Belfast: Adults encouraging street violence 'child abuse'

By Colm Kelpie

image copyrightPacemaker
image captionMore than 50 police officers have been hurt in the violence in a number of areas since the end of last month

Adults goading and cheering young people involved in rioting and street violence is akin to child abuse, Justice Minister Naomi Long has said.

During several hours of rioting in Belfast on Wednesday, police were attacked, petrol bombs were thrown and a bus was burnt.

More than 50 police officers have been hurt in violence in parts of Northern Ireland since the end of last month.

The Stormont assembly was recalled from its Easter break over the violence.

In recent days, 10 people have been arrested as a result of rioting by gangs of people, some as young as 13.

Some unionists have linked the violence in recent days to the decision by the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) not to prosecute anyone who attended the funeral of former IRA man Bobby Storey in June 2020.

It was attended by 2,000 mourners - including Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill - at a time when Covid-19 restrictions were in place.

image captionJustice Minister Naomi Long said it was disturbing to see children as young as 12 and 13 involved in violent confrontation

They have also linked it to simmering loyalist tensions over the Irish Sea border imposed as a result of the UK-EU Brexit deal.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was recalled for politicians to consider a motion calling for an "immediate and complete end" to violence in loyalist areas.

The motion, put forward by the Alliance Party, asked assembly members to unequivocally condemn those involved and support the rule of law.

It was passed unanimously by oral vote.

Opening the debate, Alliance Party leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long said it was disturbing to see children as young as 12 and 13 involved in violent confrontations.

'Nothing short of child abuse'

"My horror at that has been intensified as I watched adults old enough to be their parents, old enough to know better, standing by cheering and goading and encouraging young people on as they wreaked havoc in their own community," Mrs Long said.

"This is nothing short of child abuse."

Mrs Long said the political rhetoric in recent days needed to be dialled down and ultimatums "walked back".

Sinn Féin, the SDLP, and the Alliance Party have accused unionist politicians of ramping up rhetoric by calling for Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Simon Byrne to stand down over the force's handling of the Storey funeral.

"It is time to support the police, both on the ground and their leadership as they do their jobs," she said.

image captionFirst Minister Arlene Foster said the violent scenes were unacceptable

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Féin said the violence in Belfast on Wednesday night was a "dangerous escalation" of events.

"There is an onus on every single MLA and other public representatives to address the tensions as we see them, to restore calm and to work with those credible local community leaders and the police to provide leadership to confront these problems.

"As political leaders were must stand united in appealing to all concerned to refrain from further threats or use of violence."

Ms O'Neill said the age of some of the rioters was alarming.

'Destruction, harm and fear'

She also said unionist calls for Mr Byrne to step down and attacks on police in working class areas cannot be "divorced".

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader and First Minister Arlene Foster, who addressed the chamber remotely as she was feeling unwell, said the violent scenes were unacceptable.

image captionDeputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said the violence in Belfast on Wednesday night was a "dangerous escalation" of events

She said the harm to Northern Ireland's image in its centenary year has "taken us backwards".

"No bottle, no petrol bomb thrown has achieved or can ever achieve anything but destruction, harm and fear," she said.

"We should al know well that when politics is perceived to be failing in Northern Ireland, then those who fill the vacuum offer destruction and despair.

"We cannot allow a new generation of young people to fall victim to that path or be preyed upon to those who prefer the shadows to the light."

She said Northern Ireland was faced with deep and significant political challenges and "collectively we must work through those challenges".

Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon of the SDLP said the fact that children "are engaged in violence on our streets is a damning indictment of the quality of political leadership that has been provided to our communities".

image captionNichola Mallon said young people involved in the rioting would have their lives limited by criminal convictions

"These are young people who should be looking with excitement to their future - they should have the world at their feet," she said.

"Instead they're looking at criminal convictions that will follow them throughout their lives and limit their ambitions and opportunities.

"Is that the kind of society that we want to be responsible for? After years of lost opportunities and lost lives, are we content to sacrifice another generation to our own divisions?"

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Steve Aiken said people's anger must be channelled through political and diplomatic channels.

"To use violence is to lose the argument and to inflict great damage, not only to your cause but also to your community for those are the ones left to pick up the pieces," he said.

He welcomed the joint statement issued from the Northern Ireland Executive earlier on Thursday condemning the violence.