A bus was firebombed in Belfast

Belfast (AFP) - Leaders in Northern Ireland on Thursday jointly condemned days of rioting stemming from the territory’s pro-UK community, including a petrol-bomb attack on a moving bus, as police said they were probing possible paramilitary involvement.

The British and Irish governments also denounced what was the worst unrest in Belfast in recent years, which erupted amid anger over apparent economic dislocation due to Brexit and existing tensions between the pro-UK unionist and pro-Irish nationalist communities.

“Destruction, violence and the threat of violence are completely unacceptable and unjustifiable, no matter what concerns may exist in communities,” said the Northern Ireland executive

Factfile on the Northern Ireland Good Friday agreement.

“While our political positions are very different on many issues, we are all united in our support for law and order.”

The UK province’s devolved legislative assembly interrupted its Easter break to pass an emergency motion condemning the unrest.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis visited Belfast to meet leaders from the main parties, including unionist First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, as well as faith and community advocates.

“All communities in Northern Ireland must work together to resolve the tensions that we are currently facing,” he said ahead of the meetings.

- ‘Sectarian violence’ -

In the latest disorder Wednesday, gates were set alight on a “peace line” – walls separating pro-Irish nationalist and pro-UK unionist communities – and police said crowds from either side broke through to attack each other with petrol bombs, missiles and fireworks.

Nightly attacks in Northern Ireland have left more than 50 police officers injured

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) temporary assistant chief constable Jonathan Roberts said the scale and nature of the violence was unprecedented in recent years.

“The fact that it was sectarian violence and there was large groups on both sides… again is not something we have seen for a number of years,” he told reporters.

The six nights have left 55 police injured, he noted, as well as a press photographer and the driver of the bus fire-bombed Wednesday.

Roberts said children as young as 13 were suspected of involvement following encouragement from adults, and the large volume of petrol bombs used suggested “a level of pre-planning”.

A small group of loyalist protesters gather outside parliament in Belfast

The PSNI is probing if Northern Ireland’s notorious paramilitary groups were involved in the unrest.

“Whether or not paramilitary groups were involved remains an active line of investigation,” Roberts added.

- ‘Deep rooted’ -

Northern Ireland endured 30 years of sectarian conflict that killed 3,500 people.

Unionist paramilitaries, British security forces and armed nationalists seeking to unite the territory with the Republic of Ireland waged battle until a landmark peace deal in 1998.

The accord let unionists and nationalists coexist by blurring the status of the region, dissolving border checks with fellow European Union member Ireland.

The unrest in Belfast is the worst in recent years

But Britain’s 2016 vote to quit the EU revived the need for border checks. A special “protocol” was agreed that shifted the controls away from the land border to ports trading with the UK mainland, prompting many unionists to accuse London of betrayal.

There was also recent outrage among unionists after Northern Irish authorities decided not to prosecute Sinn Fein leaders for attending a large funeral last year of a former paramilitary leader, in apparent breach of Covid restrictions.

Few people in central Belfast on Thursday wanted to discuss the sensitive situation.

“It’s deep rooted, it’s not just about Brexit,” said Fiona McMahon, 56, before adding Britain’s EU withdrawal had had a “massive impact”.

“The British do whatever the hell they want to do and we get landed with everything afterwards,” she told AFP.

- ‘Fantasy’ promises -

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted overnight that he was “deeply concerned”, saying “the way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality”.

Irish premier Micheal Martin also condemned the unrest, calling on “all sides to work together to defuse tensions and restore calm”.

At Thursday’s Northern Irish Assembly debate Naomi Long, justice minister for the centrist Alliance Party, spoke of feeling “some sympathy to those people out there who feel betrayed” by the British government’s Brexit policy.

She charged that Johnson had made “fantasy” promises of “sunlit uplands” after Britain quit the EU.

Meanwhile, with some unionist leaders demanding the EU protocol be scrapped, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer also condemned the unrest “in the strongest possible terms”.

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