Northern Ireland news

PSNI rules out loyalist paramilitary involvement in orchestrating riots

A hijacked bus burns on the loyalist Shankill Road during a night of violence at the Lanark Way peace line. Picture by Alan Lewis, Photopress
James Ward and Rebecca Black, PA

The PSNI has ruled out the involvement of loyalist paramilitary groups in orchestrating the violence seen in recent days.

It follows a statement from the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), an umbrella group representing the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, that none of its groups were involved in rioting "either directly or indirectly".

Yesterday Northern Ireland Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said it was "clear there was a degree of organisation" to the violence.

Although the PSNI did not confirm paramilitary involvement, they said it was a "likely situation".

However, Mr Roberts appeared to backtrack on that position today when asked about the LCC statement.

 Youth workers and community workers clear debris from the Springfield Road and keep nationalist rioters away from the interface at Lanark Way in west Belfast on April 8 2021. Picture by Mal McCann

Read more: One woman's act of kindness at a Belfast interface

He said: "It's our overall assessment that the violence that has taken place over the last few nights is not orchestrated by a group, in the name of that group.

"There are certainly people who have been engaged in violence who are nothing to do with any illegal organisation.

"There are young people who have gotten involved and for whatever reason that they've decided to do so.

"We feel that there may be some people who could have connection to proscribed organisations, who have been present on the scenes of violence.

"But we don't believe it's been sanctioned and organised by prescribed organisations for peaceful protests."

Mr Roberts urged parents and community activists to do their part to prevent further unrest, and warned there would be serious consequence for those involved.

It comes after another night of disorder in west Belfast in which a further 19 police officers were injured, along with a police dog.

 Police dog Daphne who was injured during last night's violence

He said: "I would appeal to those who wish to engage in such activity not to. It serves no purpose. 

"The police will continue to investigate those who engage in disorder and commit serious offences.

"Last night a further vehicle was hijacked. People can expect if they are convicted of such crimes to receive custodial sentences. It will change people's lives forever."

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has met Stormont political parties to discuss the situation.

Water cannon was deployed on the Srringfield Road in west Belfast on April 9 2021. Picture by Mal McCann

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said she was "worried about the weekend ahead" amid ongoing violence on the streets of Northern Ireland.

The Sinn Féin vice president said: "As for the last number of days and the violence we have seen on our streets, that has to be condemned by all quarters.

"I welcome the fact that there is a unity of purpose across all political leaders to say that this is wrong and it needs to stop.

"I'm worried about the weekend ahead. We all need to be very careful and very consciously try to do all we can to prevent this happening.

"I hope and I urge all 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.

"We met this morning with the Chief Constable and the Secretary of State, and all the parties were represented. I think it's really important to engage.

"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.

"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."

The violence was at a lower level last night than it had been the night before, but officers came under attack with petrol bombs, fireworks and stones.

A water cannon was used by police for the first time in six years to quell 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.

 Youth workers and community workers keep nationalist rioters  away from the interface at Lanark Way in west Belfast on April 8 2021. Picture by Mal McCann

In total, 74 police officers have been injured in more than a week of violence.

Mr Roberts said two arrests were made last 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 last night, with one injured during the disorder.

"Two nights ago the disorder was spontaneous, we did not anticipate that such large crowds on both sides of the interface would turn out and would seek to attack each other and to attack police so other tactics such as water cannon were not so readily available," he told the BBC's Stephen Nolan Show.

"The water cannon is a lesser option, it poses less risk, it is a lesser use of force.

"Last night then it was our preferred option in the interests of protecting those who engage in disorder.

"It did not become necessary then to move to the use of AEP."

Mr Roberts said police are aware of planned protest events which have the "potential to move into disorder".

"I would remind everybody that the health protection regulations remain in place, it is a breach of the regulations to take part in a gathering and I would encourage anybody who wishes to come out and take part in a gathering or take part in disorder not to do so," he said.

"If necessary we will consider dissuading people or preventing people from gathering in an area but there may be other occasions when our tactic might be to allow people to gather, and gather our evidence and deal with it afterwards."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson,Taoiseach Micheál Martin and US President Joe Biden have called for a calming of tensions.

The Stormont Assembly was recalled from Easter recess yesterday for an emergency sitting and unanimously backed a motion calling for the unequivocal condemnation of the violence and support for the rule of law.

This morning, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said more than words are needed.

"It's not just words, colleagues of mine, like Paul Maskey and others, were out on the Springfield Road yesterday with activists, youth workers, calming the situation and encouraging the young people who had congregated to go home and the community rallied to that," she said.

"The nights of more than a week of loyalist violence and stoking up tensions is extremely dangerous.

"It needs to be faced down and positive leadership needs to be demonstrated right across every community.

"Every single one of us has an absolute obligation to contribute to calm and reassurance.

"The proposed protests this weekend must be called off and we need to hear that primarily from unionism."

The violence is unfolding at a time of increasing rancour in the political sphere amid tensions over the post-Brexit Irish Sea trade border and the fallout from the police's handling of the mass republican funeral that took place during pandemic restrictions last year.

Unionists are furious at a decision by prosecutors not to take action against 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, for attending the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey, a decision partly related to the fact that police had engaged with organisers before the event that drew 2,000 people on to the streets.

Drugs seizures against a dissident faction of the UDA in south-east Antrim have also been blamed.

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