The leaders of the UK and Irish governments have called for calm after another night of violence in Northern Ireland during which rioters attacked a bus and a photojournalist who was covering the confrontation with police.
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said he was “deeply concerned” about the violence, which has left 55 officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) injured after eight consecutive nights of localised trouble in mainly loyalist areas of the region.
“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,” Johnson tweeted.
He added that all sides must look to resolve differences “through dialogue not violence or criminality”.
The condemnation was echoed by the Irish taoiseach Micheál Martin who said it was time for the British and Irish governments to work with leaders on all sides of Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide to restore calm.
“The only way forward is to address issues of concern through peaceful and democratic means,” he said. “Now is the time for the two governments and leaders on all sides to work together to defuse tensions and restore calm.”
The UK’s opposition Labour party also called on Johnson to convene cross-party talks and engage with the Irish government to calm tensions.
Louise Haigh, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, added that Johnson must face up to the tensions caused by his decision to leave Northern Ireland in the economic orbit of the EU as a result of his Brexit deal.
“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,” she said.
The European Commission also added its condemnation. “We of course condemn in the strongest possible terms the acts of violence that have occurred in Northern Ireland over the last days. Nobody has anything to gain from this. We call on all those involved to refrain immediately from these violent acts.”
The statements came ahead of an emergency meeting of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, which was recalled early from its Easter recess to discuss the violence on Thursday morning.
Tension has been rising in recent months between the region’s mainly Protestant Unionist and the mainly Catholic Nationalist communities, fuelled in part by disagreements over the implementation of the Brexit deal which came into force on January 1.
Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol all goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain must follow EU customs rules, leading to a trade border in the Irish Sea, which Unionists have rejected as an unacceptable barrier to their place in the UK.
The more immediate cause for the violence was Unionist anger at a decision not to prosecute members of nationalist party Sinn Féin who allegedly breached Covid-19 lockdown rules to join a 2,000-strong crowd of mourners at the funeral of a former IRA leader last June.
All the main Unionist parties, including the Democratic Unionist party, which is led by first minister Arlene Foster, have called for the resignation of the region’s police chief, Simon Byrne, saying he had lost the confidence of the community.
Wednesday night’s trouble flared in west Belfast where several hundred people gathered on the peace lines between the loyalist Shankill Road and the nationalist Springfield Road. Petrol bombs and missiles were thrown in both directions.
Jonathan Roberts, the assistant chief constable of the PSNI, said the “involvement of proscribed organisations is likely” in the conflict, referring to illegal sectarian paramilitary criminal groups that continue to operate despite the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal.