Northern Irish police use water cannon as violence spreads

Police in Northern Ireland deployed water cannon for the first time in six years on Thursday night as rioters ignored cross-community calls for calm, taking to the streets of Belfast in a ninth night of disturbances.

Pockets of rioters gathered on either side of the so-called “peace lines” separating loyalist and nationalist areas of west Belfast, throwing petrol bombs, fireworks and chunks of masonry at the police, local media reported.

The violence came at the end of a day when both the British and Irish prime ministers, backed by Joe Biden’s White House, had called for calm after a series of riots that have hit loyalist suburbs since March 29 appeared to spread.

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, flew to the region on Thursday and is due to meet political leaders from across the community on Friday in a bid to reduce political tensions, which have been simmering in the region since January.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) says that 55 officers have been injured since the violence began, and that proscribed groups with links to criminal paramilitary organisations were helping to orchestrate the trouble.

The violence has followed mounting political outrage among all the main unionist political parties over the Brexit deal, which created a trade border in the Irish Sea because all goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain must follow EU customs rules.

Unionists have called for the Northern Ireland protocol, which governs the deal, to be scrapped — arguing that it undermines their place in the UK. Boris Johnson’s government is currently negotiating with the EU on how to implement the deal.

But the more recent cause for the violence was loyalist anger over a decision late last month not to prosecute nationalist Sinn Féin politicians for breaching Covid-19 lockdown rules to attend the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey last June.

Retaliation for a series of PSNI drug busts against paramilitary criminal gangs operating in the loyalist areas north of Belfast has also been cited as another cause for the attacks on police by small pockets of youths. Arrests have included children as young as 13 and 14.

However, this week the unrest has spread as nationalist areas of Belfast were sucked into the violence, with rival community gangs gathering at the mainly loyalist Shankill Road and the mainly nationalist Springfield Road.

All Northern Ireland’s political parties have condemned the violence, with the region’s power-sharing executive returning early from its Easter recess to release a joint statement condemning the violence as “completely unacceptable and unjustifiable”.

But while all parties have condemned the violence and attacks on front line police, all the main unionist parties have also called for the resignation of the region’s police chief, Simon Byrne, saying he had lost the confidence of the community.

Both Johnson and Irish taoiseach Micheál Martin have appealed for calm. They spoke by phone on Thursday and agreed to stay in close contact.

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