NI riots: Police need to reconnect with communities, Brandon Lewis says

By Colm Kelpie
BBC News NI

Published
image captionBrandon Lewis said the decision not to prosecute anyone over the Bobby Storey funeral had a "very substantial impact"

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Policing Board need to reconnect with communities and build and restore trust, NI Secretary Brandon Lewis has said.

He said the decision not to charge anyone over the Bobby Storey funeral had a "very substantial impact".

Mr Lewis was addressing Parliament in the wake of recent rioting.

Almost 90 police officers have been injured, although recent nights have been quiet.

When the disorder began in loyalist areas at the end of March, it was linked to both a decision not to prosecute anyone for breaching Covid regulations at the Storey funeral last June and tensions over the Irish Sea border imposed as a result of the UK-EU Brexit deal.

Some violence has also been linked to police operations targeting the South East Antrim UDA, a paramilitary group involved in organised crime.

Mr Lewis told the House of Commons on Tuesday that 88 police officers had been injured in the violence, with 18 arrests made and 15 people charged.

image copyrightChurch Leaders’ Group (Ireland)
image captionChurch leaders have said the causes of the recent violence were complex and deep-rooted

He said that in the wake of the Bobby Storey funeral decision, there was a "very important role for the PSNI and Policing Board to be working with communities to restore and build that trust".

He said the decision that was made has had "a very substantial impact".

Mr Lewis added that there was work that the PSNI and Policing Board "need to do to reconnect with communities, to show communities that they are there, the PSNI is there for the safety and protection of everybody across the entire community of Northern Ireland".

Amid calls for the convening of a British-Irish summit to discuss the violence, Mr Lewis said he would look at the "appropriate time" for another meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC), but he added policing was a devolved matter and did not fall under the remit of the BIIGC.

image copyrightAlamy
image captionViolence erupted in many parts of Northern Ireland over the past week

The lack of trouble in recent nights has been linked to the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, although there were disturbances in Belfast and Coleraine on Friday night, hours after his death was announced.

Saturday also marked the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which signalled an end to years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

The rioting has largely seen youths throwing bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs at lines of police officers and vehicles.

Mr Lewis travelled to Belfast last week for a series of political and civic society meetings in the wake of the violence, and was in Northern Ireland again on Monday.

'Deep-rooted'

It comes as church leaders penned an open letter appealing for politicians to provide a unified response to the recent "heartbreaking" scenes of violence, saying its causes are complex and deep-rooted.

Their plea is addressed to Northern Ireland ministers, the British and Irish governments and the European Union.

On Monday, the Church Leaders' Group (Ireland), which wrote the open letter, met PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne - who has faced calls from unionist political leaders to resign - to express concern for injured officers.

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They have called for the "entire" Northern Ireland Executive to approach the EU and UK government to deal with the fallout of Brexit and the Irish Sea border, and for politicians to express their support for the PSNI.

The letter stated the intensity of the violence directed at police had been "horrific".

It said the PSNI had a political legitimacy across the community which is enjoyed by few other institutions.

"It is vital that we address concerns in a way that strengthens our democratic processes rather than undermining them," they added.

The letter was signed by the Reverend John McDowell and Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland and the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland respectively, as well as the Reverend Dr David Bruce, moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Reverend Dr Tom McKnight, president of the Methodist Church in Ireland, and the Reverend Dr Ivan Patterson, president of the Irish Council of Churches.

"As Christian Church leaders from across the island of Ireland, we appeal to our political leaders to come together in a unified response to the heartbreaking scenes witnessed on our streets last week and renew their commitment to peace, reconciliation and the protection of the most vulnerable," the letter states.

image captionFormer SDLP leader, Baroness Ritchie, raised the recent violence in the House of Lords on Tuesday

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the violence was not justified.

He said the issue was trust, and that taking the peace process forward has to be built on trust.

"That trust was broken in relation to the findings of the Bobby Storey funeral and it has undermined people's trust and confidence in policing and justice in Northern Ireland and there is a two-tier policing system in the eyes of some and that needs to be addressed," he said.

Party colleague Ian Paisley said the Bobby Storey funeral decision was the "straw that broke the camel's back", but the Northern Ireland Protocol lies at the heart of the issue.

He said "all the condemnation in the world will not make that violence go away until actions are taken".

image captionDemocratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the violence was not justified

Alliance MP Stephen Farry expressed his "full support for the PSNI, including the chief constable".

He said an EU-UK veterinary agreement would "take the heat" out of the controversy around the NI Protocol.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that while policing was devolved, peace was not, and he pressed the secretary of state to hold a meeting of the BIIGC.

The situation was also earlier raised in the House of Lords by former SDLP leader Baroness Ritchie, who also asked about a British-Irish meeting.

Conservative frontbencher Viscount Younger of Leckie said a range of options was being considered, including the BIIGC.

"Nothing is off the table," he said.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin's national chairman and MLA Declan Kearney has accused the DUP of reckless behaviour and "political vandalism" against the Good Friday Agreement.

"The Good Friday Agreement is under renewed assault from those who have always rejected power sharing and the DUP is directly responsible," he said.

Mr Kearney added that "bellicose rhetoric" from the DUP, including the call for Mr Byrne's resignation, was a "wrecker's charter".

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