Another night of intense loyalist rioting has been criticised by politicians including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, although DUP leader Arlene Foster blamed Sinn Féin as “the real law breakers” over a lack of social distancing at a Sinn Féin funeral last year.
With the homes of nationalists threatened and the PSNI failing to intervene, only the courageous restraint of the republican community of the area prevented the situation escalating into a more serious conflagration.
A tense stand-off involving missile throwing and petrol bombs continued for more than two hours before the PSNI intervened to separate the two sides.
The attacks and rioting were orchestrated the west Belfast UDA, who earlier hijacked a bus and set it on fire in frightening scenes on the loyalist Shankill Road, although both passengers and the bus driver escaped injury.
DUP First Minister Arlene Foster condemned the attack. She said: “This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent unionism or loyalism. They are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland and only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Féin.”
This was in reference to the decison of prosecutors not to issue fines against the Sinn Féin politicians who attended the Storey funeral.
A press photographer was also subjected to a violent attack on Wednesday evening and his equipment damaged by loyalists. Journalist Kevin Scott said he was “jumped from behind” by two masked men and pulled to the ground by one while told to “fu*k off back to your own area you fenian cu*t” by another.
SDLP MP Claire Hanna criticised that attack, tweeting: “We’re told by the apologists that these protests and riots are borne of frustration about not being listened to, but an excellent photo journalist is attacked while trying to capture the story.”
Loyalist riots have taken place throughout the last week in both Belfast and Derry, following a relative lull on Tuesday, and there have also been orchestrated disturbances in Ballymena, Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus.
There were clashes following an illegal march by masked loyalists through in Ballymena on Monday, while ‘show of strength’ marches by masked gangs also took place under cover of dark in Portadown and Markethill in County Armagh.
The cause of the unrest has been attributed mainly to frustration over a decision not to prosecute members of Sinn Féin over alleged coronavirus regulation breaches, although new Brexit port checks and loyalist paramilitary anger over raids against their drug-dealing operations are also significant factors.
Children as young as 12 have been involved in some of the violence that has been witnessed in recent days. A 13-year-old was among those arrrested earlier in the week.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that he had been left “deeply concerned” by the violence, and called for dialogue.
He tweeted: “I am deeply concerned by the scenes of violence in Northern Ireland, especially attacks on PSNI who are protecting the public and businesses, attacks on a bus driver and the assault of a journalist.
“The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster has said she is refusing to speak to PSNI chief Simon Byrne – even while she is engaged in talks over the continuing violence with the representatives of the UDA.
She claimed anger in the unionist community had been caused by the “deferential treatment” given to Sinn Féin over the Bobby Storey funeral and PSNI Chief Simon Byrne had been warned about “specialised treatment for a political elite”.
However, Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly said the disgraceful scenes of violence and destruction had “clearly been planned in advance and orchestrated by loyalist criminal gangs.”
“The location of these so-called protests close to interfaces is a clear and deliberate attempt to raise tensions and incite further violence. There are reports coming in of incidents at other interfaces as well,” he said.
Condemning the attack on the journalist, he continued: “We have also seen a bus hijacked and burned which must have been a terrifying experience for the driver. No worker should have to face that while going about their day’s work.
“These senseless incidents need to end before someone is killed or seriously injured.”
Mr Kelly added: “I would appeal to anyone involved in these incidents to desist. Those behind these despicable attacks and disturbances need to call a halt to them immediately.”
The Stormont Assembly is set to be recalled on Thursday morning for an emergency debate following days of violence.