Brandon Lewis Rejects Calls To Hold Emergency Summit Over Violence In Northern Ireland
Violence on the streets of Northern Ireland has subsided in recent days, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has said, as the government faces growing calls to convene an urgent meeting with the Republic of Ireland's government.
On Tuesday Lewis told MPs that it had been "relatively calm" in the province since the weekend "with only a few isolated incidents of disorder," after a week which saw sectarian violence in Belfast, Derry and other parts of Northern Ireland.
He said 88 police officers had been injured as a result of the "totally unacceptable violence," adding that 18 people had been arrested and 15 charged.
"Attacks on police officers are utterly reprehensible," Lewis said in response to an Urgent Question in the Commons today.
"Those engaged in this destruction and disorder do not represent Northern Ireland.
"It is tragic and deeply concerning that young people have been engaged and encouraged in this violence, and will now end up with criminal records."
However, the Cabinet minister refused to commit to convening a special meeting between the governments in Westminster and Dublin as soon as possible, as called for by Labour and other opposition MPs.
Lewis told the House of Commons that the government would "look for an appropriate time" for the next meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) but did not commit to doing so as a matter of urgency.
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh this afternoon told Lewis: "As a custodian to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement the Prime Minister owes it to the people of Northern Ireland to restore the trust he has squandered, and show leadership in finding a way forward.
"It is why the Prime Minister must step-up and urgently convene talks with the political parties in Northern Ireland, and all parties to the Protocol to find solutions and political agreement".
The Guardian reported over the weekend that the government had turned down an Irish request for an emergency BIIGC meeting to discuss the unrest in Northern Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland's government believes a high-level meeting with the UK would help abate the tension, with a Dublin official telling PoliticsHome that Boris Johnson agreeing to a special summit would be "welcome".The UK government has also come under pressure from former Northern Ireland Secretaries to step up its engagement with Northern Ireland.
Peter Hain, who played a key role in the DUP and Sinn Fein agreeing to form a power-sharing government in 2007, over the weekend told PoliticsHome that the government had "allowed this to degenerate to the most serious crisis for a quarter of a century" and said ministers had "taken their eye off the ball".
Rioters, who the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) say were predominantly teenagers and young people, threw petrol bombs and bricks at police during the violence and at the height of the disorder set alight to a gate separating loyalist and nationalist communities in west Belfast.
The unrest is being fuelled by a number of factors: loyalist anger at the contentious decision of authorities not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral of former IRA chief Bobby Storey, the PSNI's crackdown on paramilitary gangs, and frustration among unionists over Brexit's impact on Northern Ireland's relationship with the rest of the UK.
Lewis today said the reasons for the unrest were "complex and multifaceted" but acknowledged that one factor was "concerns" over the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed by UK and EU negotiators last year, and the economic border it has created in the Irish Sea.
Those concerns "overlap with wider questions about national identity and political allegiance and come at a time of economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic," the senior minister said.
Since 1 January, when the UK left the Brexit transition period, goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland have been subject to an array of customs and regulatory checks. The new paperwork has resulted in delays and shortages and led to some businesses in Great Britain deciding to stop sending goods to Northern Ireland altogether.
UK and EU officials are currently discussing ways of potentially making the Northern Ireland Protocol easier for businesses to adhere to, with Cabinet Office Minister David Frost expected to hold talks with European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic in the week or so.
A spokesperson for the European Commission spokesperson on Tuesday said: "We stand ready to find swift, pragmatic solutions within the framework of the Protocol and depending on the progress, of course, there may be a political level meeting between Vice-President Sefcovic and David Frost at some point soon".