Stormont ministers urged to speak with united voice on NI rioting

David Young, Rebecca Black and James Ward, PA
·5-min read

Ministers in the Stormont Executive have been urged to speak with a united voice in condemning rioting that has erupted in Northern Ireland.

The call from the Police Federation, the body that represents rank and file officers, came ahead of a meeting of the powersharing administration to discuss the escalating public order situation in the region.

The Stormont Assembly is also being recalled from Easter recess for an emergency sitting later on Thursday morning to debate the violence, which has mostly flared in loyalist areas.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said 55 police officers have been injured across several nights of disorder in Northern Ireland.

In the latest scenes on Wednesday night at the Lanark Way peace wall gates in west Belfast, several hundred people gathered on each side from 5pm which escalated to “significant disorder”.

Mr Roberts said multiple petrol bombs and missiles, including fireworks and heavy masonry, were thrown and it is “clear there was a degree of organisation” of the violence.

“We saw young people participating in serious disorder and committing serious criminal offences, and they were supported and encouraged, and the actions were orchestrated by adults at certain times,” he said.

“It’s early to indicate whether or not any proscribed organisations were involved but it is our assessment that is a likely situation.

“We have seen scenes last night of a new generation of young people who have been exposed to scenes that I’m sure we all thought were in generations gone by, and I would encourage anybody in a position of leadership – political representatives, community representatives, parents – take an interest in what young people are doing and to have a united message to prevent further scenes like we witnessed last night.”

Mr Roberts said two adults have been arrested following the incidents in Belfast and further arrests will be made in the coming days and weeks.

The violence is unfolding at a time of increasing rancour in the political sphere amid tensions over Brexit’s Irish Sea trade border and the fallout from the police’s handling of a mass republican funeral that took place during pandemic restrictions last year.

As rioting has flared across Northern Ireland, all four main unionist parties continue to call for PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to quit over how his service dealt with the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey last year.

Northern Ireland unrest
A car bursts through the Peace Gates in Lanark Way on Wednesday night (Liam McBurney/PA)

Unionists are furious at a decision by prosecutors not to take action against 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, for attending the funeral – a decision partly related to the fact police engaged with the organisers before an event that drew 2,000 people on to the streets.

Mr Byrne has vowed not to resign and has signalled a desire to engage with people who have concerns about policing in the region.

Police Federation chairman Mark Lindsay expressed concern that the row over Mr Byrne’s future was playing out at such a turbulent time.

“I think the Executive need to stand together and need to make very, very firm statements around where they stand in the support in law and order,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

“They cannot differentiate between supporting the Chief Constable and supporting officers on the ground.

“Policing needs leadership, it needs a Chief Constable, and really in the middle of a crisis this isn’t terribly helpful.

“We all have to work with our Chief Constable, we do need a Chief Constable. I don’t think removing him at this stage would be terribly helpful.”

Mr Lindsay said Wednesday’s violence was “disturbing” and escalated a “couple of notches” from the disorder witnessed over previous days.

Wednesday night saw a bus hijacked and set on fire, a press photographer assaulted and clashes between loyalists and nationalists at a peace line street that links the Shankill Road with the Springfield Road in west Belfast.

The scenes of violence flooded social media and prompted UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to appeal for calm.

He 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.”

Irish premier Micheal Martin also condemned Wednesday night’s events, tweeting: “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.”

Northern Ireland unrest
People stand next to a fire in a street in Belfast on Wednesday night (Liam McBurney/PA)

DUP First Minister Arlene Foster condemned the attacks on Twitter last night, saying: “There is no justification for violence. It is wrong and should stop.

“This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent unionism or loyalism.

“They are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland and only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein. My thoughts are with the bus driver.”

Her suggestion that Sinn Fein were the “real law breakers” in a tweet about the hijack and destruction of a bus during rioting has been met with condemnation from political rivals.

Alliance Party Justice Minister Naomi Long tabled the motion requesting the recall of the Assembly.

She said her party’s intention was to get all parties at Stormont to “unite around a call for calm and the cessation of violence”.