Secretary of State says Northern Ireland violence ‘doesn’t serve anyone’s cause’

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has said violence on the streets of Northern Ireland “doesn't serve anyone's cause” as he acknowledged “real issues around how the protocol has landed” post-Brexit.

The fall-out from Brexit and the prospect of a border in the Irish Sea is among the issues being blamed for ongoing tensions in loyalist communities.

Trouble has flared across Northern Ireland for several nights running - largely in loyalist parts of Belfast and Londonderry and areas including Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey, and Ballymena - with 55 police officers injured in disorder not seen on such a scale in recent years.

  • NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis

The Secretary of State said “words failed him” at the idea of adults encouraging a 13-year-old to engage in the violence seen in the region.

Having arrived in Belfast for emergency talks with First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, Mr Lewis said it was “really good to see all five parties coming together with a clear statement which is that violence is not acceptable”.

He denied that the UK Government had abandoned unionists through the new Brexit arrangements, adding: “I’ll be the first to acknowledge, over the first few months of the year, there were real issues around how the protocol has landed for people, both as consumers and those in the loyalist and unionist community.

“The way to deal with these things is through a democratic and diplomatic, political process. There is no legitimisation of violence to deal with any of those issues.

“It doesn’t serve anyone’s cause whatever their concern is on any given issue.”

The Secretary of State also denied that he plans to meet with the Loyalist Communities Council, but challenged the group to publicly condemn the violence.

“I am always willing to meet with anyone who is clear that the process for taking issues forward is a democratic proper political process,” Mr Lewis said.

During the most recent violence in the Lanark Way area of west Belfast, petrol bombs were among the missiles hurled at police, a bus was hijacked and set alight, and a press photographer was attacked by masked men and had his cameras damaged.

The peace gates were broken open amid disturbances on both sides of the interface.

Mr Lewis urged all communities to work together to end the violence, saying the determination to move on from the Troubles cannot be “crushed by a small minority”.

He also encouraged politicians to “think very carefully” about the language they use.

He added: “Not just unionists, but if you look at the tweets and messages from politicians from all parties - they have put out messages that can be interpreted in a particular way as having a bit of spite to them.

“I don’t think there is any place for that. I have spoken to people across parties about that.”

Mr Lewis added that he remain in “close contact” with Prime Minister Boris Johnson to keep him updated.

Recreational rioting is a term often used in Northern Ireland. Scenes of youths pelting police lines is an all too familiar and depressing phenomenon. But it is important to say that the violence witnessed over recent days, while destructive and mindless, has not appeared out of nowhere. The reasons for this eruption of violence are as complicated as they are numerous...

- UTV Political Editor Tracey Magee in her blog From Brexit to sectarian anger

Earlier, the Stormont Executive unanimously passed a motion calling for an end to the disorder.

In a joint statement, all five main parties – the DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP, UUP, and Alliance Party - 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 NI Assembly met for an emergency debate after being recalled from Easter recess, following a motion put forward by Alliance leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long calling for MLAs to unequivocally condemn those involved and support the rule of law.

Meanwhile, a small group of loyalists gathered for a protest outside Stormont.

Opening the debate, Mrs Long said her thoughts were with the police officers who suffered what she said “could be life-changing injuries” .

She added: “It is a mercy that no one has lost their life as a result of this appalling violence and I would appeal again for everyone with influence in our community to use it to end this.

“The scenes over the last week have been as depressing as they are disgraceful.”

PSNI Tactical Support Group officers in attendance at Nelson Drive Estate in Londonderry Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

Speaking remotely, DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster condemned the scenes witnessed over recent nights as “totally unacceptable” , and said the injuries to police officers, plus harm to Northern Ireland's image and people's property had taken the region backwards.

“Today is not the time to rehearse the arguments in the last few weeks,” she said.

"We should all know that when politics are perceived to fail, those who fill the vacuum cause despair.

"Northern Ireland faces deep political challenges ahead.”

Sinn Féin's deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill added her condemnation of the scenes of violence, saying she was saddened that the debate was needed.

“I think it's incumbent upon us all as Assembly members, as political leaders, to meet and to publicly express our deep concern at the recent violence and ongoing street disorder,” she said.

Ms O'Neill also described the scenes in Belfast as a “very dangerous escalation of events in recent days” , adding that it was “utterly deplorable” .

The wreckage of a Translink Metrobus on fire on the Shankill Road in Belfast Credit: Liam McBurney/PA

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said the riots were “completely unacceptable” .

He added: “Organised criminal gangs bringing out children, young people and others to commit acts of destruction helps no-one and no cause.

"The imagery this portrays of 21st century Northern Ireland into our second century is not something that anyone should want to see.

“This violence must stop before anyone is killed.”

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have spoken on the phone about the violence and made a joint call for calm.

“The way forward is through dialogue and working the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement,” a statement from the Irish Government said.

The European Commission has also called for an end to the violence in Northern Ireland.

Commission spokesman Eric Mamer told reporters in Brussels: “We, of course, condemn in the strongest possible terms the acts of violence that have occurred in Northern Ireland over the past days.

“Nobody has anything to gain from this. We call on all those involved to refrain immediately from these violent acts.”

The Biden administration has also appealed for calm and voiced its support for the Brexit protocol.

At a briefing on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: “We are concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland and we join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.

“We remain steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace.

“We welcome the provisions in both the EU-UK trade cooperation agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol, which helped protect the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”