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Arlene Foster speaks with PSNI chief constable as Stormont is recalled to debate violence

Justice Minister Naomi Long said it was “a mercy” that nobody was killed.

Arlene Foster joined today's meeting by video link.
Arlene Foster joined today's meeting by video link.
Image: NIAssembly

THE STORMONT ASSEMBLY has heard calls for an end to street violence in Northern Ireland, with First Minister Arlene Foster also saying that she has spoken with PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne. 

Foster had refused to meet with Byrne and has repeatedly called for him to resign following the decision by the NI Director of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute Sinn Féin politicians for their attendance at the Bobby Storey funeral last year.  

That decision along with frustrations over Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol have led to scenes of violence in mainly loyalist areas over the past week.

The Stormont Assembly was recalled to discuss the violence this afternoon with MLAs each calling for an end to the violence that has seen 55 police officers injured. 

Justice Minister and Alliance Party leader Naomi Long proposed a motion that seeks to have the house jointly condemn the violence and reaffirm its commitment to policing. 

Introducing the motion, she said: 

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. 

Long added that it was “particularly disturbing” to see young people being involved in the violence and she made reference to social media clips of “people old enough to be their parents” cheering the rioters. 

The minister said that says that “cheering, goading and encouraging young people” to engage in violence “is nothing short of child abuse”. 

Long said “there can be no excuses or justifications” for the violence and that there was “ a common thread, a lack of leadership, and a common target, the Police Service of Northern Ireland”. 

The Alliance Party leader added that people who have “placed policing as a lightning conductor for anger and frustration…..need to step back and reflect.”

First Minister Arlene Foster was not present in the chamber due to illness but addressed the house via video link, sounding hoarse as she spoke. 

Foster said that “today is not the time to rehash the arguments of this last number of weeks” and that the violence witnesses “is wrong and cannot be justified”. 

“We should all know well that when politics fail or is perceived to be failing in Northern Ireland, then those who fill the vacuum offer destruction and despair. We cannot allow a new generation of our young people to fall victim to that path or be preyed upon by some who prefer the shadows to the light,” she said.  

Foster said that people in Northern Ireland are “indebted to the police officers” but did not mention her conversation with the chief constable.

In a tweet prior to the assembly meeting, Foster said that she had spoken with him: 

Speaking later during the meeting, DUP MLA Joanne Bunting said that people within the unionist community had “lost confidence in policing”.

“Sinn Féin are happy to write and endorse draconian laws and restrictions, safe in the knowledge that they can float them without recourse. Those laws may be for everybody else, but there’s another set of rules for Sinn Féin, for they appear to be above the law,” she said. 

Speaking to reporters this afternoon, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts refused to be drawn into political arguments related to policing. 

“I think it’s very important that policing is not drawn into politics. It is the job of the police to prevent disorder and deal with disorder when it occurs and investigate crimes,” he said.  

Foster was criticised by Labour party leader Alan Kelly TD and others for a tweet she sent last night amid the street violence in which he said Sinn Féin were “the real law breakers”

In an indirect reference this tweet, SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said that the response by some political leaders online had been disappointing. 

“It has to be said that the immediate response on social media from some political leaders fell far short of what was needed to provide assurances to people and communities, who are afraid of where we go next,” Mallon said. 

She added: 

The people of Northern Ireland aren’t stupid. They know how we got to this dreadful point and they know why. What the people of Northern Ireland want to know is what we as political leaders are going to do to deescalate the situation and prevent it from reoccurring.

Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said in her statement that the withdrawal of support by unionist leaders for the Police Chief Constable “can’t be entirely divorced” from the attacks on police. 

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O’Neill said that the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), an umbrella group representing loyalist paramilitary groups, had also withdrawn it support for the Good Friday Agreement

“It is vital that the benefits of the peace process are safeguarded and built upon for future generations. And that all of our people feel the benefits,” she said.

The LCC, we’re told, have now withdrawn their support for the agreement. What’s their logic, and more importantly, what’s the alternative? Unionist leaders have withdrawn their support for the Chief Constable, demanding that he resign. Whenever we see this manifest with young people from working class loyalist areas attacking the police. It seems to me and all who are watching on that these things can’t be entirely divorced 

Asked about these comments on RTÉ’s News at One this afternoon, O’Neill added: 

“We didn’t just arrive at this point this week and overnight. We didn’t arrive here without the whipping up of fear and tension and that’s what we’ve seen since the protocol, there has been a deliberate attempt to whip up tensions and to conflate the the issue of identity with the issue of the protocol.” 

Speaking in Stormont, O’Neill also said that the Northern Ireland Executive met with the Chief Constable this morning and issued a joint statement which called for calm. 

Part of the statement read:

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.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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