Emergency talks to take place following violent unrest in Northern Ireland
Emergency talks are set to take place in Northern Ireland following a week of violent attacks on police.
In the latest scenes, which took place in west Belfast on Wednesday, a bus was hijacked and set alight, petrol bombs, masonry and fireworks were thrown at officers and a peace wall gate was lit up in flames.
A press photographer was also attacked.
Justice Minister Naomi Long has said it is a “miracle that no-one was killed”.
Police quelled crowds of 600 people on either side of the peace line and deployed six AEPs, a type of plastic bullet, as well as arresting two men, aged 18 and 28, on suspicion of riotous behaviour.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis was due to arrive in Northern Ireland later to hold emergency talks with the main political parties, as well as faith and community leaders.
Mr Lewis will meet with First Minister Arlene Foster, from the DUP, and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, from Sinn Fein, on Thursday afternoon, the PA news agency understands.
He has urged all communities to work together to end the violence, saying the determination to move on from the Troubles could not be “crushed by a small minority”.
Sir Keir Starmer has urged Boris Johnson to “step up” and convene all-party talks, as he noted unionist concerns that the Prime Minister’s Brexit promises were not being kept.
Earlier, ministers in the Stormont 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.”
The Stormont Assembly was recalled from Easter recess for an emergency sitting following a motion put forward by Ms Long calling for MLAs to unequivocally condemn those involved and support the rule of law.
Speaking during the Assembly debate, DUP leader Mrs 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 had taken the region backwards.
She said that the future required political leadership.
Ms O’Neill said the violence was dangerous and unacceptable.
She said illegal loyalist paramilitaries and criminal elements were influencing young people and orchestrating the violence.
“They are holding back their own people and they are holding back their own community,” she said.
But Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts later said during a press conference that he could not confirm whether paramilitary groups were involved in recent riots.
“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,” he said during a press conference at PSNI headquarters in Belfast.
“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 involving large groups on both sides is not something we have seen in recent years. We believe there was a level of pre-planning.”
An estimated 600 people gathered on either side on the Lanark Way peace wall gates from 5pm, which escalated to “significant disorder”.
The violence is unfolding at a time of increasing rancour in the political sphere amid tensions over Brexit’s Irish Sea trade border and the fallout from the police’s handling of a mass republican funeral that took place during pandemic restrictions last year.
As rioting has flared across Northern Ireland, all four main unionist parties continue to call for PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to quit over how his service dealt with the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey.
Unionists are furious at a decision by prosecutors not to take action against 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including Ms O’Neill, for attending the funeral – a decision partly related to the fact that police had engaged with organisers before the event that drew 2,000 people on to the streets.
Mr Byrne has vowed not to resign and has signalled a desire to engage with people who have concerns about policing in the region.
Wednesday’s scenes of violence flooded social media and prompted UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to appeal for calm.
He 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.”
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