Stormont debate on loyalist turmoil told riots risk worsening pandemic

Clockwise: Michelle O'Neill, Arlene Foster, Steve Aiken and Sinead McLaughlinClockwise: Michelle O'Neill, Arlene Foster, Steve Aiken and Sinead McLaughlin
Clockwise: Michelle O'Neill, Arlene Foster, Steve Aiken and Sinead McLaughlin
The leaders of all major parties have used a Stormont debate to call for a swift end to the current loyalist street turmoil – with the UUP leader adding that rioters are in breach of anti-virus laws.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, speaking remotely to MLAs in the Stormont Assembly, said the Province cannot allow its children to be “preyed upon by those who prefer the shadows to the light”.

She said of violence that “just as it was wrong in the past and never justified, so it is wrong now”.

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Mrs Foster also spoke about the “harm to Northern Ireland’s image in this, our centenary year”.

Arlene Foster addressing the AssemblyArlene Foster addressing the Assembly
Arlene Foster addressing the Assembly

“No brick, no bottle, no petrol bomb thrown has achieved or can ever achieve anything but destruction, harm and fear,” she said, speaking from TVs mounted above MLAs in the debating chamber of Stormont, which has been specially recalled from holiday for the debate.

“We’re indebted to the police officers who stand between order and those who prefer anarchy,” she added, saying that “NI is faced with a number of deep and significant problems ahead”, but that they must be worked through politically.

She ended her contribution by stressing that the principle that “every citizen is equal under the law... regardless of background and status” must prevail.

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UUP leader Steve Aiken rose to his feet to tell MLAs: “The imagery this portrays of 21st century Northern Ireland, into our second century, is not something anybody should want to see.

“This violence must stop before anyone is killed.

“Covid hasn’t gone away. Creating chaos and disruption not only damages Northern Ireland, it is also creating opportunities for the transmission of the disease.”

He said rioters are not only breaking the law through violence, but they are also breaching Covid regulations.

He also stressed his “full support for the PSNI” and offered them his “unreserved thanks” to serving officers, adding he is due to speak to the PSNI chief constable this afternoon.

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Meanwhile justice minister Naomi Long called the scenes both “depressing” and “disgraceful”, and likened it to “child abuse”.

She proposed the motion:

That this Assembly notes with concern the violence on our streets over recent days and condemns without equivocation those involved;

Sends best wishes to those police officers attacked or injured whilst protecting the community and extends its sympathy to those members of the public who have suffered distress, loss or damage as a result; re-affirms its full commitment to support for policing and for the rule of law;

Recognises that leadership comes with responsibility; recommits to upholding a culture of lawfulness in both actions and in words;

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And calls for an immediate and complete end to this violence.

Regional Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill said that the now 23-year-old Belfast Agreement gave the Province “an alternative to conflict”.

She noted that unionists have called on PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne to resign, and said that the Loyalist Communities Council (a forum bringing together figures with links to loyalist paramilitarism) had withdrawn support for the 1998 agreement, adding that “these things can’t be entirely divorced” from the current unrest.

“Surely unequivocal support for the police and its leadership is the responsible thing to guarantee,” she said.

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“There isn’t room for armed gangs, there isn’t room for criminal gangs... those people are enemies of the peace”.

SDLP MLA Sinead McLaughlin said that 23 years of the Belfast Agreement “has given us peace, but it hasn’t given us reconciliation” – and has also “failed to get rid of paramilitaries”.

She said: “The SDLP hears and deeply regrets the feelings and frustrations of abandonment that is acutely felt within our unionist community. As a nationalist, I truly understand this.”

She blamed the UDA for at least part of the violence, as well as drug dealing and protection rackets.

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She also said: “Not that the UDA is unique. In Derry, there is a drugs war between the INLA and New IRA which has led to recent shootings.

“We have to do so much more to rid ourselves of the scourge of these paramilitaries. The last thing we need to do is give these sinister forces any type of political cover.”

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Alistair Bushe