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The Government’s former top adviser on Northern Ireland has hit out at “grossly irresponsible” attempts to blame Brexit for rioting among loyalists, as Brandon Lewis held emergency talks to try to quell the unrest.
Lord Caine, who served as special adviser to six Northern Ireland secretaries, spoke out amid a growing political blame game over the violence which has descended across the province.
More than 50 police officers have been injured during the riots, some of which PSNI assistant chief constable Jonathan Roberts said appeared to be pre-planned and on “a scale that we have not seen in recent years in Belfast or further afield.”
It comes as violence flared in Belfast on Thursday for the seventh consecutive night, as police fired water cannon to dispel rioters in the west of the city.
On Thursday evening the Biden administration joined efforts to diffuse the tensions, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki telling reporters: "We are concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland and we join the British, Irish and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.
"We remain steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace."
In an interview with The Telegraph, Lord Caine, who voted Remain, said that while post-Brexit trade disruption had contributed to unionist anger, the influence of malign figures and paramilitary groups had clearly played a role.
It comes after a number of Northern Irish politicians and Labour MPs on Thursday sought to pin the violence on Boris Johnson’s failure to be upfront about the consequences of the Northern Ireland Protocol on trade across the Irish Sea.
“It’s irresponsible and it betrays a wilful ignorance of Northern Irish politics,” he added. “It’s not just about politics, it’s about people who run criminal empires and who seek to exert influence and control over communities.”
His comments were echoed by a Belfast security source, who said some loyalist groups were using Brexit as a “flag of convenience” to exploit tensions, while also fomenting anger over the failure by prosecutors to take action against Sinn Fein politicians who attended a funeral for IRA figure Bobby Storey, allegedly in breach of coronavirus rules.
“Covid kept a lid on much of it and there’s an element of recreational rioting, but such acts are usually done with permission from those that would benefit from an increase in tension,” they added. “There’s a more sinister element of the old and bold coming through.”
Meanwhile, Mr Lewis on Thursday travelled to Belfast as the Stormont Assembly was recalled to hold an urgent debate following a sixth consecutive night of clashes between loyalist groups and police.
After the Northern Ireland Executive issued a joint statement condemning the violence, Mr Lewis spoke to all five leaders of Northern Ireland’s main political parties, including First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, from Sinn Fein. Further talks will be held today.
Speaking afterwards, Mr Lewis acknowledged the strength of feeling among unionists over the protocol, but insisted the Government had not abandoned them.
He also expressed confidence in the PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne, who the DUP has urged to resign over the force’s role in the decision not to pursue Sinn Fein politicians who attended the funeral.
In a statement issued earlier, he said: “I have seen first hand the true spirit of Northern Ireland - the creativity, the optimism and the determination to never return to the conflict and division of the past. We cannot allow that spirit to be crushed by a small minority intent on violence.”
The talks were called after the disorder escalated on Wednesday evening when a bus was set alight and a photographer assaulted in Belfast.
The clashes also saw groups of hood youths, some believed to be as young as 13, hurling petrol bombs and missiles at each other across a peace wall which runs between loyalist and republican neighbourhoods in the city.
Tensions boiled over last week over the decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, who attended an IRA funeral in an alleged breach of lockdown rules.
Mrs Foster has appealed for calm but has defended her calls for Mr Byrne to resign over how his service dealt with the funeral of former senior IRA figure Bobby Storey.
Others have blamed the DUP for stoking tensions with inflammatory language, as well as Brexit and the Government’s failure to be clear about the disruption it would cause.
However, Lord Caine said: “I think it is irresponsible of some people who are trying to make this solely a Brexit story, that somehow Brexit is destroying the Northern Ireland peace process.
“We have seen a number of people in recent years - who would never previously have taken any interest in Northern Ireland, still less champion the Union – suddenly become experts on the 1998 Agreement and seek to use Northern Ireland to make a point about Brexit, which I, as a remain voter, deplore.
“It’s irresponsible and it betrays a wilful ignorance of Northern Ireland politics. Bluntly, elements within loyalism have been disaffected with aspects of the agreement [Good Friday Agreement] and the peace process since the early days.
“There’s this longstanding perception within loyalism that republicans had made all the gains and they have got nothing out of it. Let me be clear – I don’t agree with that view. But these are long-standing issues that successive governments have grappled with since 1998.
“The Bobby Storey incident last week is the most recent catalyst for loyalism. It plays into this narrative that there is one rule for Sinn Fein and another for the rest of us. To say this is all about Brexit is pretty wilfully dumb.”
Lord Caine added that the Government should encourage the Northern Ireland Executive to make rapid progress on the Fresh Start Agreement drawn up by the UK and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive in 2015, which includes ways to tackle paramilitary activity.
“Paramilitarism is often a cloak of convenience for people who are mainly interested in is profiting out of criminality,” he added.
“What this shows is the really pressing need to pick up the commitments in the 2015 Fresh Start agreement and start tackling paramilitary activity. It never had any place in Northern Ireland and it shouldn’t have any place today. It’s mainly an Executive responsibility but it’s one area where Brandon could say we really need to get on with this.
“To try and break the stranglehold that some of these groups have over the communities they purport to represent and protect but they actually hold back.”