Stormont First Minister appeals for calm following Belfast rioting

Michelle Devane, PA
·4-min read

Stormont’s First Minister has joined calls for calm over the Easter weekend following rioting in a loyalist area of Belfast.

Arlene Foster urged young people “not to get drawn into disorder”, saying violence “will not make things better”.

Eight police officers were injured on Friday evening after being targeted in Sandy Row by a crowd of mostly young people throwing bottles, bricks, manhole covers and fireworks.

Seven people were arrested.

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The DUP leader said: “I know that many of our young people are hugely frustrated by the events of this last week but causing injury to police officers will not make things better.

“And I send my strong support to all of the rank and file police officers that are on duty over this Easter weekend.

“I appeal to our young people not to get drawn into disorder which will lead to them having criminal convictions and blighting their own lives.

“I also ask parents to play their part and be proactive in protecting their young adults.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis described the unrest as “completely unacceptable”.

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Mr Lewis said: “Violence is never the answer. There is no place for it in society.

“It is unwanted, unwarranted and I fully support the PSNI appeal for calm.”

He added that his thoughts were with the eight officers injured.

The PSNI has also called for calm.

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In a tweet, Belfast District Commander Chief Superintendent Simon Walls said it was “completely unacceptable” that officers were coming under sustained attack.

The trouble came after four successive nights of disturbances in the unionist Waterside area of Londonderry.

The disorder has flared amid ongoing tensions within loyalism across Northern Ireland.

Loyalists and unionists are angry about post-Brexit trading arrangements which they claim have created barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Tensions ramped up further this week following a controversial decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians for attending a large-scale republican funeral during Covid-19 restrictions.

All the main unionist parties have demanded the resignation of PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne, claiming he has lost the confidence of their community.

Simon Byrne
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Sandy Row disturbances have been met with widespread political condemnation.

Ulster Unionist Policing Board member Mike Nesbitt said the riot “did not just happen” and people were encouraged to take part.

“Someone planned it, someone encouraged people onto the streets,” he said.

“I challenge them to explain a strategy that portrays loyalists and unionists as law-breakers, prepared to attack the PSNI, injure officers and frankly take the focus off Sinn Féin and the republican movement.

“The history of street violence is unambiguous. It does nothing to advance our cause.

“It is a huge mistake and should not be repeated.”

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Alliance South Belfast MLA Paula Bradshaw said responsible leadership is required from all quarters to stop a repeat of scenes in Sandy Row last night.

Ms Bradshaw said those involved in the rioting had “achieved nothing other than bringing misery upon their own area”.

“There is no future in this type of behaviour,” she said.

“Our thoughts must also be with the police officers who were injured. Public servants have a fundamental right to go to and return from work without being targets.

“I trust therefore those in positions of political leadership and responsibility will reflect on whether their words and actions in recent days have helped or hindered when it comes to reducing tensions.

“Political leadership requires the right decisions, not the easy ones. It often means taking people to places where they are uncomfortable for the sake of the greater good.

“We are seeing very little of that currently, and it is resulting in serious harm.”