Northern Ireland news

Boris Johnson urged to convene urgent talks following riots

 A bus drives past the burnt out remains of a double decker bus which was set alight during rioting in Belfast last night. Picture by Mal McCann
David Young, Lewis McKenzie and Rebecca Black, PA

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been urged to convene urgent political talks in Northern Ireland in the wake of recent street disorder.

Labour shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh insisted Boris Johnson could not be a “casual observer” to the violence, claiming his Brexit strategy was one of the main factors behind rioting that has predominantly flared in loyalist working class areas.

Ms Haigh was responding to a parliamentary statement on the disturbances from Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis.

Mr Lewis said rioting that resulted in almost 90 police officers sustaining injuries was “totally unacceptable” and “utterly reprehensible”.

The exchanges at Westminster came as Economy Minister Diane Dodds told the Assembly in Belfast that she did not think the disorder would put off potential investors in the north.

Ms Haigh told the Commons Mr Johnson’s failure to keep promises that Brexit would not create a border in the Irish Sea had created a “very deep sense of hurt and anger” within the unionist and loyalist community.

“He made promises to the people of Northern Ireland that there would be no border with Britain, knowing full well his Brexit deal would introduce barriers across the Irish Sea,” she said.

“He made those promises because he knew economic separation would be unacceptable to the unionist community and the growing political instability we are seeing has its roots in the loss of trust that this caused.”

Ms Haigh added: “As a co-guarantor to the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, the prime minister owes it to the people of Northern Ireland to restore the trust he has squandered.

“He is not a casual observer to these events. He must step up and urgently convene talks with the political parties in Northern Ireland and all parties to the (Northern Ireland) Protocol to find solutions and political agreement.”

Ms Haigh concluded: “The prime minister must face up to the consequences of his own actions and show the leadership communities are crying out for.”

Loyalists and unionists are vehemently opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has created new economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.

The arrangements, agreed by the UK and EU as a way to keep the land border on the island of Ireland free flowing, have been cited as one of the key causal factors behind the violence.

Another factor is the recent decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Féin politicians who attended a huge republican funeral amid lockdown restrictions.

Many within the loyalist community also point to resentment over long-standing concerns that they have missed out on the gains of the peace process in areas such as jobs, investment and housing.

Nationalists reject this contention, insisting their communities have experienced just as many problems with poverty and unemployment since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Last week also saw violence flare in some nationalist areas.

Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael called on the prime minister to “step up to the plate” and demonstrate leadership.

“The fact that we have reached this point, I think, illustrates sadly only too well the recklessness of the position of the prime minister in particular with regard to the position of Northern Ireland and our departure from the European Union,” he said.

Mr Lewis insisted Mr Johnson had been involved in addressing issues in Northern Ireland “all the way through”.

He said the prime minister was determined to find a resolution to problems created by the Protocol.

But he insisted pre-existing structures, such as the joint EU/UK implementation committee, were the appropriate forums to deal with those matters.

Mr Lewis told the Commons it was “tragic and deeply concerning” that children had been involved in the rioting.

“Those engaged in this destruction and disorder do not represent the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.

Mr Lewis said the reasons behind the violence were “complex and multi-faceted.”

He said coronavirus restrictions had created frustration and uncertainty for young people.

“There is also a perception that the rules and restrictions have not been enforced equally in Northern Ireland and we all know there are strongly-held political views within and between communities that can be in tension with each other,” the Conservative MP added.

“I recognise that there are concerns about the implications of the Northern Ireland Protocol, concerns which overlap with wider questions about national identity and political allegiance, and that comes at a time of economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

“Northern Ireland has made huge strides over the last two decades but it is a post-conflict society and there do remain elements of fragility.”

At Parliament Buildings in Belfast, DUP minister Mrs Dodds said there was no evidence that recent scenes of violence in Northern Ireland have put off potential investors.

“Indeed we have been very busy with some potential investors for Northern Ireland and I look forward to working with them to see the fruits of that coming to Northern Ireland,” she told the Assembly.

Mrs Dodds said she was “disturbed” at the riots, insisting they served “no purpose but to bring misery to communities”.

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