There were violent scenes at Shaftesbury Square as crowds of young people attacked the PSNI.
Northern Ireland’s political leaders have appealed for calm after 15 PSNI officers were injured during rioting in Belfast which saw loyalist youths clash with police.
Eight people - two of them aged just 13 and 14 - were arrested following the disorder, which flared in the Shaftesbury Square area on Friday night.
Petrol bombs, bricks and fireworks were thrown at police lines with a crowd of up to 200 people involved in the disturbances, which followed a protest advertised on social media earlier in the day.
This afternoon Belfast District Commander Chief Superintendent Simon Walls said the injuries to officers included burns, head and leg injuries, and strongly condemned the “appalling behaviour”.
Mr Walls said he recognised there were “significant tensions and unease in some communities” but appealed for calm.
The rioting comes amid growing anger within loyalism around post-Brexit trading arrangements, and controversy over a decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians for attending the Bobby Storey funeral during Covid-19 restrictions.
This is in no-one's best interests - not the officers dealing with it and not the mostly young people risking their futures by engaging in it.— Naomi Long MLA (@naomi_long) April 2, 2021
It's incumbent on leaders to behave responsibly and dial down the inflammatory rhetoric over recent days.
Words have consequences. https://t.co/HueRap9JIg
First Minister Arlene Foster warned young people not to get "drawn into disorder”, an appeal echoed by Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, who said the violence was “completely unacceptable”.
Mrs Foster said: “I know that many of our young people are hugely frustrated by the events of this last week but causing injury to police officers will not make things better.
"I appeal to our young people not to get drawn into disorder which will lead to them having criminal convictions and blighting their own lives.”
Mr Lewis said: “The unrest we saw last night is completely unacceptable. Violence is never the answer. There is no place for it in society. It is unwanted, unwarranted and I fully support the PSNI appeal for calm. My thoughts are with the officers injured.”
The Police Federation for Northern Ireland said that "once again the outworkings of political flux in Northern Ireland results in our colleagues being attacked”. It Tweeted: “No excuse for violence, and condemnation across the political spectrum would be welcome.”
In scenes reminiscent to the 2012 flag protests, loyalists gathered in a series of locations on Friday to hold mini demonstrations.
Sad to see disorder in Sandy Row. Usual suspects with no vision whip up tension for electoral gain, which they never use to improve life for those they pretend to represent. History repeats, people lose hope, kids get criminal records, communities pull apart. Thereâs a better way— Claire Hanna (@ClaireHanna) April 2, 2021
The largest crowd was reported at the corner of Sandy Row and Shaftsbury Square in Belfast.
Police were forced to close off Shaftsbury Square and the Donegall Road to facilitate the protest, which soon turned violent.
Speaking this afternoon, Chief Superintendent Walls said what had started as “a small local protest quickly developed into an attack on police”.
He added: “A total of 15 officers were injured after being subjected to a sustained attack by rioters who threw a number of objects at police, including heavy masonry, metal rods, fireworks and manhole covers. Their injuries include burns, head and leg injuries. As a result we now have four officers who cannot report for duty as a result of their injuries.”
Mr Walls continued: “The majority of those involved in the disorder last night were young people. In fact two of the eight people arrested were two young boys aged 13 and 14. By engaging in this type of behaviour they are not only risking their safety, they are also risking their futures.”
Mr Walls concluded: “I understand there are significant tensions and unease in some communities. My job is to keep people safe and I would ask that anyone who has any influence in communities – whether parents, guardians, community or elected representatives – please, use that influence to ensure young people are kept safe and away from harm.
“Local communities deserve to live in safe and peaceful areas, free from rioting and violence.”
Today politicians from all the main parties condemned the violent scenes.
Naomi Long, the Justice Minister, said: “This is in no-one's best interests - not the officers dealing with it and not the mostly young people risking their futures by engaging in it.
“It's incumbent on leaders to behave responsibly and dial down the inflammatory rhetoric over recent days. Words have consequences.”
Profoundly disappointed and saddened by the scenes taking place in Belfast this evening.— Councillor Peter McReynolds (@cllr_petermcrey) April 2, 2021
And for what reason?
Some politicians in Northern Ireland should hang their head in shame for leading us to this.
DUP MLA Christopher Stalford, whose constituency office is in Sandy Row, said everyone must "abide by the law”.
In a reference to controversy around Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill and her attendance at the funeral of senior IRA figure Bobby Storey last June, he said: ”Given the actions of the deputy First Minister, some folks may believe that they can break the rules. That is not the case - two wrongs don't make a right.
“The vast majority of people involved in this incident were under the age of 18. I do not want to see young people, acting out of frustration at recent developments, landing themselves in trouble with the law and ending up with criminal records.”
Steve Aiken, the UUP leader, pleaded for those involved to "please stop this violence”.
He said: “It will not achieve anything, and undermines the legitimate concerns that you have and is damaging our own communities.”
UUP Policing Board member Mike Nesbitt said: “That riot did not just happen. Someone planned it, someone encouraged people onto the streets.
“I challenge them to explain a strategy that portrays loyalists and unionists as law-breakers, prepared to attack the PSNI, injure officers and frankly take the focus off Sinn Fein and the republican movement.
"The history of street violence is unambiguous. It does nothing to advance our cause. It is a huge mistake and should not be repeated.”
South Belfast MP Claire Hanna said it was "sad to see disorder in Sandy Row”, and blamed what she described as "usual suspects with no vision" for creating "tension for electoral gain”.
"History repeats, people lose hope, kids get criminal records, communities pull apart. There's a better way," she said.
Sinn Fein MP Paul Maskey also condemned the trouble.
“This evening we have unfortunately seen running skirmishes between young people and the PSNI in the Sandy Row area following a protest that was organised by loyalists against the protocol," he said.
“It is always sad to see young people being used by sinister elements to advance their regressive agenda.
“It is also deeply concerning to see these types of incidents at the height of the Covid pandemic and as we are beginning to make good progress.
“The DUP and political unionism are failing unionist working class communities through their dangerous and irresponsible rhetoric which has is continuing to lead to heightened tensions.
“This is a time for calm heads and responsible leadership.”
Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said responsible leadership was required from all quarters to stop a repeat of the violence in Sandy Row.
“Those engaged in rioting last night have achieved nothing other than bringing misery upon their own area, including the potential for criminal records harming future prospects. There is no future in this type of behaviour,” she said.
She added: “Political leadership requires the right decisions, not the easy ones.
“It often means taking people to places where they are uncomfortable for the sake of the greater good. We are seeing very little of that currently, and it is resulting in serious harm.”
Earlier on Friday, there had been fears that a protest planned for a volatile North Belfast interface would end in violence. North Queen Street, which links the nationalist New Lodge to the loyalist Tigers Bay is a notorious flashpoint.
Despite being advertised by a loyalist Facebook page, there was no protest at the interface, however, police patrols were increased in the area.
Crowds of young people did clash at the Lanark Way interface in West Belfast with stones and bottles being thrown as local community workers tried to defuse the situation.
Protests were also advertised on Facebook to be held at a carpark in Ballymena, where several hundred people showed up. Police closed the road to traffic and observed the crowd.
Loyalist sources say the various protests were not organised by any one group and appeared to be driven by social media.
However, some expressed concerns that they were being promoted mainly by those who had previously been accused of orchestrating unrest in loyalist communities.
The sporadic calls for protest came after several nights of violence in the Waterside area of Derry.
Police were pelted with petrol bombs and masonry during disturbances in the area on Thursday night when a large group of youths gathered in the Rossdowney Road/Lincoln Court.
During the disorder a digger parked in the area was also set alight.
When police and the fire service responded they came under sustained attack.
Anti-PSNI graffiti has appeared in the area in recent days following the PPS decision not to prosecute any Sinn Fein representatives over their attendance at the funeral of Mr Storey.