Loyalist paramilitaries are warning of a “spectacular collective failure” to understand unionist anger in the North, as they denied any involvement in ongoing street violence and urged protesters to remain peaceful.
In a statement issued on Friday, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), an umbrella group representing the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, was also critical of the Irish Government.
There have been widespread calls for calm after violence on Thursday night left another 19 police officers injured after they again came under attack with petrol bombs, fireworks and stones. A car was also hijacked.
Water cannon was used by police for the first time in six years on crowds gathered on a nationalist section of Belfast’s Springfield Road.
A human chain of community workers was formed to prevent rioters reaching the gates at the peace wall at Lanark Way, the scene of Wednesday night’s tensions.
In total, 74 police officers have been injured in more than a week of violence.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said two arrests were made on Thursday night and a "significant criminal investigation" was under way. He described the range of injuries as generally minor to limbs and bodies, and damage to hearing.
Plastic bullets and a water cannon were deployed over recent nights when police had exhausted other tactics, according to Mr Roberts. Police dogs were also utilised, with one injured during the disorder.
The LCC said none of its groups were involved “either directly or indirectly” in the rioting, adding “any actions taken by the loyalist community should be entirely peaceful”.
It further called on “our people not to get drawn into violent confrontations”.
Reiterating its opposition to the de facto Irish Sea border for goods, as a result of Brexit, the LCC said it had “repeatedly urged” the British government and others “to take seriously our warnings of the dangerous consequences of imposing this hard border on us” and the need for talks to resolve the issue.
“To date there has been a spectacular collective failure to understand properly the scale and nature of unionist and loyalist anger,” the statement said. “Indeed, there is a complete failure to understand loyalists as people and equal citizens.”
The LCC criticised the Irish Government for being "disingenuous and wrong" in its promotion of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, which it claimed "breached the core safeguards and guarantees contained within the Belfast Agreement".
“For Irish Government Ministers to use the threat of resumed violence as a negotiating tool was unforgivable,” it said.
The LCC demanded a renegotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by the British government as part of its deal to exit the EU, so there would be "no hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and no hard border on this island".
Following the statement, Mr Roberts said its assessment was that the violence was not orchestrated by a group, in the name of that group.
“We feel that there may be some people who could have connection to proscribed organisations, who have been present at the scenes of violence,” he said, but added “we don’t believe it’s been sanctioned and organised by proscribed organisations”.
Mr Roberts urged parents and community activists to do their part to prevent further unrest, warning rioters “can expect if they are convicted of such crimes to receive custodial sentences”.
“It will change people’s lives forever,” he warned.
Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis, who had called on the LCC to condemn the disturbances, met the leaders of all the main Stormont political parties on Friday for a briefing from Chief Constable Simon Byrne.
It is understood they were given an “operational update” on the recent violence as well as policing plans for the weekend.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald called for an intervention from British prime minister Boris Johnson.
Tensions have been linked to bad feeling in unionist and loyalist communities over the Northern Ireland protocol and the decision not to prosecute anybody over alleged Covid-19 rule breaches at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey.
Drugs seizures against a dissident faction of the UDA in southeast Antrim have also been blamed.