Brandon Lewis heads to Northern Ireland for emergency talks after 55 police injured amid loyalist unrest

Harry Yorke
·4 min read
Brandon Lewis
Brandon Lewis

Brandon Lewis is due to hold emergency talks with Northern Ireland’s political parties on Thuraday in a bid to quell the violent unrest among loyalist groups.

The Northern Secretary is travelling to Belfast after the Stormont Assembly was recalled to hold an urgent debate in the wake of a sixth consecutive night of rioting in the province.

Whitehall sources said Mr Lewis would urge the parties to try to diffuse tensions and put on a united front, after days of highly-charged political debate between rival politicians.

However, Labour has called for Boris Johnson to “step up” and take personal charge of the talks, adding: “The Prime Minister must convene cross-party talks in Northern Ireland, and engage with the joint-custodians to the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government to find solutions and resolve tensions.”

It comes after Mr Johnson on Wednesday evening issued a further statement condemning the violence, after a bus was set on fire by groups of hooded men in Belfast and a photographer was assaulted while recording scenes of disorder in the city.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland executive have released a joint statement condemning the violence, with First Minister Arlene Foster describing the scenes across the province as “totally unacceptable.”

So far 55 police officers have been injured during clashes across Northern Ireland with groups, largely comprising adolescents, who are said to have been spurred on by paramilitary groups.

Mr Lewis is expected to urge the main political parties to try to resolve tensions which erupted last week after the decision not to prosecute 24 members of Sinn Fein, including deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, who attended an IRA funeral in an alleged breach of lockdown rules.

While Mrs Foster has accused the Police Service of Northern Ireland of undermining the rule of law and called for the resignation of the chief constable, critics have sought to blame the unrest on the DUP’s inflammatory language.

Others have attempted to characterise the violence on Brexit and Boris Johnson’s failure to spell out the implications of the Northern Ireland Protocol and the trade disruption that has resulted in the wake of the transition period.

They included Stephen Farry, the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, who dismissed Mr Johnson’s appeals or calm as “platitudes”, telling Times Radio: “Brexit has set the tone...which has destabilised Northern Ireland very badly.”

He was joined by Colum Eastwood, the leader of the Socialist Democratic and Labour Party, who told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme that while he was “outraged” by Sinn Fein’s behaviour the tensions were also a “ direct result of a British Prime Minister who has lied to the unionist people of Northern Ireland.”

However, Lord Caine, a former special adviser to multiple Northern Ireland secretaries, pushed back against the suggestion that Brexit was the sole cause of the latest unrest.

He pointed to the role of paramilitary groups who he warned were stoking divisions and exploiting young people within loyalist communities, adding: “It would be wrong to attribute what has happened simply to Brexit and the protocol.”

“To a large degree paramilitary activity is often the cloak simply for the sort of criminality, racketeering and exerting control within communities by people who essentially wrap themselves in the flag and carry out gangsterism.

“So it's not just about politics but obviously there is a political dimension to this. There is widespread angst within the Unionist community over the implementation of the protocol.”

Speaking in the Stormont Assembly on Thursday morning, Mrs Foster said: "Today is not the time to rehearse the arguments in the last few weeks. We should all know that when politics are perceived to fail, those who fill the vacuum cause despair.

"Northern Ireland faces deep political challenges ahead."

Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill added: "I think it's incumbent upon us all as Assembly members, as political leaders to meet and to publicly express our deep concern at the recent violence and ongoing street disorder," she said.

Ms O'Neill described the scenes in Belfast as a "very dangerous escalation of events in recent days, and it is utterly deplorable".

She said she had spoken earlier with PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne, who also briefed a special meeting of the Executive on the police response.