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 critical of the Irish Government.
There have been widespread calls for calm after another night of violence in Northern Ireland which left another 19 police officers injured.
The LCC said none of its groups are involved “either directly or indirectly” in the rioting over the past week. Peaceful protest is a “fundamental human right” and that “any actions taken by the Loyalist community should be entirely peaceful.”
It further urged “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 has “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 urged 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.”
“The LCC is seeking an end to all violence and to solve the underlying concerns of the loyalist and unionist communities whether that is due to the imposition of the Protocol, or the clear feelings of inequality in how our communities are policed and how justice is administered,” it added.
“We are determined to ensure that these serious and legitimate political concerns felt across unionism and loyalism are not allowed to be framed in terms of criminality.”
Following the LCC statement, the PSNI’s Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said its assessment was that the violence is 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”.
He 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.”
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.
The violence was at a lower level on Thursday evening than it had been on Wednesday, but police officers again came under attack with petrol bombs, fireworks and stones.
Water cannon was used by police for the first time in six years in Northern Ireland on crowds gathered on a nationalist section of the 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.
Assistant Chief Constable Roberts said two arrests were made on Thursday night and a “significant criminal investigation” is under way.
He described the range of injuries as generally minor to limbs and bodies, and damage to hearing.
Mr Roberts said measures such as AEPs — a type of plastic bullet — and a water cannon were deployed over recent nights when police had exhausted other tactics.
Police dogs were also utilised on Thursday night, with one injured during the disorder.
Following serious trouble on Wednesday night, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson spoke and urged an end to the trouble, which has raged mostly in loyalist areas of the North since last weekend.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald on Friday morning called for “enlightened” leadership from Unionists and said they should display “some courage” in supporting their communities, which would be equalled by her party.
The violence of the past week had “stoked up tensions” and needed to be faced down she told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland.
Ms McDonald said there was a “really sinister” aspect to the unrest and disorder which had been focused on the “most sensitive and volatile” settings.
This had been a deliberate attempt to “stoke up maximum tension,” she said. People in the area were very fearful and wanted the protection of the PSNI.
“Every single one of us, irrespective of our political stripe, has an obligation to contribute to a call for calm.”
Ms McDonald said she had met with the Chief Constable Simon Byrne on Thursday and engagement was ongoing. The police needed to be fully resourced so they could act speedily to protect communities.
Unionists needed to call on those involved in the violence to desist and to “stop things before they get more serious or people are badly injured.”
There needed to be more engagement from London too, she said and called for intervention from Mr Johnson along with Mr Lewis. The success of the whole peace arrangement relied on strategic cooperation among all the stake holders, she added.
Ms McDonald said that there was no doubt that Brexit had opened up a whole series of dynamics. Unionist leaders had been the most ardent ‘leave’ supporters despite being warned that Brexit would be bad for the North. The Northern Ireland Protocol was not up for negation she said.
Stormont Ministers jointly condemned the scenes as “deplorable” and called for an end to the unrest, which have been linked to bad feeling in unionist and loyalist communities over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol and the decision not to prosecute anybody over alleged Covid-19 rule breaches at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey.
The White House said it was “concerned by the violence” in the North and “we join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their call for calm”.
“We welcome the provisions in both the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, which help protect the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement,” press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Meanwhile, Mr Lewis described as “despicable” adults seen encouraging children as young as 13 to engage in “thuggery and hooliganism” during the riots.
He said it was “pretty sad and pretty dreadful” that older people were goading youngsters into charging sectarian flashpoints during the escalating street violence linked to mounting loyalist tensions.
“Words fail me as to what goes on in an adult’s mind to encourage a 13-year-old kid to behave that way,” he said in a briefing with reporters after flying in to speak to community, political and church leaders.
Rejecting suggestions that his Conservative government’s role in putting a border down the Irish Sea as part of the Brexit agreement was to blame, Mr Lewis said the reasons for the unrest were “more complicated than any one particular issue”.
But he “absolutely accepts there are some real challenges around the [Northern Ireland] protocol” and how people in the unionist/loyalist community feel about the protocol, both in terms of its impact and their sense of identity”. London and Brussels were continuing to negotiate over the “issues and challenges”, he added, and “we will get this sorted out . . . We will do what we need to do to get the right outcome for the people of Northern Ireland.”
‘Prisoners of the past’
Meanwhile, the sister of murdered journalist Lyra McKee, Nicola McKee Corner, told RTÉ radio’s Today show with Philip Boucher Hayes that the party leaders should “come out onto the streets” to engage with the people claiming to be so disaffected, to find out the issues and alleviate them.
Ms McKee Corner said that the past week had been extremely difficult as the second anniversary of her sister’s death approached. She said she lives close to where the violence was occurring and had friends and family on both sides of the Peace Walls.
The young people involved were “probably” not fully aware of what they were doing, she said. For them it was “a bit of fun and excitement.” The adults looking on were much more responsible and were not using their influence to say “stop doing this.” They were actively encouraging such behaviour which was frightening and disheartening.
Ms McKee Corner said she had encouraged her adult children to move away as “I feel we are always going to be prisoners of the past” and were being “held to ransom at every turn.”
Some sections of the community were going back to barbaric behaviour, she said.
“I had hoped that Northern Ireland would become a more civil place, but it seems we’re going to stay prisoners of the past.”
It was reprehensible that some were “stoking the fires” and were “holding the matches themselves”. They needed to take responsibility before someone was injured or killed, she said.
Ms McKee Corner said her mother had died of a broken heart following the death of Lyra. “It’s very difficult to know that the person who killed Lyra is walking free, living their life, while we’re still suffering every day.”
The violence on the streets of Belfast was going to destroy families and there was no justification “for any of it.”
Her sister had been killed when a gunman fired a bullet during a riot, that could happen in Belfast where someone could come along and “act carelessly” and kill another human being.
“What is the purpose of that?”.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she was “worried about the weekend ahead” and urged young people to “not engage, do not allow yourself to be used or manipulated in any sort of way, and to stay off the streets, stay home and stay safe.”
“I think there’s a strong role here for the two governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. I made that point to Brandon Lewis this morning,” she added.
“It’s really, really important that we stand shoulder to shoulder and say no to this type of criminal behaviour, and that we don’t allow our children to be sucked in by criminal gangs who are orchestrating some of what we see on our streets.” - Additional reporting PA