Brandon Lewis Heads To Northern Ireland Amid Ongoing Violence As Boris Johnson Faces Pressure To "Step Up"
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis will visit Belfast today for talks with political leaders in Stormont after nearly a week of violence in province, the government has confirmed.
The Prime Minister has been also been urged to go to Northern Ireland and convene meetings with political leaders to address the ongoing unrest, after a further seven police officers were injured on Wednesday.
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh on Thursday morning said the unrest, which has led to at least 55 officers being injured since the weekend, demanded that Johnson "step up" and "show responsibility".
The Northern Irish executive held emergency talks this morning after the sixth night of violence.
Footage posted online on Wednesday showed rioters in Belfast hijacking a double-decker bus and setting it alight with petrol bombs. The attack happened at an intersectional area between loyalist and nationalist communities in west Belfast, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said.
Chris Conway of Translink in Northern Ireland said the bus driver was "shaken" by the incident but avoided injury.
Two masked men assaulted a photographer for The Belfast Telegraph who was covering the violence.
Later in the day rioters set fire to a gate separating the two communities in the Shankill area of west Belfast, with crowds on both sides filmed throwing petrol bombs at each other.
Johnson responded to the violence late on Wednesday night. "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," he tweeted. "The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality".
However, Labour and other opposition parties are calling on the Prime Minister to take more urgent and decisive action by visiting Northern Ireland himself.
"This reprehensible violence serves absolutely no purpose, and political leaders must be united in condemning it," Haigh said this morning.
"Recent days have demonstrated that the peace process is fragile — this moment demands leadership.
"The Prime Minister must convene cross-party talks in Northern Ireland, and engage with the joint-custodians to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government to find solutions and address tensions".
She added: "The complex challenges facing Northern Ireland demand a Prime Minister to step up – as a custodian to the Good Friday Agreement – and show responsibility. That has to include being honest about the consequences of his Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.
"The political challenges facing Northern Ireland must be addressed through dialogue alone and the people of Northern Ireland have to see politics working for them".
Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster this morning said: "Those responsible must be subject to the full rigour of the law. All must be equal under the law".
The Republic of Ireland's Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Wednesday night condemned the violence and said "the only way forward is to address issues of concern through peaceful and democratic means".
"Now is the time for the two Governments and leaders on all sides to work together to defuse tensions and restore calm," he said.
The unrest is said to be being fuelled by several factors: loyalist anger at the contentious decision of Northern Irish authorities not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral of former IRA chief Bobby Storey last month, the PSNI's crackdown on paramilitary gangs, and frustration among unionists over the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Stephen Farry MP, deputy leader of Alliance Party, this morning said there was "much more" the UK government could do to address tensions in Northern Ireland.
"So far all we have are tweets and platitudes from the Prime Minister and Secretary of State," he told PoliticsHome. "In particular, the Government must address the elephant in the room, the underlying factors behind the unrest including the implications of a hard Brexit on a fragile society".Northern Ireland's Justice Minister Naomi Long yesterday told BBC Radio 4 "a number of factors" were contributing to the unrest said there was "undoubtedly anger in the community" over how the UK's Brexit deal with the European Union was affecting the province's relationship with Great Britain.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by the UK and EU negotiators last year, has created new barriers to trade between the province and the rest of the UK, with the disruption leading some businesses in Great Britain to stop sending goods across the Irish Sea altogether.
The two sides agreed that the treaty was needed avoid a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland.
However, the economic border it has created between the province and Great Britain has created anger in loyalist communities, with leading unionist politicians like DUP leader Foster saying it has undermined Northern Ireland's place in the UK and should be scrapped.