Crisis talks in Northern Ireland after eight police officers were injured on sixth night of rioting


Police in Northern Ireland are bracing themselves for further violence on the streets of Belfast after Catholics and Protestants pelted each other with petrol bombs over a ‘Peace Wall’ last night.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said today the riots were on a scale not seen in the country in recent years, and that the force was investigating whether there was any paramilitary involvement, given the level of pre-planning and orchestration.

The sixth successive night of violence has sparked major crisis talks, with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis flying in to speak to First Minister Arlene Foster, deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken and Alliance party leader Naomi Long.

Loyalist youths hurled Molotov cocktails over the interface into nationalist areas – which returned fire – and lit blazes in the streets as police struggled to maintain order.

Unionist thugs also hijacked and firebombed a bus and sent it blazing down the Shankill Road while hundreds of others marched along the street in scenes reminiscent of the Troubles.

Meanwhile masked rioters hurled petrol bombs at police at the junction of Lanark Way and attacked a press photographer – smashing his camera and shouting derogatory sectarian terms at him.

Eight officers were injured and two men aged 28 and 18 were arrested on suspicion of riotous behaviour. 

The PSNI said on Thursday morning 55 of its officers had been hurt across several nights of disorder in the country, which involved children as young as 13 and 14, who were being encouraged and supported by adults who stood by and clapped.

And there are fears of similar scenes again this evening, as Mr Roberts admitted the force was aware of other events and protests that are planned in the coming days.

He said that officers will monitor any potential gatherings advertised on social media and ‘make plans to respond accordingly’. 

The violence over the past week erupted after prosecutors said no action would be taken against 24 Sinn Fein politicians – including deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill – for a huge republican funeral during the pandemic.

They went to the service to Bobby Storey – an IRA terrorist from Belfast who died after a failed lung transplant – on June 30 along with about 1,500 people despite Covid rules.

Loyalists are also angry at post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK. They see the Northern Ireland Protocol as undermining their place in the Union.

A bus was hijacked and set alight after being pelted with petrol bombs at the junction of Lanark Way and Shankill Road in west Belfast, the PSNI said. Pictured: Belfast last night

One rioter prepares to hurl a projectile into the bus

Others join in and firebomb the vehicle

Left: One rioter prepares to hurl a projectile into the bus. Right: Others join in and firebomb the vehicle, which quickly ignites

Videos circulating online show a bus being pelted with petrol bombs and having its windows smashed where a crowd of people had gathered

Videos circulating online show a bus being pelted with petrol bombs and having its windows smashed where a crowd of people had gathered 

An Irish nationalist stands in smoke close to a fire at the 'peace wall' gates into Lanark Way as protests continued in Belfast, Northern Ireland, last night

An Irish nationalist stands in smoke close to a fire at the ‘peace wall’ gates into Lanark Way as protests continued in Belfast, Northern Ireland, last night

Trade union stands behind driver whose bus was hijacked and set alight 

An act of solidarity has taken place at Belfast City Hall for a bus driver whose vehicle was hijacked and set alight amid scenes of disorder.

A number of drivers gathered in the grounds of City Hall on Thursday lunchtime.

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) assistant general secretary Owen Reidy said it was a demonstration on behalf of the entire trade union movement to support the driver, who has been left shaken by the incident.

‘Theirs is an act of generosity towards their fellow bus driver who was shockingly attacked last evening and towards the brave police officers and journalists who were also assaulted while doing their job and serving the community,’ he said.

‘Workers across Northern Ireland will not accept being the subject of attacks when going about their duties.

‘The Translink workers are standing up and proclaiming this loudly.

‘This has to stop and it has to stop now.

‘All public representatives from across the community and every person of good will and influence in interface areas have to make clear that all such protests end before we have another night of violence.

‘Young people are being treated as cannon fodder.

‘Someone is going to get killed.

‘The best public service any decent person of influence can do right now is to prevent the spiral deepening.

‘Politicians need to come together, work together and make politics work in the interest of the entire community.’

The Metro Bus was taken at around 7.20pm at Lanark Way in west Belfast on Wednesday.

Translink chief executive Chris Conway said all the passengers were off the bus before the attack and said his thoughts are with the driver who he described as ‘badly shaken but unhurt’.

Bus services were withdrawn in a number of areas of Belfast as a precaution.

Speaking at PSNI headquarters in Belfast this afternoon, Mr Roberts said: ‘The scale of the disorder last night was at a scale that we have not seen in recent years in Belfast or further afield.

‘The fact that it was sectarian violence and large groups on both sides is not something we have seen in recent years. We believe there was a level of pre-planning.

‘The crowds grew in numbers and attacked each other with multiple petrol bombs and multiple missiles, including masonry and fireworks, and attacked police.

‘The scenes we saw were disgraceful in terms of the seriousness of criminal acts that were being carried out and the violent disorder.

‘We also saw a bus being hijacked, it was an extremely distressing incident for the bus driver and the people on the bus at the time.

‘We had two other vehicles set on fire and pushed against the gates.

‘It is very lucky that no-one was seriously injured given the large volume of petrol bombs that were thrown. Anyone who participates in such behaviour can expect to be arrested and remanded into custody and placed in front of the courts.

‘I can’t confirm the involvement of paramilitaries but the orchestration of last night’s disorder and the previous nights is the subject of investigation.’

Police fired six plastic bullets – known as attenuating energy projectiles or AEPs – on Wednesday night, a tactic Mr Roberts said was not one police wanted to use, but chose to do so on this occasion given the ‘potential for imminent loss of life’.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s Education Minister Peter Weir has confirmed the reopening of some youth services which operate in areas of heightened community tensions.

Mr Weir said the move is hoped to divert young people from becoming involved in ‘risk taking and dangerous behaviours’.

‘Youth services play a vital role in supporting young people throughout Northern Ireland,’ he said.

‘As a society we should all be appalled at witnessing young people and even children being involved in the recent violence on our streets.

‘At this time it is even more important that youth services are able to meet the needs of young people in these areas.’

Mr Weir added: ‘These measures are intended to safeguard and ensure the welfare of our young people and to divert them from becoming involved in risk taking and dangerous behaviours.’

Elsewhere today, Boris Johnson and Ms Foster were quick to condemn the actions, with the PM calling for ‘dialogue’ while the DUP leader said there is ‘no justification for violence’.

The Northern Ireland Executive called an urgent meeting of politicians on Thursday morning to be briefed on the mayhem and later released a joint statement deploring the destruction.

The European Commission also called for an end to the violence in Northern Ireland, with spokesman Eric Mamer telling reporters in Brussels: ‘We of course condemn in the strongest possible terms the acts of violence that have occurred in Northern Ireland over the past days.

‘Nobody has anything to gain from this. We call on all those involved to refrain immediately from these violent acts.’

A PSNI officer stands on North Queen Street in Belfast looking towards Tigers Bay where three Police Land Rovers form a police line during further unrest

A PSNI officer stands on North Queen Street in Belfast looking towards Tigers Bay where three Police Land Rovers form a police line during further unrest

A fire in a street in the mainly nationalist New Lodge area of north Belfast during further unrest

A fire in a street in the mainly nationalist New Lodge area of north Belfast during further unrest

Nationalists and Loyalists clash with one another at the 'peace wall' on Lanark Way in west Belfast, Northern Ireland, last night

Nationalists and Loyalists clash with one another at the ‘peace wall’ on Lanark Way in west Belfast, Northern Ireland, last night

A man walks through the 'peace gate' while holding a brick as clashes continued last night

A man walks through the ‘peace gate’ while holding a brick as clashes continued last night

It follows several nights of unrest in loyalist communities amid tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol on Brexit and the PSNI's handling of alleged coronavirus regulation breaches by Sinn Fein at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey. Pictured: Belfast last night

It follows several nights of unrest in loyalist communities amid tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol on Brexit and the PSNI’s handling of alleged coronavirus regulation breaches by Sinn Fein at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey. Pictured: Belfast last night

 

Boris Johnson last night condemned the scenes in Northern Ireland, writing: : 'I am deeply concerned by the scenes of violence in Northern Ireland'

Boris Johnson last night condemned the scenes in Northern Ireland, writing: : ‘I am deeply concerned by the scenes of violence in Northern Ireland’

Irish premier Micheal Martin added: 'I utterly condemn the violent attacks on police, a journalist, and bus driver over recent days in The North'

Irish premier Micheal Martin added: ‘I utterly condemn the violent attacks on police, a journalist, and bus driver over recent days in The North’

Northern Ireland’s so-called ‘peace walls’: 33km of concrete that separate nationalist and unionists after history of bloodshed

Despite being a small city of just 280,000 people, Belfast is marked out by more than 100 peace walls.

The towering structures separate Catholic and Protestant communities in the city that has a history of horrific sectarian violence.

During the Troubles, these ‘interfaces’ were often the sites of conflict. The Falls Road (majority Catholic) and the Shankill Road (majority protestant) in the west of the city is split by one of the most famous walls, which runs for 800m and has a number of huge gates swinging shut across the roads come nightfall.

In nationalist areas the flag of Ireland is often draped from the walls or painted on them, as well as the flag of Palestine to show support for what they see as their fellow repressed people.

In unionist areas you can barely move for Union flags and loyalist murals adorning the streets, walls and houses.

The peace walls have become a popular tourist hotspot since the Good Friday Agreement brought relative peace to the country over two decades ago, but the history behind the walls are somewhat more gruesome.

The first one was erected in 1969 following sectarian riots in Belfast.

They were supposed to be temporary to keep the warring republicans and loyalists apart.

But instead of being taken down, the walls were extended during the Troubles and remain there much the same to this day.

Most were put up at the start of the bloody conflict, but about a third have been put up since the IRA ceasefire in 1994.

Despite most people going to Northern Ireland ending up in Belfast, and so the peace walls becoming synonymous with the city, there are walls in other areas across the country.

They also feature in Londonderry, Portadown and Lurgan.

If all the walls in Northern Ireland were put next to each other, it is estimated they would run for 21 miles.

The longest wall is five miles by itself. After the Belfast Agreement in 1998, the violence dipped and gates were installed in the peace walls.

It meant for the first time in many years near neighbours could meet people from the other side with ease.

But there is still the presence of tension in the city, with PSNI officers manning some gates and closing them at night time.

For all the controversy surrounding the structures, the walls have proved an unexpected attracting in the city – tourism.

Black cab tours escort foreigners around the walls and give them context on what happened where and why which wall was famous, often citing their own experiences.

They also feature some of the most popular murals in Belfast, which also attracts tourists.

One of the walls – on the Crumlin Road – was pulled down in February 2016 and was the first to come down.

But most still stand across the country. Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly, voted in favour of bringing down all the walls by 2023, but recent violence between Catholic and Protestant community will likely unnerve some ahead of the move.         

The violence over the past week erupted after prosecutors said no action would be taken against 24 Sinn Fein politicians – including deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill – for a huge republican funeral during the pandemic.

They went to the service to Bobby Storey – an IRA terrorist from Belfast who died after a failed lung transplant – on June 30 along with about 1,500 people despite Covid rules.

Loyalists are also angry at post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK. They see the Northern Ireland Protocol as undermining their place in the Union.

The gates of the peace wall on Lanark Way – which separates the mainly loyalist Shankill Road from the mostly nationalist Springfield Road – were forced open late last night, leading to clashes between young members of the two communities.

Shocking video footage showed petrol bombs being thrown over from both sides of the wall – in a dramatic ramping up of sectarian violence.

The bus was hijacked by Loyalist thugs on the Shankill Road at an intersection between nationalist and unionist communities.

Masked youths took the handbrake off and let it roll down the hill before the gang lobbed burning bottles in through the front door and it quickly ignited.

The PSNI’s armoured Land Rover Tangis raced past the vehicle and pulled in front of it to force it to stop.

As they performed the difficult manoeuvre the crowd hurled stones and further firebombs at them before fleeing.

A crowd of around 500 people, most of them adults, also gathered on the corner of the junction at Lanark Way as events unfolded.

Further down the road a bonfire was lit where a crowd of approximately 100 people, mostly young, were assembled.

Video from later in the evening showed the bus smouldering, having burnt through.

A spontaneous act of solidarity took place place at Belfast City Hall for the driver of the bus today.

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) assistant general secretary Owen Reidy said it was a demonstration on behalf of the entire trade union movement to support the driver, who has been left shaken by the incident.

He said: ‘Theirs is an act of generosity towards their fellow bus driver who was shockingly attacked last evening and towards the brave police officers and journalists who were also assaulted while doing their job and serving the community.

‘Workers across Northern Ireland will not accept being the subject of attacks when going about their duties. The Translink workers are standing up and proclaiming this loudly.

‘This has to stop and it has to stop now. All public representatives from across the community and every person of goodwill and influence in interface areas have to make clear that all such protests end before we have another night of violence.

‘Young people are being treated as cannon fodder. Someone is going to get killed.

‘The best public service any decent person of influence can do right now is to prevent the spiral deepening. Politicians need to come together, work together and make politics work in the interest of the entire community.’

Earlier, Belfast Telegraph photographer Kevin Scott said he was assaulted by two of the rioters.

The newspaper’s visuals editor tweeted: ‘So much for peaceful – I have just been jumped from behind by two males, masked on Cupar Way.

‘One pulled me to the ground and smashed cameras. As I fought this one off I was told to f**k off back to your own area you fenian c**t by the other. Police informed.’

He added ‘what happened to me tonight was disgusting, but not on the same level as this’ – referring to the bus driver.

Mr Johnson 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.’

First Minister Ms Foster condemned the attacks on Twitter, saying: ‘There is no justification for violence. It is wrong and should stop.’

She later added: ‘This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent unionism or loyalism.

STORMONT MINISTERS UNITE TO CONDEMN VIOLENCE AND RIOTING

Ministers in the Stormont Executive have condemned the violence and rioting that has erupted in Northern Ireland, prompting united calls for calm to be restored.

The Northern Ireland Executive issued a joint statement following a meeting of the powersharing administration to discuss the escalating public disorder.

Assembly members also united to condemn the violence, unanimously passing an Alliance motion after being recalled to discuss the scenes. Earlier ministers were given an update by PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne.

In a statement, the Executive said: ‘We are gravely concerned by the scenes we have all witnessed on our streets over the last week, including those at the 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, 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 PSNI to prevent further violence and unrest.’ The Stormont Assembly was recalled from Easter recess for an emergency sitting on Thursday to debate the violence, which has mostly flared in loyalist areas.

The Assembly was recalled following a motion put forward by Alliance leader Naomi Long calling for MLAs to unequivocally condemn those involved and support the rule of law.

Speaking during the Assembly debate, DUP leader Arlene Foster said the scenes witnessed were ‘totally unacceptable’. The First Minister said the injuries to police officers, harm to Northern Ireland’s image and people’s property has taken the region backwards.

Speaking remotely, Mrs Foster said: ‘Today is not the time to rehearse the arguments in the last few weeks. We should all know that when politics are perceived to fail, those who fill the vacuum cause despair.

‘Northern Ireland faces deep political challenges ahead.’ She said that the future requires political leadership.

Justice Minister Ms Long said her thoughts are with the police officers who suffered what she said ‘could be life-changing injuries’.

‘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 added. ‘The scenes over the last week have been as depressing as they are disgraceful.’

Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the violence is dangerous and unacceptable.

‘It is a miracle that, as we stand here today, no-one has been killed,’ Ms O’Neill told MLAs.

She said illegal loyalist paramilitaries and criminal elements are influencing young people and orchestrating the violence. ‘They stand back and send youngsters out to do their bidding,’ she said.

‘These people are no role models for our youth; they are outdated, they are antiquated and they are caught in a time warp which has no bearing on where the vast majority of people across this society now are or where they want to be. They are holding back their own people and they are holding back their own community.’

‘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.’

Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein vice president Ms O’Neill said: ‘Disgraceful scenes of criminality tonight including a potentially lethal attack on bus driver and assault on journalist.

‘Unequivocal condemnation needed and protests should be called off immediately – police need support not politicking.’

Irish premier Micheal Martin added: ‘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.’

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers told MailOnline today: ‘Unfortunately periodic rioting has been a feature of life in Northern Ireland for decades.

‘It is always completely unacceptable whatever the grievances which might underlie it. The culprits here are the people throwing the petrol bombs and the Loyalist paramilitary crime gangs orchestrating this.

‘There are important issues to tackle in relation to the operation of the Protocol and also regarding decisions made about policing the Bobby Storey funeral, but violent law-breaking is entirely counter-productive for anyone who really wants to resolve these issues.’

Meanwhile Sir Keir Starmer said the PM must ‘step up’ and convene all-party talks to tackle violence in Northern Ireland.

The Labour leader, a former human rights adviser to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, said there is ‘no justification’ for several nights of disorder that have seen dozens of police officers injured.

But he acknowledged there are concerns over the arrangements for the nation after the UK left the European Union and he told Mr Johnson to find ‘pragmatic political solutions’ over the rioting.

Sir Keir said: ‘This is about leadership and the Prime Minister can’t be absent. He needs to convene talks urgently to find pragmatic political solutions to reduce this violence.’

Asked during a campaign visit to Bristol if he thinks the violence is a consequence of Brexit, the Labour leader 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. 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.’

Northern Ireland leaders met for a briefing at 10am before the Stormont Assembly was recalled to discuss the recent scenes of violence.

Ministers met earlier and were updated on the situation by PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne.

In a joint statement the Executive said: ‘We are gravely concerned by the scenes we have all witnessed on our streets over the last week, including those at the 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, 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 PSNI to prevent further violence and unrest.’

A small group of loyalists held a demonstration outside Stormont shortly before MLAs met. Four people held a union flag and placards which read ‘two-tiered policing must end now’.

The burnt-out bus is left crumpled on the street on Thursday morning as a road sweeper cleans up around it in west Belfast

The burnt-out bus is left crumpled on the street on Thursday morning as a road sweeper cleans up around it in west Belfast

Stones were thrown at police while a press photographer was assaulted nearby during the course of their work on Wednesday evening. Pictured: Belfast last night

Stones were thrown at police while a press photographer was assaulted nearby during the course of their work on Wednesday evening. Pictured: Belfast last night

Later on Wednesday night, the gates of the peace line on Lanark Way were opened, leading to clashes between loyalists and nationalists

Later on Wednesday night, the gates of the peace line on Lanark Way were opened, leading to clashes between loyalists and nationalists

Social media footage captured petrol bombs being thrown from both sides of the wall. Pictured: The 'peace gate' last night

Social media footage captured petrol bombs being thrown from both sides of the wall. Pictured: The ‘peace gate’ last night

Graffiti on a wall in Eccles Street in Shankill in Belfast during further unrest last night

Graffiti on a wall in Eccles Street in Shankill in Belfast during further unrest last night

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

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

A man carrying bricks in Belfast during further unrest in Belfast on Wednesday night

A man carrying bricks in Belfast during further unrest in Belfast on Wednesday night

Irish nationalists are seen at the "peace wall" gate into Lanark Way as protests continue in Belfast, Northern Ireland

Irish nationalists are seen at the ‘peace wall’ gate into Lanark Way as protests continue in Belfast, Northern Ireland

The Chief Constable of the PSNI Simon Byrne has pleaded for the ongoing unrest to stop

The Chief Constable of the PSNI Simon Byrne has pleaded for the ongoing unrest to stop

Ms Foster, along with the other unionist parties, had called for the Chief Constable to resign over the Bobby Storey funeral debacle. Pictured: Police in Belfast on Wednesday

Ms Foster, along with the other unionist parties, had called for the Chief Constable to resign over the Bobby Storey funeral debacle. Pictured: Police in Belfast on Wednesday

A person approaches a fire during clashes at the Springfield Road/Lanark Way interface

A person approaches a fire during clashes at the Springfield Road/Lanark Way interface

LOYALIST ANGER AT POST-BREXIT TRADE RULES AMONG FACTORS IN ULSTER DISORDER 

The street disorder that has flared in various parts of Northern Ireland for more than a week can be attributed to a multitude of factors.

At its heart is loyalist anger at post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.

For loyalism, Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol has undermined their place in the Union.

But it took an event unrelated to the Irish Sea border furore to set a match to resentment that has been simmering since the consequences of exiting the EU became a reality at the start of January.

The announcement by prosecutors last week that no action would be taken against 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, for attending a huge republican funeral during the pandemic sparked outrage among some loyalists.

In several loyalist working class areas, many still in the grip of the malign influence of paramilitary gangs, sporadic rioting has since flared.

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

There have also been bouts of disorder within republican areas in recent days.

In the most stark, youths on both sides of a west Belfast peace line pelted petrol bombs and other missiles at each other through Wednesday night.

For loyalists, the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey last June hardened a long-standing perception held by many within their community that the institutions of the state afford preferential treatment to republicans.

For apparent confirmation, they pointed to police engagement with the Sinn Fein funeral organisers prior to an event that saw around 2,000 people take to the streets of west Belfast when tight limits on public gatherings were in place.

This interaction with the planners was one reason why senior prosecutors concluded any prosecution of Ms O’Neill and her colleagues was doomed to fail – the other being the ‘incoherent’ nature of Stormont’s Covid-19 regulations at the time.

Criticism of the PSNI approach was not confined to hard-line elements within loyalism and all the main unionist parties subsequently called for chief constable Simon Byrne to resign, claiming he has lost the confidence of their community.

DUP First Minister Arlene Foster has said she will no longer engage with Mr Byrne.

Her lack of communication with the region’s police chief during a time of escalating street violence, and coming only weeks after she met with representatives of loyalist paramilitaries to discuss the Brexit fall out, has drawn sharp criticism from political rivals.

Non-unionist parties have accused Mrs Foster and other unionist political leaders of stoking up tensions, not only in relation to the Storey funeral but also in respect of the Irish Sea border.

The DUP leader and other prominent voices within unionism and loyalism insist they are only reflecting genuinely held concerns they say must be addressed – specifically by way of Mr Byrne’s resignation and the binning of the Protocol.

Amid the current unionist clamour for Mr Byrne’s head, and claims of ‘two tier’ policing, it is worth noting that two months ago the PSNI chief constable was facing similar claims of discriminatory behaviour from within nationalism.

Those were prompted by a controversial police operation in Belfast that saw a man badly injured in a loyalist gun massacre during the Troubles arrested at the scene of a commemoration event after officers intervened to probe suspected Covid regulation breaches.

Following that incident at the site of the 1992 Ormeau Road betting shop murders, Ms O’Neill claimed there was a ‘crisis in confidence’ in the PSNI among nationalists, albeit she stopped short of calling for Mr Byrne to quit.

The Protocol and funeral controversy have not created the loyalist perception that the system is weighed against them, but have built upon a narrative articulated by an increasing number within loyalism that the peace process – particularly the Good Friday accord of 1998 – has handed them a raw deal.

They cite underinvestment and deprivation in loyalist working class areas as further proof that they have missed out on the gains of peace.

Nationalists and republicans reject this premise, insisting their communities have experienced just has many problems with poverty and unemployment since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Paramilitary elements are undoubtedly involved in much of the disorder witnessed across the region in recent days – either directly or by orchestrating young people to riot on their behalf.

However, in Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus an added factor is at play.

In those areas, the PSNI believes paramilitary involvement is less motivated by Brexit or the Storey funeral and more to do with a rogue faction – the South East Antrim UDA – reacting to recent police operations targeting its criminal empire. 

Former Belfast councillor Jolene Bunting said she felt the voice of loyalism is not being heard. She said: ‘We must have our political representatives representing us.

‘It seems the MLAs are going into the Assembly to condemn and talk about what’s going on in the country at the minute but none of them are trying to solve the problems that we have.’

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

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.

He said: ‘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.

‘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.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney branded Wednesday night’s events ‘disturbing’. He said: ‘Further very disturbing scenes this evening in Belfast. Attacks on police, journalists and citizens must be condemned by all.

‘There are peaceful, democratic and legal channels to address all issues and concerns. Calm and positive leadership needed from all.’

Labour’s shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland Louise Haigh said the ‘mindless violence’ is damaging local communities and ‘serves no purpose.’

She added: ‘The frontline police officers and all those trying to restore calm deserve our support. All those with responsibility for Northern Ireland must be united in condemning the violence and coming together to bring it to an end.

‘Violence will do nothing to resolve the complex challenges facing Northern Ireland – that will only happen through engagement and constitutional politics.’

Riots and attacks on police have taken place repeatedly throughout the last week and resumed last night after a relative lull on Tuesday.

Police were attacked during violence in a number of loyalist areas on Monday.

Nine officers were injured in Ballymena, taking to 41 the number injured in disorder across Northern Ireland since last Friday night.

The most intense clashes on Monday were in Ballymena, when nine riot police officers were injured after they intervened in an unlawful march of loyalists through the town.

During the unrest, debris, including a wheelie bin, was thrown onto the M2 motorway, forcing its closure.

Disorder also flared in parts of Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey and Londonderry on Monday, with petrol bombs and other missiles thrown at officers.

Children as young as 12 have been involved in some of the violence that has been witnessed in recent days. Cars, a JCB digger, a phone box and bins were set alight in the Waterside area of Londonderry on Monday.

Police said a brick was thrown at a taxi, which was carrying a passenger at the time, on the Limavady Road.

The street disorder that has flared in various parts of Northern Ireland for more than a week can be attributed to a multitude of factors.

At its heart is loyalist anger at post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.

For loyalism, Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol has undermined their place in the Union. But it took an event unrelated to the Irish Sea border furore to set a match to resentment that has been simmering since the consequences of exiting the EU became a reality at the start of January.

The announcement by prosecutors last week no action would be taken against 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including deputy Ms O’Neill, for attending a huge republican funeral during the pandemic sparked outrage among some loyalists.

In several loyalist working class areas, many still in the grip of the malign influence of paramilitary gangs, sporadic rioting has since flared.

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

There have also been bouts of disorder within republican areas in recent days. In the most stark, youths on both sides of a west Belfast peace line pelted petrol bombs and other missiles at each other through Wednesday night.

For loyalists, the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey last June hardened a long-standing perception held by many within their community that the institutions of the state afford preferential treatment to republicans.

For apparent confirmation, they pointed to police engagement with the Sinn Fein funeral organisers prior to an event that saw around 2,000 people take to the streets of west Belfast when tight limits on public gatherings were in place.

This interaction with the planners was one reason why senior prosecutors concluded any prosecution of Ms O’Neill and her colleagues was doomed to fail – the other being the ‘incoherent’ nature of Stormont’s Covid-19 regulations at the time.

Criticism of the PSNI approach was not confined to hard-line elements within loyalism and all the main unionist parties subsequently called for chief constable Simon Byrne to resign, claiming he has lost the confidence of their community.

Nationalists jump to avoid a petrol bomb thrown by Loyalists over the peace wall in west Belfast, Northern Ireland, last night

Nationalists jump to avoid a petrol bomb thrown by Loyalists over the peace wall in west Belfast, Northern Ireland, last night

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney branded Wednesday night's events 'disturbing'

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney branded Wednesday night’s events ‘disturbing’

A crowd of around 500 people, most of them adults, gathered on the corner of the junction at Lanark Way as events unfolded last night

A crowd of around 500 people, most of them adults, gathered on the corner of the junction at Lanark Way as events unfolded last night

Further down the road a bonfire was lit where a crowd of approximately 100 people, mostly young, were assembled

Further down the road a bonfire was lit where a crowd of approximately 100 people, mostly young, were assembled

Riots and attacks on police have taken place repeatedly throughout the last week and have now resumed after a relative lull on Tuesday

Riots and attacks on police have taken place repeatedly throughout the last week and have now resumed after a relative lull on Tuesday

Ms Foster has said she will no longer engage with Mr Byrne. Her lack of communication with the region’s police chief during a time of escalating street violence, and coming only weeks after she met with representatives of loyalist paramilitaries to discuss the Brexit fall out, has drawn sharp criticism from political rivals.

Non-unionist parties have accused Mrs Foster and other unionist political leaders of stoking up tensions, not only in relation to the Storey funeral but also in respect of the Irish Sea border.

The DUP leader and other prominent voices within unionism and loyalism insist they are only reflecting genuinely held concerns they say must be addressed – specifically by way of Mr Byrne’s resignation and the binning of the Protocol.

Amid the current unionist clamour for Mr Byrne’s head, and claims of ‘two tier’ policing, it is worth noting that two months ago the PSNI chief constable was facing similar claims of discriminatory behaviour from within nationalism.

Those were prompted by a controversial police operation in Belfast that saw a man badly injured in a loyalist gun massacre during the Troubles arrested at the scene of a commemoration event after officers intervened to probe suspected Covid regulation breaches.

Following that incident at the site of the 1992 Ormeau Road betting shop murders, Ms O’Neill claimed there was a ‘crisis in confidence’ in the PSNI among nationalists, albeit she stopped short of calling for Mr Byrne to quit.

The Protocol and funeral controversy have not created the loyalist perception that the system is weighed against them, but have built upon a narrative articulated by an increasing number within loyalism that the peace process – particularly the Good Friday accord of 1998 – has handed them a raw deal.

They cite underinvestment and deprivation in loyalist working class areas as further proof that they have missed out on the gains of peace.

Nationalists and republicans reject this premise, insisting their communities have experienced just has many problems with poverty and unemployment since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

Paramilitary elements are undoubtedly involved in much of the disorder witnessed across the region in recent days – either directly or by orchestrating young people to riot on their behalf.

However, in Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus an added factor is at play.

In those areas, the PSNI believes paramilitary involvement is less motivated by Brexit or the Storey funeral and more to do with a rogue faction – the South East Antrim UDA – reacting to recent police operations targeting its criminal empire.    



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