one of Ireland’s traditional provinces whose territory it partially covers.
Republicans, also called nationalists, believe in a united and independent Ireland. Historically they have mostly been Catholic. They sometimes refer to Northern Ireland as the "six counties", a reference to the fact that the territory covers six of the nine counties of Ulster.
The two communities tend to vote along separate lines, with parties such as the Democratic Unionist party and the Ulster Unionist party attracting the support of loyalists, while nationalists usually voting for the Social Democratic party, Labour or for Sinn Féin. The Alliance party and the Green party attract some cross-community support.
Prior to the relative peace and stability brought about by the Good Friday agreement in 1998, there were decades of conflict centred around Northern Ireland known colloquially as "the Troubles", fuelled by paramilitary wings on both sides of the divide.
Organisations including the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) fought for the nationalist cause, and on the opposite side groups such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) between them perpetuated conflict that included terrorist attacks and murders in the Republic of Ireland and on mainland Britain as well as in Northern Ireland itself. About 3,500 people were killed during this period.
The roots of the conflict, however, ultimately go back as far back as the 12th century to invasions of Ireland by forces from the mainland. Echoes of that long history are seen in the symbols used and events celebrated by either side. Loyalists celebrate with their Orange Order marches the 1690 victory of Protestant Prince William of Orange over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, while republicans celebrate events such as the 1916 Easter Rising, which paved the way for the formation of the modern independent Republic of Ireland.
Brexit has recently exacerbated divisions, making the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland a land border between the EU and the UK, and a source of tension between the two trading blocs over their future relationship. The DUP and other unionists campaigned for and supported Brexit, while Sinn Féin and other republicans campaigned against. Northern Ireland voted overall to remain in the EU, by 55.8% to 44.2%.
Critics have accused the DUP of stoking the controversy to deflect loyalist anger over the party’s role in the creation of a trade border down the Irish Sea. The justice minister, Naomi Long of the Alliance party, said “dishonesty” over Brexit had fuelled resentment.
Youths interviewed during protests in Newtownabbey and the Shankill Road on Thursday cited the sea border, alleged police bias and a sense that Protestants had become second-class citizens as the reasons they were carrying rocks and bottles. In some cases older men appeared to be directing them, but it is unclear if major paramilitary groups were involved.
The Irish and British governments expressed grave concern at the attacks on police, the bus driver and the photographer. “The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality,” Boris Johnson tweeted.
Some in Westminster urged the prime minister to visit Northern Ireland. Haigh said Johnson needed to step up to protect a “fragile” peace process.
“This moment demands leadership,” she said. “The prime minister must convene cross-party talks in Northern Ireland, and engage with the joint custodians to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the Irish government to find solutions and address tensions.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said political leaders needed to come together to cool tensions. “This needs to stop before somebody is killed or seriously injured,” he told RTÉ. “These are scenes we haven’t seen in Northern Ireland for a very long time, they are scenes that many people thought were consigned to history and I think there needs to be a collective effort to try to defuse tension.”