Rioting in Belfast on Wednesday night was on a scale not seen in Northern Ireland for years, police have said.
During several hours of violence, police officers were attacked, petrol bombs were thrown and a bus was burnt. Eight officers were injured at an interface between loyalist and nationalist areas in west Belfast.
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive said it was “gravely concerned” by recent street violence and has called for calm to be restored. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also condemned the disorder.
It was likely that paramilitary organisations were involved and had planned the rioting, according to Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts.
He said several hundred people on each side of a barrier separating the loyalist Shankill Road and the nationalist Springfield Road in west Belfast were involved and petrol bombs were thrown in both directions. “Last night was at a scale we haven’t seen in Belfast or further afield in Northern Ireland for a number of years,” he said. “We are very, very lucky no-one was seriously injured or killed last night given in particular the large number of petrol bombs thrown.”
Police officers were called in from other parts of Northern Ireland to help to deal with the rioting. More than 50 officers have been hurt in violence in several areas since the end of last month.
A bus driver whose double-decker was attacked and burned is “very shaken by the incident but is physically unhurt”, according to the public transport provider Translink. In recent days 10 people have been arrested as a result of rioting by gangs of people, some as young as 13.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.” Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis will travel to Belfast on Thursday to meet political parties.
Mr Lewis said he was aware of unionist concerns in recent months and he had been “engaging and listening” them. “However… the right way to express concerns or frustrations is through dialogue, engagement and the democratic process, not through violence or disorder,” he said.
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer said the violence was “completely unacceptable” and he called on Mr Johnson to “step up” and “show leadership”. Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Micheál Martin wrote on social media: “Now is the time for the two governments and leaders on all sides to work together to defuse tensions and restore calm.”
All of the main political parties in Northern Ireland have criticised the disorder but they are divided over its causes.
However, after an emergency meeting of the Northern Ireland Executive, a joint statement was issued from ministers, saying they were “gravely concerned” by the recent disorder. “Attacks on police officers, public services and communities are deplorable and they must stop,” they said. “Destruction, violence and the threat of violence are completely unacceptable and unjustifiable, no matter what concerns may exist in communities. “Those who would seek to use and abuse our children and young people to carry out these attacks have no place in our society.”