The White House joined Northern Irish, British and Irish leaders on Thursday, expressing concern as parts of Northern Ireland experienced a week of violence as unionists and nationalists clashed with police and each other.
Unrest first broke out last week amid rising tensions relating to Brexit and unionist anger over a decision by police not to prosecute leaders of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein for allegedly breaking coronavirus restrictions during the funeral of a former leading IRA figure.
In west Belfast on Wednesday, rioters clashed along the so-called “peace line” dividing predominantly unionist and nationalist communities, with police struggling to close a gate designed to separate the areas.
A bus was set on fire on Lanark Way near the junction with Shankill Road, police said. Photos and video from the scene showed youths on both sides of the gate throwing projectiles across, including petrol bombs.
At least 55 police officers have been injured in clashes over the past six days, Police Service for Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Simon Byrne told the Northern Irish government on Thursday.
Clashes were reported in Springfield Road in Belfast on Thursday evening. Videos posted on social media showed protesters throwing stones at police vehicles on the nationalist side of the peace line. Officers in riot gear, with dogs, and a water cannon were seen moving in to disperse those involved.
Northern Irish Justice Minister Naomi Long called on people to “stop, before lives are lost.”
“Utterly reckless and depressing to see more violence at interface areas tonight,” Long wrote on Twitter. “My heart goes out to those living in the area who are living with this fear and disturbance.”
Earlier on Thursday, Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin condemned the violence and “attacks on police,” adding the “only way forward is to address issues of concern through peaceful and democratic means,” he said in a statement.
“Now is the time for the two Governments and leaders on all sides to work together to defuse tensions and restore calm,” Martin said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned by the scenes of violence” in Northern Ireland.
“The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality,” Johnson said on Twitter.
Martin and Johnson spoke later that day. “The way forward is through dialogue and working the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement,” a statement from Martin’s office said.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki appealed for calm on Thursday, telling reporters that the US remains “steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice, and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace,” Psaki added.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price added that the Good Friday Agreement, which brought decades of deadly sectarian violence across Ireland to an end, must not “become a casualty of Brexit.”
A statement from the West Belfast Ulster Political Research Group, connected to loyalist paramilitaries the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), said the recent violence has “deflected from the original issues that have caused such dismay and anger within our community.”
Police in the region are still attempting to confirm “whether or not paramilitary groups were involved” in the rioting, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathon Roberts said during a press conference Thursday.
Roberts joined political leaders in deploring the involvement of children as young as “13 or 14 years old” in the rioting who were “encouraged and supported by adults who stood by and clapped.”
Brandon Lewis, the UK’s representative to Northern Ireland, is to meet with political leaders, community and faith leaders in the region, according to a statement from his office Thursday.
The rioting became the subject of a parliamentary debate amongst Northern Irish lawmakers on Thursday. Arlene Foster, the region’s First Minister, said the disturbances had caused great “harm” to Northern Ireland’s reputation during its centenary year.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, one of the political figures to attend the contentious funeral, called it “a miracle that as we stand here today that no one has been killed” by Wednesday’s violence.
Tensions have been growing in Northern Ireland since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, creating the potential of a border between the British-ruled north and the Republican of Ireland in the south, which remains in the EU. The lack of a border had been seen as a key element of the post-1998 peace that followed three decades of sectarian violence.
Under the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, a de facto border was created in the Irish Sea, with goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain subject to EU checks, a move which angered unionists, who have accused London of abandoning them.
Speaking to CNN, Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson called for Johnson to “tear up the agreement which breaks up the United Kingdom, tear up the agreement which breaks up all the promises you made to the people of Northern Ireland.”
Last month, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), a grouping of unionist paramilitaries, said it was withdrawing its support for the Good Friday Agreement which ended the Troubles.
While the LCC said opposition would be peaceful, the letter said the groups would not rejoin “until our rights under the Agreement are restored and the (Brexit) protocol amended to ensure unfettered access for goods, services and citizens throughout the United Kingdom.”
LCC chairman David Campbell recently said: “it’s very easy for matters to spiral out of control, that’s why it is essential for dialogue to take place.”
Writing on Twitter late Wednesday, Mary Lou McDonald, an Irish lawmaker and leader of Sinn Fein, said: “a united voice for a halt to all violence and for the restoration of calm is the only acceptable stance from all political leaders. The attacks and intimidation must end.”
This story has been corrected to reflect that the clashes on Springfield Road took place Thursday night, not Friday.