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Brandon Lewis warns of no quick fixes for NI tensions

The extent of the tough job facing Northern Ireland’s officers has been laid out to MPs.

The Commons was given an assessment of what caused a week of violence that left 88 officers injured.

The statement by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis renewed support for the police.

But his comments, and statements from other MPs, backed the Police Federation view that solving the complex problems that have caused the disturbances will be far from easy.

In a carefully worded statement, in which Mr Lewis was careful not to divert from agreed positions, he set out the details of the violence.

The main areas of unrest had been in six areas of Belfast: Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus, Ballymena, Cookstown, Coleraine and Londonderry.

By the end, a total of 88 police officers had been injured, 18 arrests have been made and 15 individuals have been charged.

Unionists have claimed the problem was policing of an IRA funeral during lockdown. Loyalist paramilitaries have blamed Brexit.

Mr Lewis said: “The factors behind it are, in fact, complex and multi-faceted. People are frustrated after a year in which coronavirus has challenged all of us, and I do recognise how frustrating it has been, especially for young people.

“There is also a perception that the rules and restrictions have not been enforced equally in Northern Ireland. I recognise that there are concerns about the implications of the Northern Ireland protocol—concerns that overlap with wider questions about national identity and political allegiance—and this comes at a time of economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic,” he said.

PSNI has faced criticism from Unionist leaders but Mr Lewis made clear that he would be offering the Police Service of Northern Ireland “our fullest possible support”.

“Our collective priority is to work together to ensure public safety,” he said.

The Irish government has offered to hold talks with the various groups – something not seen since before the Good Friday Agreement.

Louise Haigh, Labour’s Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, urged the government to meet formally with all sides if it was not prepared to work publicly with the Irish government.

She added: “It is no coincidence that violence has flared in areas of profound deprivation, where educational attainment is too low, paramilitary activity 23 years on from the agreement is still criminally high, and children are educated in segregated schools and grow up in segregated communities.

“For them, the promise of peace has not arrived. A toxic combination of deprivation and disregard has fuelled deep disillusionment,” she warned.

The government was also given a strong warning not to undermine the PSNI.

The SNP’s Richard Thomson said: “It will require respect for the law and those who enforce it, whether that is the officers of the PSNI, the leadership of the PSNI or the prosecution service.

“All must be supported fully in dealing with criminality and maintaining public order in a way that is consistent.”

The main unionist intervention came from the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

“There is a two-tier policing system in the eyes of some, and that needs to be addressed. Importantly, there was also a breach of trust in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol and creating barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that we were told would not happen,” he said.

“What is the Secretary of State going to do, with the Northern Ireland political parties, to address the issues around policing and justice, and, crucially, to replace this protocol?”

The PSNI have made clear that policing lockdown guidance that had been rushed into law was difficult.

The NI Police Federation have made clear to Mr Lewis and other political leaders that they are backing Chief Constable Simon Byrne.

CC Byrne has focused on community policing and, crucially, the response from Mr Lewis to the DUP made clear this was currently the only option for preventing further disturbances.

He said: “There is a very important role for the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Policing Board in working with communities to restore and build trust. I have been talking to the Chief Constable about that, and to the parties on the Executive, as the right hon. Gentleman knows.”

He explained what PSNI would be doing: “I think everybody is very alert to the very real fact that, whatever anybody’s view of what happened around the funeral, the decision that was made has had a very substantial impact.

“There is work that the various agencies and bodies, including the PSNI and the Policing Board, need to do to reconnect with communities to show them that the PSNI is there for the safety and protection of everybody across the entire community of Northern Ireland.”

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