NI riots: Politicians are 'playing with matches'

Politicians need to come together to prevent further violence in Northern Ireland, the former British chief negotiator for the Good Friday Agreement has said. Jonathan Powell told BBC World News: "I don't think this will take us back into the Troubles but I do think politicians are playing with matches. This is the time of year in Northern Ireland when as the evenings grow longer you can get into sustained rioting... "I really do think it's incumbent on the political leaders in Northern Ireland to come together and to actually do the right thing to stop this. They can do that if they unite. It's also time for the British government to get involved along with the Irish government." Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive said it was "gravely concerned" by the recent street violence. It has called for calm to be restored. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also condemned the disorder.

Video Transcript

JONATHAN POWELL: The riots are engaged in by criminal elements who are using very young children, as young as 12 and 13. But the underlying political problems really date back to Brexit. The problem was, Brexit was always going to hurt one community's rights. If we leave the EU, there had to be a border somewhere. It could be on the island of Ireland, which would hurt nationalists and republicans, or in the Irish Sea, which would hurt unionists.

So that's led to unionists getting angry, particularly because the implementation of it has led to real problems in terms of supermarkets and supplies coming in. So it's coming from that, and then it's coming from the DUP, the unionist party, who called on the head of the police to resign after he allowed a republican funeral to go ahead despite the COVID rules. So you've got this simmering tension, and it's very sad to see this kind of violence on the street again.

- I mean, this is obviously a very complex situation. And you know all about the Troubles all too well. I mean, are we seeing a situation where we're rolling back to the past?

JONATHAN POWELL: No, I don't think this will take us back into the Troubles, but I do think that politicians are playing with matches. This is the time of year in Northern Ireland where as the evenings grow longer, you can get into sustained rioting. And we often have in the past. And now you have the two communities attacking each other again, which happened last night. This could take off in a very ugly way.

I really do think it's incumbent on the political leaders of Northern Ireland to come together and to actually do the right thing to stop this. They can do that if they unite. It is also time for the British government to get involved, along with the Irish government, and use their good offices to start dialogue rather than allowing this violence to take place. Boris Johnson's taken a week before he's even commented on it. The Irish prime minister has been anxious to take action. I hope the British government will take the responsibility seriously.

- I suppose the focus has been on the pandemic, but once the pandemic fades, you know, the focus will have to come on the long-term effects of Brexit again.

JONATHAN POWELL: It will. Brexit is going to be a problem for Northern Ireland. It always was going to be so. John Major and Tony Blair pointed this out during the referendum campaign.

We now have the Northern Ireland Protocol where we have the border in the Irish Sea, and it's going to have to be made to work. And I think it's very important the British government engages responsibly with the EU in making that work, and that the EU is flexible in the way that it makes some of these regulations work. The British government has approached this in the wrong way as making it an argument with the EU, whereas actually they have a common interest in facilitating this and ensuring it does not cause--