UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been urged to convene all-party talks on Northern Ireland after the sixth night of riots in the province on Wednesday (7 April) left more than 50 police officers injured.
The call by Labour leader Keir Starmer on Thursday followed a night of violence described by the police as some of the worst since the Good Friday peace agreement was finalised in 1998.
The riots, which saw petrol bombs and missiles thrown at officers, vehicles torched and a bus hijacked, has been concentrated in the province’s unionist and loyalist communities. Unionist concerns about policing, and the effects of Brexit on trade between the province and Britain, have been cited as the main causes of the rioting.
The “sectarian violence” had been “at a scale that we have not seen in recent years in Belfast, or further afield,” assistant chief constable Jonathan Roberts said on Thursday.
The violence has been concentrated in areas where criminal gangs linked to loyalist paramilitaries have significant influence, though there is no clear evidence that it has been encouraged by these groups.
On Thursday, Brandon Lewis, the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary, flew to Belfast for talks with the leaders of the province’s coalition government, which brings together both unionist and Irish nationalist parties.
In a statement, Lewis said he was “aware of the ongoing concerns from some in the unionist and loyalist community over recent months”.
“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,” he added.
The police service is accused by some Unionist leaders of having colluded with the republican Sinn Féin party to breach COVID regulations by allowing 2,000 mourners to attend the funeral of former IRA intelligence chief, Bobby Storey, last June. Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill was among the attendees. Nobody was prosecuted over the apparent breach of restrictions.
Last month, Arlene Foster, the first minister of the devolved Northern Ireland executive, called for the resignation of the police chief, Simon Byrne, over the controversy.
As part of London’s Brexit deal negotiated by Boris Johnson, the UK quit the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of 2020.
The deal has been particularly controversial in Northern Ireland, as the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, designed to avoid a hard border between the province and the Republic of Ireland, has resulted in the introduction of customs checks on goods from Great Britain to the province.
Although a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU, the main Unionist parties supported Brexit.
However, the four pro-union parties have joined forces to campaign for the abolition of the protocol on the grounds that it separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in terms of trade relations.
On Thursday, Justice Minister Naomi Long, a member of the Alliance party, which is not part of the unionist or Irish nationalist camps, said that “deception” by pro-Brexit campaigners had resulted in unrealistic promises being made about Brexit’s effects on Northern Ireland.
Throughout the negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU, Johnson had insisted that there would not be extra customs and paperwork requirements for businesses in Northern Ireland.
The Labour party’s Northern Ireland spokesperson, Louise Haigh, said that Johnson needed to be “honest about the consequences of his Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]