Foster urges end to loyalist violence in Belfast and Derry

Flare-up follows renewed political wrangling over alleged Covid breaches by Sinn Féin

Eyewitness footage has captured protesters in Belfast pelting police van with petrol bombs, with one protester having their clothing catch fire after being hit by a petrol bomb. Video: Reuters

Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster has called for a halt to loyalist rioting after Easter weekend unrest in Belfast and Derry left dozens of PSNI officers injured.

The violence, on the 23rd anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, comes amid tension in the Executive between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and a policing row that has led Mrs Foster to call for the resignation of PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne,

The PSNI said 30 petrol bombs were thrown at police on Saturday night on the outskirts of Belfast in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, in what they described as an “orchestrated attack”.

It came after unrest on the night of Good Friday in the Sandy Row area of Belfast, when rioters threw heavy masonry, metal rods, fireworks and manhole covers at police, injuring 15 officers. Another 12 were hurt Derry on what was a fifth night of disorder there.


The rioting follows renewed political wrangling over alleged breaches of coronavirus rules by Sinn Féin leaders at the funeral in June of veteran republican Bobby Storey.

A burning car at the Cloughfern roundabout in Newtownabbey. Photograph: Peter Morrison/PA Wire
A PSNI officer walks behind a police vehicle engulfed in flames following violence in Newtownabbey, Belfast. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty
Damaged cars and open flames in Newtownabbey, Belfast. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty

Prosecutors decided last week not to press charges against Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and several other Sinn Féin figures over the funeral.

The row led the DUP leader Ms Foster and other unionist leaders to say they had lost confidence in the chief constable. Mr Byrne says he will not resign, however.

The First Minister told Downtown Radio on Sunday that she strongly supported all rank-and-file PSNI officers. “I know that many of our young people are hugely frustrated by the events of this last week, but causing injury to police officers will not make things better,” she said.

“I appeal to our young people not to get drawn into disorder, which will lead to them having criminal convictions and blight in their own lives … I also ask parents to play their part, and be proactive in protecting their young adults.”

‘Orchestrated attack’

The Newtownabbey riot took place after 20-30 people gathered in the O’Neill Road-Cloughfern area, said PSNI chief superintendent Davy Beck. There were young people and older men, “some of whom were wearing masks” in the crowd, he added.

“This was an orchestrated attack on police who were carrying out their duties to help protect the people of Newtownabbey,” said Mr Beck. One man aged 47 was arrested.

The Sandy Row riot on Friday came when “a small local protest quickly developed into an attack” on PSNI officers, the force said. Seven people were charged after the incident, four men aged 25, 21 and 18, a woman aged 19 and three youths aged 17, 14 and 13.

The riot in Derry on Friday came after police received reports of youths gathering in the area of Nelson Drive and Tullyally. “On their arrival, they came under sustained attack from a large group of youths and young adults throwing masonry, bottles, petrol bombs and fireworks.

Sinn Féin MLA Gerry Kelly claimed the unrest was “a direct consequence” of the actions of unionist leaders. “The disturbances in loyalist areas across the North are an outworking of the DUP’s rhetoric and undermining of the PSNI and criminal justice system,” he said.

“By their words and actions they have sent a very dangerous message to young people in loyalist areas.”

DUP MP Gregory Campbell dismissed Mr Kelly’s remarks. “Those attacking the police should stop,” Mr Campbell said. “Rioting and injuring rank-and-file officers will result in young people being criminalised.”

“For Gerry Kelly and Sinn Féin to comment on the frustrations on our streets without recognising the major part they played in creating that anger is arrogance personified.”

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times