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Peace wall violence in Belfast 'at a scale we have not seen in recent years'

A total of 55 police officers have been injured in recent violence.

Updated Apr 8th 2021, 1:14 PM

ANOTHER NIGHT OF unrest on the streets of Belfast has been widely condemned by political leaders in Belfast, Dublin and London.

The Northern Ireland Executive met this morning to be briefed on the ongoing unrest seen over the last week and Stormont has also condemned the violence

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

Before the events of last night, some 41 police officers had been injured and ten people arrested over the disturbances – including as young as 12.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts told reports this afternoon the figure had risen to 55 after last night’s violence. 

He said that the injuries sustained by police were “on the whole relatively minor” but that this was “very lucky” given the “large items of masonry, fireworks and petrol bombs”.

“The scale of the disorder last night was at a scale that we have not seen in recent years in Belfast or further afield. And the fact that it was sectarian violence, and there was large groups on both sides of the incident again it’s something that we have not seen for a number of years,” he said. 

Roberts said the he “can’t confirm the involvement of paramilitaries” but that “the orchestration of last night’s disorder and the previous night’s remains the subject of investigation”. 

“We do believe that there was a level of pre-planning. You don’t come by such volumes of petrol bombs and missiles and fireworks without pre-planning. So, there was a scale of planning and orchestration,” he said. 

We now have 55 police officers injured and it’s very, very lucky that nobody was seriously injured or killed last night given the large volume of, in particular petrol bombs, that were thrown during the disorder.

Asked whether the PSNI feared the use of more deadly weaponry, he said: “I don’t think there’s anything to suggest that, but given the history of Northern Ireland hopefully that is not a situation that we would see emerge. It’s certainly something that would always be in the back of our minds in policing. ”

Political reaction

The events follow days of violence in the North, and politicians united in criticism of the incidents.

“The only way forward is to address issues of concern through peaceful and democratic means,” a statement by Taoiseach Micheál Martin said.

“This evening’s attacks on a journalist and bus driver are deeply concerning and are in no one’s interests. Now is the time for the two governments and leaders on all sides to work together to defuse tensions and restore calm.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs described the images seen last night as “shocking” and called on political leaders to come together to defuse tensions in the North.

He said he had spoken to the UK’s Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis about the ongoing violence, adding that the Irish government would play its part to help de-escalate the situation.

“This needs to stop before somebody is killed or very seriously injured. A lot of people have a responsibility to try to work to ensure that we reduce and calm tensions, and that has to start at the top in terms of political leadership,” Coveney said.

Lewis flew to the North for urgent talks with the main parties in Stormont about the recent disorder.

In a statement this afternoon, Lewis said:

All communities in Northern Ireland must work together to resolve the tensions that we are currently facing. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than a continuation of the violence and disorder that we have witnessed in recent days. I know, from my ongoing contact with party leaders, that this is a view that is shared by all. The only way to resolve differences is through dialogue and in that regard we must all lead by example.
Those engaged in this destruction and disorder do not represent Northern Ireland.
I have seen first hand the true spirit of Northern Ireland – the creativity, the optimism and the determination to never return to the conflict and division of the past. We cannot allow that spirit to be crushed by a small minority intent on violence.
The strength of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement lay in providing a framework for all communities in Northern Ireland, through mutual respect and tolerance, to live and work together.
I am aware of the ongoing concerns from some in the unionist and loyalist community over recent months and I have been engaging and listening to those concerns. However, I remain clear that the right way to express concerns or frustrations is through dialogue, engagement, and the democratic process, not through violence or disorder.

Today he is set to meet 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,” concluded Lewis.

Boris Johnson

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appealed for calm last night.

“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,” he tweeted.

“The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.”

Earlier, videos circulating online showed a bus being hit by petrol bombs and having its windows smashed where a crowd of people had gathered at the junction of Lanark Way and Shankill Road in the west of the city.

First Minister Arlene Foster condemned the actions, but was widely criticised for her response on social media after her statement made reference to the attendance by Sinn Féin politicians at the funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey last year.

“This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder,” she tweeted.

“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 Féin. My thoughts are with the bus driver.”

Foster this morning met with PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne – whose resignation she has been demanding over the force’s handling of the Bobby Storey funeral investigation – ahead of the return of Stormont today.

Also last night, Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said the Executive will be briefed “on the violence and street disorder which is causing huge distress” when it meets today. 

O’Neill said: “Unequivocal condemnation needed and protests should be called off immediately – police need support not politicking.”

O’Neill’s party leader Mary Lou McDonald this morning called for political leaders to speak as one in condemning the situation, saying that she had raised her concerns with the PSNI Chief Constable.

“There is no justification for the attacks we have witnessed on PSNI officers, those who drive our buses and on local communities,” she said in a statement.

Stormont leaders met at 10am, before Stormont Assembly was recalled at 11am to discuss scenes of violence in mainly loyalist areas over the past week.

The unrest has been attributed to tension in loyalist communities over the Northern Ireland Protocol on Brexit and the PSNI’s handling of alleged Covid-19 regulation breaches by Sinn Féin politicians by attending at the funeral of Bobby Storey.

Plans to recall the Assembly were already underway after Alliance Party leader Naomi Long secured the required support of 30 members to force a return yesterday.

Long – who serves as Justice Minister – said it is her party’s intention to get all parties at Stormont to “unite around a call for calm and the cessation of violence”.

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PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne, whose resignation has been demanded by Foster over the decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin members over Bobby Storey’s funeral, said he was open to dialogue with those willing to work with him to resolve the ongoing tensions.

“My message to those engaged in violence tonight is go home before someone is seriously injured, violence is not the answer,” he said on Twitter.

northern-ireland-unrest People stand next to a fire in a street in Belfast last night Source: PA

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

Police were attacked during another night of 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.

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

In Co Antrim, a recent series of drug seizures against the South East Antrim UDA – a renegade faction of the main grouping – have caused particular ill-feeling towards police.

The faction is believed to have been behind some disturbances seen over the weekend.

- Contains reporting by Rónán Duffy and Press Association.

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