The leaders of the UK and Irish governments called for calm on Thursday after another night of violence in Northern Ireland during which rioters attacked a bus and a photojournalist who was covering the confrontation with police.
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said he was “deeply concerned” about the violence, which has left 55 officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) injured after eight consecutive nights of localised trouble in mainly loyalist areas of the region.
“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,” Johnson tweeted.
He added that all sides must look to resolve differences “through dialogue not violence or criminality”.
The condemnation was echoed by the Irish taoiseach Micheál Martin who said it was time for the British and Irish governments to work with leaders on all sides of Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide to restore calm.
“The only way forward is to address issues of concern through peaceful and democratic means,” he said. “Now is the time for the two governments and leaders on all sides to work together to defuse tensions and restore calm.”
The UK’s opposition Labour party also called on Johnson to convene cross-party talks and engage with the Irish government to calm tensions.
“What the prime minister needs to do now is step up, show leadership and convene all-party talks, talk to the government of Ireland as well and resolve this with pragmatic political solutions,” leader Keir Starmer said.
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, flew to Belfast to hold talks with political and community leaders. He noted “ongoing concerns from some in the unionist and loyalist community over recent months” but said these must be resolved through dialogue.
Following an emergency meeting, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive released an all-party statement condemning the violence as “completely unacceptable and unjustifiable, no matter what concerns may exist in communities”.
Tension has been rising in recent months between the region’s mainly Protestant unionist and the mainly Catholic nationalist communities, fuelled in part by disagreements over the implementation of the Brexit deal, which came into force on January 1.
Under the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol all goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain must follow EU customs rules, leading to a trade border in the Irish Sea, which Unionists have rejected as an unacceptable barrier to their place in the UK.
The more immediate cause for the violence was Unionist anger at a decision not to prosecute members of nationalist party Sinn Féin who allegedly breached Covid-19 lockdown rules to join a 2,000-strong crowd of mourners at the funeral of a former IRA leader last June.
All the main Unionist parties, including the Democratic Unionist party, which is led by first minister Arlene Foster, have called for the resignation of the region’s police chief, Simon Byrne, saying he had lost the confidence of the community.
Wednesday night’s trouble flared in west Belfast where several hundred people gathered on the peace lines between the loyalist Shankill Road and the nationalist Springfield Road.
The PSNI said that petrol bombs and missiles were thrown in both directions, a car was hijacked and set on fire and police fired six baton rounds as they confronted troublemakers. Eight officers were injured. Two men aged 18 and 28 were arrested.
Jonathan Roberts, the assistant chief constable of the PSNI, said the “involvement of proscribed organisations is likely” in the conflict, referring to illegal sectarian paramilitary criminal groups that continue to operate despite the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal.
In Brussels, the European Commission also added its condemnation. “Nobody has anything to gain from this,” the commission said. “We call on all those involved to refrain immediately from these violent acts.”
EU countries were also updated by the commission on Thursday on ongoing discussions with the UK over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Officials were told that a draft work plan submitted by the UK for applying the protocol was insufficient and that the two sides were now engaged in talks on a common blueprint.
Contacts so far have revealed a growing list of “problematic points”, the commission said, according to diplomats. The EU executive also told them, however, that most issues could be addressed “at technical level” and that the problem areas were not new.
Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said on Thursday that the Biden administration was concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland and called for calm.
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