Leaders must defuse North tensions ‘before someone is killed’, says Coveney

Taoiseach condemns ongoing violence while European Commission defends NI protocol

Both Taoiseach Micheal Martin and British PM Boris Johnson have appealed for calm in Northern Ireland as rioting and violence escalated in recent days. Video: Reuters

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has condemned the violence seen in ongoing unrest in Northern Ireland and urged political leaders to work out a response "before someone is killed".

Mr Coveney told RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland that the images of violence on the streets in Belfast on Wednesday night were "shocking" and ones that he thought had been consigned to history.

“This needs to stop before someone is killed. That has to start at the top in terms of political leadership,” he said.

The Northern Ireland Executive is meeting on Thursday morning to be briefed on the unrest seen over the last week.


The Stormont Assembly has been recalled to discuss the recent scenes of violence in mainly loyalist areas.

First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster said on Thursday morning her "thoughts are particularly with those officers injured by the unjustified & unjustifiable violence of recent days.Those responsible must be subject to the full rigour of the law.All must be equal under the law."

Violent scenes including attacks on police, petrol bombings and rioting have taken place repeatedly on the streets of Belfast and Derry throughout the past week.

On Wednesday night a bus was hijacked and set on fire, a press photographer was assaulted and there were clashes between loyalists and nationalists at peace line street that links the Shankill Road with the Springfield Road in west Belfast.

On Thursday morning, Mr Coveney said it was time for political and community leaders to come together to help defuse tensions, adding that the Irish Government would do its best, but there were some things it could not do.

“Statements from the Irish Government are not going to calm tension in many loyalist communities, it’s got to come from the unionist community.”

Attempts to spread violence beyond loyalist communities into nationalist communities were very worrying, he said.

The unrest has been attributed to tension in loyalist communities over the Northern Ireland Protocol on Brexit and the PSNI's handling of alleged coronavirus regulation breaches by Sinn Féin at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey.

Mr Coveney said he hoped there would be unity in the Northern Ireland Assembly when it meets on Thursday. He acknowledged that there had been issues in the past about Sinn Féin representatives attending the Storey funeral and the decision not to pursue charges, but there were processes that could be followed. “That’s the way to do this – through good politics.”

The tweet from First Minister Arlene Foster was “not helpful” and there was a need for all political leaders to help diffuse tensions, he added.

Ms Foster had condemned the attacks on Twitter, saying: “There is no justification for violence. It is wrong and should stop.

“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 Féin. My thoughts are with the bus driver.”

Mr Coveney said all political leaders needed to be careful with what they said. It was never difficult to criticise and create tension, he said, but the real challenge was to find ways to come together. Violence was not the solution to problems that only politics could solve, he added.

A European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the commission condemned the violence in the strongest possible terms”.

“Nobody has anything to gain from any of this. We call on all those involve to refrain immediately from these violent acts,” chief European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said.

In a statement on Wednesday night Taoiseach Micheál Martin condemned “the violence and attacks on the police that we have witnessed over the last number of days in the North”.

“The only way forward is to address issues of concern through peaceful and democratic means. This evening’s attacks on a journalist and bus driver are deeply concerning and are in no one’s interests.

“Now is the time for the two Governments and leaders on all sides to work together to defuse tensions and restore calm.”

UK prime minister Boris Johnson also appealed for calm on Wednesday night.

He tweeted: “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.”

Asked about the Northern Ireland protocol, a separate European commission spokesman said this was a separate issue.

“In terms of the implementation of the protocol, absolutely a distinct issue from what we have been discussing there ... the protocol was agreed to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland, to protect the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, to protect North-South co-operation, to avoid a hard border, all of that was done for those goals, and now it has to be implemented jointly by both sides,” said commission spokesman Daniel Ferrie.

“We the EU stand ready to find quick pragmatic solutions within the framework of the protocol, for that reason that’s why we said the UK needed to provide a credible roadmap with clear deliberables and milestones for the implementation of the Protocol.”

“On the 31st of March we received a document from the UK entitled the draft EU-UK work programme, we’re now assessing that, and in terms of contacts at the moment we have technical contacts ongoing between both sides.” – Additional reporting: PA

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times