Another night of violence after repeated calls for calm

Police came under petrol bomb attack during a second night of disorder in west Belfast on Thursday as political and community leaders appealed for calm.

Thursday, 8th April 2021, 11:47 pm
Updated Friday, 9th April 2021, 9:24 am

Youths attacked PSNI officers in riot gear on the mainly nationalist Springfield Road side of the Lanark Way peaceline just hours after both the UK and Irish prime ministers made a joint call for an end to the violence.

Shortly before 8.30pm, police deployed dogs and water cannon in an attempt to disperse the rioters.

A large crowd of loyalist youths also gathered on the Shankill Road side of Lanark Way and there were reports of a number of petrol bombs being thrown at officers.

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The PSNI use a water cannon on youths on the Springfield road, during further unrest in Belfast on Thursday. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

On Wednesday night, hundreds of youths fought running battles – throwing petrol bombs – after loyalists set fire to a bus in the same area.

The Biden administration in the US has called for all communities to “enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace”.

In a statement, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “We are concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland and we join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.

“We remain steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace.”

Earlier on Thursday, NI Secretary Brandon Lewis welcomed a united message of condemnation of the violence by the Stormont parties.

He denied that the UK government had abandoned unionists through the new Brexit arrangements, one of the concerns inflaming tensions among loyalists that have sparked a week of violence, which police said had been on a scale not seen in recent years.

Mr Lewis spent Thursday in Northern Ireland speaking to political and faith leaders and police. He said there could be no justification for Wednesday’s violence, during which police fired six plastic bullets and made two arrests.

“I absolutely recognise the challenge and the sense of identity challenges that people in the unionist community have felt around the protocol and the practical outworkings of it,” he said.

Those involved in the violence on the Springfield Road were warned by police to “disperse immediately or the water cannon will be used”.

However, those present continued to fire missiles at police and after several warnings, the water cannon was eventually deployed.

Some of those present jeered before fleeing as the water jet came closer.

It was the first time police had fired water cannons in Northern Ireland since the summer of 2015.

On the Shankill side of the peaceline, at the time of going to press police had been able to keep loyalist youths away from the peaceline gates at Lanark Way.

Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Micheal Martin spoke over the phone on Thursday about the violent clashes in mainly loyalist areas prior to Wednesday night.

In a statement, the Irish government said the two leaders stressed that violence was unacceptable.

“The way forward is through dialogue and working the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement,” the statement said.

“They agreed that the two governments would continue to stay in contact.”

NI Secretary Brandon Lewis said there could be no justification for the violence.

Speaking during a press briefing on Thursday afternoon, Mr Lewis was asked how he can convince young loyalists, as well as the main unionist parties, that senior Sinn Fein figures are not above the law.

Last month, the director of public prosecutions revealed that none of the 24 Sinn Fein representatives investigated for possible breaches of the Covid regulations by attending the funeral of Bobby Storey would face charges.

Mr Lewis said: “I do appreciate that there has been a real tension and reaction, last week particularly, to the outcome of the DPP’s decision on the Bobby Storey funeral.

“I need to be fair to the PSNI, because don’t forget the police recommended prosecution, and some people have missed that in terms of the independent DPP’s decision. But also through that period there have been times when the PSNI have policed, and taken action against people in the whole community.”

Also on Thursday, ministers in the NI Executive condemned the violence and Stormont MLAs unanimously passed a motion calling for an end to the disorder.

In a joint statement, the five-party Executive said: “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.”

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Alistair Bushe