Emergency talks are set to take place in Northern Ireland following a week of violence that police said has been on a scale not seen in recent years.
UK Secretary of State Brandon Lewis has arrived in Belfast to speak with First Minister Arlene Foster from the DUP and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill from Sinn Fein to discuss the unrest.
In the latest scenes, which took place in west Belfast on Wednesday night, a bus was hijacked and set on fire, petrol bombs, masonry and fireworks were thrown at police officers and a peace wall gate was set alight.
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said police were investigating whether there was any paramilitary involvement.
Police quelled crowds of 600 people on either side of the peace walls that separate communities in the city and deployed a type of plastic bullet, as well as arresting two men, aged 18 and 28, on suspicion of rioting.
Mr Lewis urged all communities to work together to end the violence, saying the determination to move on from the Troubles cannot be “crushed by a small minority”.
He said: “The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than a continuation of the violence and disorder that we have witnessed in recent days.
“I know, from my ongoing contact with party leaders, that this is a view that is shared by all. The only way to resolve differences is through dialogue and in that regard we must all lead by example.”
He added: “I will do all I can to continue to facilitate further constructive discussions on the way forward over the coming days. I remain in close contact with the Prime Minister to keep him updated.”
Earlier in the day, ministers in the Stormont Executive condemned the violence and Stormont MLAs unanimously passed a motion calling for an end to the disorder.
In a joint statement, the five-party Executive said: “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.
“We, and our departments, will continue to work together to maximise the support we can give to communities and the PSNI to prevent further violence and unrest.”
The Stormont Assembly was recalled from Easter recess for an emergency sitting following a motion calling for MLAs to unequivocally condemn those involved and support the rule of law.
Speaking during the Assembly debate, DUP leader Mrs Foster said the scenes witnessed were “totally unacceptable”.
The First Minister said the injuries to police officers, harm to Northern Ireland’s image and people’s property had taken the region backwards.
Ms O’Neill said the violence was dangerous and unacceptable.
She said illegal loyalist paramilitaries and criminal elements were influencing young people and orchestrating the violence.
“They are holding back their own people and they are holding back their own community,” she said.
But Mr Roberts later said during a press conference: “I can’t confirm the involvement of paramilitaries but the orchestration of last night’s disorder and the previous nights is the subject of investigation.
“The scale of the disorder last night was at a scale that we have not seen in recent years in Belfast or further afield.
“The fact that it was sectarian violence involving large groups on both sides is not something we have seen in recent years. We believe there was a level of pre-planning.”
The violence is unfolding at a time of increasing rancour in the political sphere amid tensions over Brexit’s Irish Sea trade border and the fallout from the police’s handling of a mass republican funeral that took place during pandemic restrictions last year.
As rioting has flared across Northern Ireland, all four main unionist parties continue to call for PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to quit over how his service dealt with the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey.
Unionists are furious at a decision by prosecutors not to take action against 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including Ms O’Neill, for attending the funeral – a decision partly related to the fact that police had engaged with organisers before the event that drew 2,000 people on to the streets.
Mr Byrne has vowed not to resign and has signalled a desire to engage with people who have concerns about policing in the region.