Northern Ireland’s leaders are holding crisis talks after violence flared in Belfast amid mounting anger at Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
The Stormont meeting follows several nights of unrest in loyalist communities amid tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol and the PSNI’s handling of alleged coronavirus regulation breaches by Sinn Fein at the funeral of IRA terrorist Bobby Storey.
The Prime Minister condemned violence after a bus was hijacked and torched having been pelted with petrol bombs near the loyalist Shankill Road.
Incidents broke out on the peace line street that links the Shankill Road with the nationalist Springfield Road. A photographer was allegedly assaulted.
Writing on Twitter, Mr Johnson said: “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.
“The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.”
But Labour called for the Prime Minister to show leadership and bring the parties together for talks.
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh told BBC Radio 4: “The violence yesterday evening is extremely concerning – to see very young children involved and seemingly adults encouraging them from the sidelines.
“I think it’s undeniable that loyalist paramilitary gangs are exploiting the tensions.
“But they are tapping into a deep hurt and anger in the loyalist and unionist community in Northern Ireland as a consequence of the Prime Minister’s repeated dishonesty about the consequences of his Brexit deal.
“It’s demonstrated just how fragile the peace process in Northern Ireland is.
“And it’s now time for the Prime Minister to show responsibility as a custodian of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement to convene talks with all the Northern Ireland parties… and find political pragmatic solutions to the tensions we are seeing.”
A Northern Ireland Executive meeting was due to begin at 10am with Stormont recalled for an emergency debate.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said 55 police officers had been injured across several nights of disorder in Northern Ireland.
Mr Roberts said multiple petrol bombs and missiles, including fireworks and heavy masonry, were thrown and it is “clear there was a degree of organisation” of the violence.
“We saw young people participating in serious disorder and committing serious criminal offences, and they were supported and encouraged, and the actions were orchestrated by adults at certain times,” he said.
“It’s early to indicate whether or not any proscribed organisations were involved but it is our assessment that is a likely situation.
“We have seen scenes last night of a new generation of young people who have been exposed to scenes that I’m sure we all thought were in generations gone by, and I would encourage anybody in a position of leadership – political representatives, community representatives, parents – take an interest in what young people are doing and to have a united message to prevent further scenes like we witnessed last night.”
Mr Roberts said two adults have been arrested following the incidents in Belfast and further arrests will be made in the coming days and weeks.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster tweeted: “There is no justification for violence. It is wrong and should stop.”
She added: “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 Fein. My thoughts are with the bus driver.”
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 Fein 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.
Mr 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 chairman Mark Lindsay expressed concern that the row over Mr Byrne’s future was playing out at such a turbulent time.
“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,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“They cannot differentiate between supporting the Chief Constable and supporting officers on the ground.”