Ministers in the Stormont Executive have been urged to speak with a united voice in condemning the ongoing British loyalist rioting in the north of Ireland. The call from the Police Federation, the body that represents rank and file officers, came ahead of a meeting of the north’s powersharing administration to discuss the escalating loyalist violence.
The Stormont Assembly is also being recalled from Easter recess for an emergency sitting later on Thursday morning to debate the violence, which has mostly flared in loyalist areas.
A total of 41 officers sustained injuries in previous outbreaks of disorder in various parts of the north in recent days.
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.
Calls for resignation
As rioting has flared, 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 last year.
Unionists are furious at a decision by prosecutors not to take action against 24 Sinn Féin politicians, including deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, for attending the funeral – a decision partly related to the fact police engaged with the organisers before an event that drew 2,000 people on to the streets.
Byrne has vowed not to resign and has signalled a desire to engage with people who have concerns about policing in the region.
Police Federation chair Mark Lindsay expressed concern that the row over Byrne’s future was playing out at such a turbulent time.
Lindsay told BBC Radio Ulster:
I think the Executive need to stand together and need to make very, very firm statements around where they stand in the support in law and order,
They cannot differentiate between supporting the Chief Constable and supporting officers on the ground.
Policing needs leadership, it needs a Chief Constable, and really in the middle of a crisis this isn’t terribly helpful.
We all have to work with our Chief Constable, we do need a Chief Constable. I don’t think removing him at this stage would be terribly helpful.
Lindsay said Wednesday’s violence was “disturbing” and escalated a “couple of notches” from the disorder witnessed over previous days. He added:
The latest information I have is that there were seven more injured last night and that’s only officers whose injuries were reported at the time and that includes injuries to lower limbs and some concussion,
Obviously my thoughts are with them this morning, but we’re probably going to see some more injuries documented as the day goes on.
Bus and media under attack from loyalists
Wednesday night saw a bus hijacked and set on fire and a press photographer assaulted. Loyalists also clashed with republicans at a peace line street that links the Shankill Road with the Springfield Road in west Belfast.
The scenes of violence flooded social media and prompted UK prime minister Boris Johnson to appeal for calm.
Irish premier Micheál Martin also condemned Wednesday night’s events, tweeting:
I utterly condemn the violent attacks on police, a journalist, and bus driver over recent days in The North.
Now is the time for the two Governments and leaders on all sides to work together to defuse tensions and restore calm.
DUP first minister Arlene Foster condemned the attacks on Twitter last night, saying:
There is no justification for violence. It is wrong and should stop.
This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent unionism or loyalism.
They are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland and only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Féin. My thoughts are with the bus driver.
Her suggestion that Sinn Féin were the “real law breakers” in a tweet about the hijack and destruction of a bus during rioting has been met with condemnation from political rivals:
These are “real law breakers”, burning buses, terrorising passengers and attacking police.
Let’s focus on that and getting this stopped before someone loses their life. https://t.co/dZ5UwCflzb
— Naomi Long MLA (@naomi_long) April 7, 2021
Alliance Party justice minister Naomi Long tabled the motion requesting the recall of the Assembly. She said her party’s intention was to get all parties at Stormont to:
unite around a call for calm and the cessation of violence.