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Bus set on fire in Belfast on sixth night of unrest in Northern Ireland

The Guardian - Wed Apr 7 21:01

A bus has been hijacked and set on fire in Belfast in the sixth consecutive night of violence in Northern Ireland.

The vehicle was set alight at an intersectional area between nationalist and unionist communities, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said.

Stones were thrown at police while a press photographer was assaulted during the course of their work on Wednesday evening on the junction of Lanark Way and Shankill Road in West Belfast.

Tyres and bins were set on fire near the interface gates at Lanark Way, which open in a wall that separates the two communities.PSNI said they had closed the gates and advised people to avoid the area.

Police form a line on the Springfield in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Police form a line on the Springfield in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP

Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, condemned the attack, tweeting: “There is no justification for violence. It is wrong and should stop.”

Boris Johnson also condemned the violence. The UK prime minister wrote on Twitter: “I am 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 the assault of a journalist. The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.”

The Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said: “calm and positive leadership needed from all.”

Footage circulating on Twitter appeared to show the bus being petrol bombed while still moving, with about a dozen masked people – including some who seemed to be children – being cheered on as they ran from the scene. The driver was reportedly uninjured.

A photographer was also attacked, tweeting that he had been “jumped from behind by two masked male … one pulled me to the ground and smashed @beltel [Belfast Telegraph] cameras”.

Foster described the attack as “disgraceful” expressing hope that the “bullies behind this are brought to justice”.

The PSNI chief constable, Simon Byrne, who has faced calls for him to quit, said the ongoing street disorder must stop. He tweeted: “I am open to dialogue with anyone who is willing to work with me to resolve the issues facing our community. My message to those engaged in violence tonight is go home before someone is seriously injured, violence is not the answer.”

The loyalist gathering at Lanark Way was organised via social media, with Facebook posts shared on other platforms. Dozens of youths dressed in dark clothing gathered after 5pm, watched by others who appeared to have come for the spectacle. One elderly woman came in a bathrobe.

Some youths set a fire in the middle of the road while others collected rocks and distributed petrol bombs shortly before the attack on the bus.

Youths from the adjacent nationalist Springfield road area had monitored the loyalist social media posts and responded with their own barrage of rocks and bottles on a loyalist district, prompting more than a dozen police Land Rovers to seal off the interface.

“It should be nipped in the bud,” said Cailin McCaffery, 25, a post-grad researcher, as black smoke plumed overhead. “The fear is that the disturbances will get bigger. We don’t want to relive what our parents lived.”

Since last Friday there has been nightly violence in parts of Northern Ireland, including in Belfast, Derry and parts of county Antrim, fuelled by loyalist anger over a recent decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin leaders over attendance at a mass funeral.

The Democratic Unionist party has expressed fury over the decision, with Foster, its leader, saying it reflects one rule for Sinn Féin and another for ordinary voters who have lost loved ones during the pandemic and have been unable to attend funerals.

Others have put the blame on people’s anger with Brexit, with Stormont’s justice minister, Naomi Long, saying Boris Johnson’s “dishonesty” over Brexit border checks has inflamed the situation.

The Northern Ireland Policing Board was briefed on the violence and disturbances by Byrne on Wednesday.

In a statement, NIPB’s chair, Doug Garrett, said it was “truly shocking that in a short space of time, 41 officers have sustained injuries” and said it was “undoubtedly concerning that so many young people have been drawn into the attacks on the police and the consequences that criminalisation may have for their lives”.

Garrett called for a “redoubling of efforts to calm tension and for continued dialogue between the community and policer officers at all levels of the PSNI”.

In an interview with the Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast, the European Union ambassador said he understood the “sensitivities” and the “delicate and volatile situation in Northern Ireland”, which he visited last year.

He said the EU was “fully committed in a constructive way to find solutions for those problems” but it had to be “within the limits of the protocol that we have agreed not long ago”.