Keir Starmer has called on Boris Johnson to convene all-party talks to bring an end to violent scenes in Northern Ireland, accusing the prime minister of being “absent” during several nights of disorder which have left 55 police officers injured.
The call came as the province’s political parties united to urge an end to attacks on the police and respect for the rule of law in an emergency session of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.
Following a meeting with chief constable Simon Byrne, the power-sharing executive issued a joint statement calling for a halt to the riots.
Recent days have seen a bus hijacked and torched and masked teenagers hurling petrol bombs and missiles over peace walls in actions which police say were likely to have been “orchestrated” by proscribed paramilitary organisations.
In a tweet on Wednesday evening, Mr Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” by the scenes of violence, adding: “The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.”
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis was holding talks with the main parties as well as faith and community leaders on Thursday afternoon after flying to Belfast. But Sir Keir said the prime minister must take a more active role.
“I think everybody with responsibility in Northern Ireland needs to condemn the violence in no uncertain terms,” said the Labour leader during an election campaign visit to Bristol.
“I think the prime minister has to convene all-party talks. This is about leadership and the prime minister can’t be absent.
“He needs to convene talks urgently in Northern Ireland to find pragmatic and political solutions to reduce this violence.”
The joint statement by the cross-party executive stated: “Destruction, violence and the threat of violence are completely unacceptable and unjustifiable, no matter what concerns may exist in communities.
“While our political positions are very different on many issues, we are all united in our support for law and order and we collectively state our support for policing and for the police officers who have been putting themselves in harm’s way to protect others.”
Addressing the Stormont Assembly by video-link, first minister Arlene Foster said the scenes witnessed in towns and cities across Northern Ireland were “totally unacceptable”.
“We should all know that when politics fail or are perceived to be failing in Northern Ireland, those who fill the vacuum offer destruction and despair,” said the DUP leader, who has previously led calls for Mr Byrne’s resignation over police handling of breaches of coronavirus rules at the funeral of an IRA leader.
She added: “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. Political problems require political solutions, never street violence.
“Northern Ireland is faced with a number of deep and significant poltical challenges in the time ahead, and collectively we must work through those challenges.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who called today’s emergency debate, said the scenes of recent days were “as depressing as they are disgraceful”, with the manipulation of teenage rioters by paramilitaries and gangsters “nothing short of child abuse”.
The justice minister called on Unionists to “dial down the rhetoric” over Mr Byrne’s position, warning it was “profoundly unfair and incredibly damaging to trash the reputation of the police service and senior officers without evidence”.
Ms Long said that tensions had also been whipped up by the trade border in the Irish Sea created by Brexit.
People in Northern Ireland felt “betrayed” by the hard Brexit delivered by “those in government who were more interested in their own ascent to power than the instability their deception would cause here”, she said.
Sinn Fein deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill described the violence seen in Belfast as “deplorable”, and blamed illegal loyalist paramilitaries and criminal elements.
“They stand back and send youngsters out to do their bidding,” she said.
“These people are no role models for our youth; they are outdated, they are antiquated and they are caught in a time warp which has no bearing on where the vast majority of people across this society now are or where they want to be.
“They are holding back their own people and they are holding back their own community.”