NI ministers condemn 'deplorable' violence

Sky's David Blevins is at Stormont where Northern Ireland's First and Deputy First Minister have condemned violence in Belfast.

Video Transcript

DAVID BLEVINS: Well, I think it tells you how difficult the situation in Northern Ireland is facing, that the assembly has now been recalled for a second time actually during the Easter recess. Members were brought back last week to debate the fallout over that controversial decision not to prosecute anyone for breaches of COVID regulations at the funeral of the former IRA intelligence officer Bobby Story.

So, the Alliance Party leader Naomi Long is currently on her feet in the Northern Ireland Assembly, tabling a motion condemning the violence. In fact within the last few minutes, we've also had a statement from the power-sharing, devolved government here condemning the violence over recent days, calling for calm to be restored to the streets, and for an end to violent protests. The politicians say while they have many differences, they support the rule of law and collectively state their support for policing and police officers who've put themselves in harm's way in recent days.

The context for all of this, of course, is Brexit, and the battle over that border in the Irish Sea. But it's too simplistic to attribute all of it to this, because the tension has been flamed by that controversial decision over the Bobby Story funeral, and also by the fact that there is one section of the community, Loyalism, feeling increasingly alienated in Northern Ireland. And that's always very dangerous. Because you've effectively got the old hand loyalist paramilitary leaders who brought about the ceasefire and contributed to the Good Friday Agreement in a power struggle with young, sinister, militant elements who are exploiting these young people in deprived areas to engage in this kind of violence. But unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle now, and it's hard to put it back in.

That's the challenge for political leaders here at Stormont. We do expect to hear in the next few minutes from the first minister, Arlene Foster, and deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill.

- OK. And do we know exactly what they're going to say, David? They're not going to speak for long are they? Just five minutes each.

DAVID BLEVINS: Well, I think that statement in the last few minutes from the Northern Ireland executive would indicate there is some acknowledgment, some recognition, of the fact that Northern Ireland finds itself in a difficult place right now for all sorts of reasons. As I say, it's too simplistic to say it's all about Brexit or it's all about the decision not to prosecute anyone COVID breaches at the IRA funeral last year.

It goes much deeper than that, because much of this violence, the petrol bombing of a bus, the attack on police officers. I think 55 of them have now been injured. We've seen nine young people arrested, the youngest just 13 years of age. Much of it is happening in areas where there are kind of rogue loyalist elements and in areas where it's difficult for anyone to exert influence. Deprived areas.

There's enormous educational underachievement in these areas. They haven't seen any dividend as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. And to some extent they've kind of lost faith in politics and lost faith in the peace process. And that's the real challenge for those who have committed to sharing power in a devolved government in Northern Ireland. It's their job right now to try and demonstrate that there's a political alternative to the kind of violence we're witnessing on the streets right now.

- David, how's Boris Johnson's response to all of this gone down? He tweeted, saying, "I'm 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 their assault of a journalist. The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality." There's his tweet. His response, how's that gone down?

DAVID BLEVINS: I think people have been staggered, really, by the length of time it has taken the prime minister to respond to the violence that's been ongoing over the last few days. I think they would have expected to hear from Downing Street much sooner. But I understand that the first minister, Arlene Foster, who is contributing to this debate virtually from Fermanagh because of illness, is about to speak.

ARLENE FOSTER: --also for my voice today and I hope that people can at least make some of what I'm saying out.

I do welcome this motion brought to the house today. The scenes we have seen over this last evening and in previous evenings in various parts of Northern Ireland are totally unacceptable. There can be no place in our society for violence or the threat of violence, and it must stop. Just as it was wrong in the past and was never justified, so it is wrong now and cannot be justified. The injury to frontline officers, victims terrorized, damage to people's property, the harm to Northern Ireland's image in our centenary year, has taken us backwards, and no brick, no bottle, no petrol bomb thrown, has achieved or can ever achieve anything but destruction, harm, and fear.

We are indebted to the police officers who stand between order and those who'd prefer anarchy. We are also indebted to all those political representatives, community leaders, parents, pastors, and others who have sought to calm tensions, and urge restraint. Rioting, criminality, and wanton destruction destroys lives, livelihoods, and brings fear and misery to local communities. It is not in the name of the people who live in the areas impacted, and I have spoken to some of those people and it's certainly not in their name.

Today is not the time to rehearse the arguments of the last number of weeks. You have to say that we should all know well that when politics fail, or are perceived to be failing, in Northern Ireland, then those who fill the vacuum offer destruction and despair. We cannot allow a new generation of our young people to fall victim to that path, or be preyed upon by some who prefer the shadows to the light.

So political problems require political solutions, never street violence. Northern Ireland is faced with a number of deep and significant political challenges in the time ahead, and collectively we must work through those challenges. Because responsible leadership will not cherry-pick the problems that are easiest. Responsible leadership means actively listening to views that people may not agree with or want to hear. Responsible leadership will not deny the existence of the most politically difficult challenges or wish them away. And responsible leadership will not leave things to fester or to worsen.

And in this assembly, our democratic forum, we will always have our differences. We will always have our different legitimate expectations. But the only bedrock on which we can move forward successfully is to recommit ourselves to redouble our efforts to solve each and every one of the challenges we face through politics. Stable and prosperous Northern Ireland requires a solution to all of our challenges, built on the firm foundation that every citizen is equal under the law, and equally subject to the law, regardless of background or status. Thank you, Mr Speaker.

SPEAKER: Thank you and I call Michele O'Neil.

MICHELLE O'NEILL: [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] And can I also welcome the opportunity to speak in today's debate, albeit saddened by the fact that we're actually even having to have this debate. I think it's incumbent upon us all as assembly members, as political leaders to meet and to publicly express our deep concerns relating to the recent violence on the ongoing street disorder and over Easter Week right across many areas of Belfast, Derry, Tyrone, and other parts of the North.

What we saw last night at Lanark Way interface I think was a very dangerous escalation of events of recent days. And it's utterly deplorable. This morning, I met with the chief constable, Simon Byrne, who also then briefed the special meeting of the Executive, where he gave an operational update on the police response. And as we speak here today, 55 police officers have been injured, and I want to start my remarks by sending solidarity to those officers, to their families, at this very difficult time. And also I think that at a time when they are out on the front face of this, tackling very difficult situations on the ground, trying to protect people and our communities from harm, protecting property, can I also start by again reaffirming support for the rule of law and to those who are charged with upholding it on our streets?

I am glad to say to this assembly that the Executive just met this morning. And we also had the chief constable there as I've said. And as a result of that engagement, we have now issued a joint executive statement. I think it's really, really important at this time. Our words are very powerful, and I think it's really, really important at this time that the Executive has sent out that united front.

There is an onus on every single MLA, and other public representatives, to assume our responsibilities, 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 that's required to confront these problems. As political leaders we must stand united in appealing to all concerned to refrain from further threats or use of violence, and recognize that it's only through democratic politics that we can solve our problems and concerns. And call on those together, call on those organizing young people to engage in violence, to stop. And to those young people themselves, to call on them to exercise restraint.

Nobody could fail to be alarmed by the fact that these are young people, children as young as 13, barely a teenager, that are involved in rioting, both at Sandy Row and then last night again, similar scenes at Lanark Way. It's not right. It's dangerous. It's unacceptable. And it is a miracle that as we stand here today that no one has been killed.

I want to commend all those that are on the ground, working really hard within their communities, trying to provide diversionary activities for children and young people. Because we know that I can help to prevent further antisocial behavior for those whom face the highest risk of influence. And we all know where that influence is coming from. It's coming from illegal loyalist paramilitaries and criminal elements that are orchestrating this violence while they stand back and send youngsters out to do their bidding. These people are no role models for our youth. They're outdated. They're antiquated. And they're caught in a time warp which has no bearing on where the vast majority of people across this society are, or indeed where they want to be. They're holding back their own people, and they're holding back their own community. It's only through dialogue, through democratic institutions, where political solutions to problems can be found.

This Saturday marks the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It created these democratic institutions based on power-sharing and guaranteed equality and parity of esteem between both traditions, and the right for citizens to be Irish, to be British, or to be both. It also created an alternative to conflict. It gave today's generation the precious gift of peace, and of hope. It is vital that the benefits of the peace process are safeguarded and built upon for future generations, and that all of our people feel the benefit.

The LCC, we're told, have now withdrawn their support for this agreement. What's their logic? And more importantly, what's their alternative? Unionist leaders have withdrawn their support for the chief constable, demanding that he resign. So whenever we see this manifest with young people from working class loyalist areas attacking the police, it seems to me, and all who are watching on, that these things can't be entirely divorced. Surely, unequivocal support for the police and its leadership is the responsible thing to guarantee from this democratic assembly today. Political unionism champion Brexit--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

SPEAKER: [INAUDIBLE]

MICHELLE O'NEILL: --dragged out [INAUDIBLE]. Can I just say that I think that what we need to do is focus together, as an executive, as an assembly, as political leaders, to work together to say, and to say it very clear that there's room for everybody at the table. But I'll tell you where there isn't room. There isn't room for armed gangs. There isn't room for criminal gangs who care nothing about the future of the society. It's incumbent upon us as political leaders whom which the public give their support, to work together. Those people are enemies of the peace, and it's our job to make sure that all generations and future generations feel the benefit of the peace agreement.

- So Michelle O'Neill there speaking at Stormont. Let's bring in our senior Ireland correspondent. David Blevins is also there, and David, a reiteration of what Arlene Foster said before her, that the answers to all of these problems lie in politics and not violence.

DAVID BLEVINS: Yes, a much more measured tone from the first minister Arlene Foster than we've heard after days of angry exchanges over political difficulties in Northern Ireland. She said that when there is a perceived failure in politics, the vacuum is always filled by those intent on destruction. And she committed her support for police officers who'd been injured and called for some sensible dialogue to try and bring all of this to an end.

Michele O'Neill then coming in behind her to reinforce that there was support from the entire power-sharing government for the rule of law in Northern Ireland. She reminded people that it's 23 years exactly next week since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and that this generation deserves to benefit from all of the hope that that brought about at that time. Michelle O'Neill said there is room for everyone at the table for dialogue, negotiation to try and find a way out of this mess, but no room for armed gangs. And she called for people with any influence within those loyalist communities to exercise it now to bring this violence to an end. And she called on the young people, especially, themselves, to desist from engaging in this kind of violence, particularly at flashpoints, at interfaces where loyalist areas meet nationalist areas.

But this remains still a very tense time. Let's just hope that the comments made this morning will perhaps begin to defuse the tension.