Foster blames ‘malign and criminal elements’ for Northern Ireland violence

First Minister Arlene Foster has blamed “malign and criminal elements” for whipping up young people involved in violent disorder across Northern Ireland that has left 41 police officers injured.

In Londonderry, trouble has flared for seven nights running, while there has also been recent disorder in areas including Belfast, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus, and Ballymena.

Children as young as 12 have been involved.

On Tuesday evening, crowds of loyalists began to gather for an ongoing protest in Larne.

Crowds gather in Larne, Co Antrim. Credit: Presseye

It appears to be centred around anger at the NI Protocol and the prospect of a border in the Irish Sea.

The main A8 had to be closed in both directions at Antiville for a time - it has since reopened, but people are still advised to avoid the area if possible and there is a heavy police presence.

Meanwhile, the Stormont Assembly is set to be recalled from Easter recess for an emergency debate on a motion condemning the recent attacks on police.

Armoured police Land Rovers come under attack from missiles in Carrickfergus. Credit: PA

The DUP leader said she had spoken to youth workers across Northern Ireland who said part of the issue is the closure of youth centres because of Covid-19 restrictions.

“I’ve asked the Executive to look at that urgently and to get those youth centres open immediately... so those youths can come off the streets and come away from some malign influences that are in our society,” Mrs Foster added.

“I certainly think in a particular area of Northern Ireland that there are malign and criminal elements who are whipping up some of our young people.

“I do absolutely accept that that is the case in a particular area of Northern Ireland, but South East Antrim UDA does not have rite in other parts of Northern Ireland, so there are concerns right across Northern Ireland.”

The South East Antrim UDA has been blamed for attacks in some areas, amid apparent unrest over a series of policing operations targeting crime linked to the organisation.

Mrs Foster again referenced the alleged breaches of coronavirus regulations by senior Sinn Féin members including her partner-in-government deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

A number of people were investigated by police over their attendance at the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey, but the Public Prosecution Service recommended that no prosecutions be brought against any individuals.

“The rule of law is very important to me, individually and as party leader, and last week when it was very clear that the rule of law had been damaged because Sinn Féin presented themselves as above the law - a special status for their funeral whilst everybody else had to deal with the restrictions at particular points in time,” Mrs Foster said.

“I recognise that there is huge anger about that.

“But if the rule of law is to mean anything, it is that everybody is equal under the law and everybody has to be equally subject to the law.”

She urged young people to “please, please desist from the violence”, adding: “There is a better way and the way is through politics.”

However, Sinn Féin has accused the DUP of stoking tensions.

MLA Gerry Kelly claimed they were responsible in terms of “their rhetoric, their foolish rhetoric, bringing people onto the streets”.

Justice Minister and Alliance Party leader Naomi Long called for the emergency debate at Stormont and secured the required support of 30 MLAs for the Assembly to be recalled.

The sitting is likely to take place on Thursday.

Mrs Long has said there is “simply no excuse for violence” and that it must stop “before lives are lost”.

Mrs Long said she had spoken with Chief Constable Simon Byrne to “assure him of my full support” and added that her thoughts were with those officers who had been injured.

“The scenes we have witnessed over the past few nights have resulted in nothing but property destroyed and lives endangered,” she said.

“Once again, we see adults drawing children and young people into violence and disorder.

“All too sadly, there are young people who left home with a clean record and will be waking up in the days ahead looking at the prospect of a criminal record - the consequences of which will stay with them for the rest of their life.”

Speaking about the Assembly recall, the Alliance leader added: “There is no room for ambiguity.

“This violence must be condemned by a united Assembly, which fully supports the rule of law in Northern Ireland.

“Anything less is just allowing a culture of lawlessness to grow and further poison our community.”

Police respond to disorder in the Sandy Row area of south Belfast. Credit: PA

Throughout Easter Monday, masked loyalist bands marched through towns including Portadown, Ballymena and Markethill.

The Parades Commission was not notified about the marches, as is required for such events in Northern Ireland.

Amid the disorder that erupted, petrol bombs and masonry were among the missiles used to attack police, while cars and bins were also set alight.

Riot police respond to disorder in the Nelson Drive area of Londonderry. Credit: PA

In Londonderry, a senior police officer has appealed to those with influence in the community, and to parents, to help stop the “senseless” criminality that has been ongoing for seven nights.

Easter Monday saw yet more trouble in loyalist areas of the city, with cars burned out and petrol bombs thrown at police.

The Policing Board is to be briefed by the Chief Constable on the recent disorder, the injuries to officers, and the police assessment of the situation in Northern Ireland on Wednesday.

Chairman Doug Garrett said: “The violence that has manifested on our streets over recent days has been of serious concern right across the community and may also have significant consequences for those young people who have become involved in it.

“The number and extent of the injuries sustained by officers is shocking and the briefing arranged with the Chief Constable will provide an opportunity for board members to be updated on the latest position.”

Meanwhile, the First Minister has repeated her calls for Simon Byrne to quit his role as PSNI Chief Constable , adding that she has no plans to meet with him.

“When I think of all those officers out facing the violence over this past few nights,” Mrs Foster said.

“I really feel for them, because their leadership team has left them down and let them burn really bad.”