Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has said there is no excuse for last night's violence in Belfast and it does not serve anybody's cause.

At a press conference outside Stormont House this evening, he said he welcomed the cross party statement today condemning last night's events.

Asked about the role the Northern Ireland Protocol was having on the disturbances, he said he would be the first to acknowledge that in the first few months there were real issues about its effects on consumers and on the loyalist/unionist communities but the way to deal with that is through political means.

Mr Lewis added that the Protocol was agreed to protect the Good Friday Agreement and deals with the transfer of goods and that it should not be there to create problems for people or businesses in the North.

He said that was a point the EU needed to understand as well. But he said any grievances people have do not legitimise the use of violence

He said it was "beyond dreadful" adults who are encouraging their children to take up activity that will damage their opportunities.

We need to see a calm return and an end to the violence, Mr Lewis added.

Asked if the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was taking the matter seriously, Mr Lewis said "absolutely" adding he had talked to the PM "just a short while ago".

Mr Lewis also suggested that as well as the Protocol, the decision not to prosecute anyone in relation to the Bobby Storey funeral, as well the PSNI cracking down on criminal gangs, were also being mentioned as reasons behind last night's clashes.

Asked about the feeling of two-tier policing among the unionist community, he said it was important that the PSNI has the confidence across the communities in the North.

Mr Lewis will hold a virtual meeting with the five parties in the Stormont Executive tomorrow morning. 

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne will also take part.

A clean-up operation on the Shankill Road in Belfast

It comes after the Northern Ireland Executive jointly condemned the violence over recent days across parts of the region and called for calm to be restored and an end to violent protests.

At a special meeting this morning, Stormont Ministers were updated by PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne on the situation.

A joint statement from the Executive following the meeting read: "We are gravely concerned by the scenes we have all witnessed on our streets over the last week, including those at the Lanark Way interface last night. Attacks on police officers, public services and communities are deplorable and they must stop.

"Destruction, violence and the threat of violence are completely unacceptable and unjustifiable, no matter what concerns may exist in communities."

It said that those who would "seek to use and abuse our children and young people to carry out these attacks have no place in our society".

"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 today's meeting of leaders, First Minister Arlene Foster said the scenes witnessed across Northern Ireland were "totally unacceptable".

Ms Foster said the injuries to police officers, harm to Northern Ireland's image and people's property has taken the region backwards.

"Today is not the time to rehearse the arguments in the last few weeks. We should all know that when politics are perceived to fail, those who fill the vacuum cause despair.

"Northern Ireland faces deep political challenges ahead."

She said that the future requires political leadership.

She said no brick or petrol bomb thrown can achieve anything but destruction or harm and fear and thanked community leaders and others who have tried to ease tensions. 

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Ms Foster, who had previously said she would not meet with Mr Byrne, said this morning that she has spoken to him.

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Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill said she was saddened that this debate was needed.

"I think it's incumbent upon us all as Assembly members, as political leaders to meet and to publicly express our deep concern at the recent violence and ongoing street disorder," she said.

Ms O'Neill described the scenes in Belfast as a "very dangerous escalation of events in recent days, and it is utterly deplorable".

She said it is only through democratic politics that problems can be solved and it requires calling on those who are organising young people to engage in violence to stop. 

She said everyone knows where that influence is coming from.

She said she had spoken earlier with Mr Byrne, who also briefed a special meeting of the Executive on the police response.

Justice Minister Naomi Long said it was particularly disturbing to see another generation of young people, some as young as 12, involved in violent confrontations with the police. 

The Alliance Party leader also described her horror in watching adults standing by and cheering and encouraging young people on as they wreak havoc in their own community. saying "this is nothing short of child abuse."

She said while there are many theories as to why the violence has erupted, there can be no excuse or justification for what has taken place and added: "Our condemnation of such violence must be unequivocal."

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Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken told the meeting that the riots were "completely unacceptable".

"Organised criminal gangs bringing out children, young people and others to commit acts of destruction helps no-one and no cause.

"The imagery this portrays of 21st century Northern Ireland into our second century is not something that anyone should want to see.

"This violence must stop before anyone is killed.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she met the PSNI Chief Constable this morning.

She said that "those stoking up tensions at interfaces must be faced down".

"Ongoing orchestrated violence must end. Those inflicting violence held to account. Politics leaders must speak with one voice."

Last night saw a bus hijacked and set on fire, a press photographer assaulted and clashes between loyalists and nationalists at a peace line street that links the Shankill Road with the Springfield Road in west Belfast.

At least seven PSNI officers were injured, according to the Police Federation of Northern Ireland.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Jonathan Roberts said 55 officers in total have been injured during rioting in recent days.

The unrest has been attributed to tension in loyalist communities over the Northern Ireland Protocol on Brexit and the PSNI's handling of alleged coronavirus regulation breaches by Sinn Féin politicians at the funeral last year of senior republican Bobby Storey.

Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service announced last week that it had decided not to prosecute 24 Sinn Féin politicians, including Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, over their attendance at the funeral.

Unionists have accused the PSNI leadership of facilitating the funeral and the breaking of the law, and Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster has called on Mr Byrne to resign.

Additional reporting Vincent Kearney, PA