Arlene Foster has insisted a “cultural war” is being waged on unionism by Irish republicans.
The DUP leader and Stormont First Minister claimed genuinely felt concerns within the loyalist community were being “dismissed” and she denied that unionist political leaders who highlighted those concerns were stoking tensions.
Mrs Foster made the comments as she and Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill faced questions from Stormont MLAs on the recent street disorder, which has predominantly flared in loyalist working-class areas.
The First Minister also expressed concern at any suggestion multi-million pound spending commitments by the Executive in some of the areas impacted by the recent violence – through Stormont’s Communities in Transition initiative – was an effort to buy off the rioters.
Briefing her Assembly scrutiny committee, Mrs Foster also acknowledged using “clumsy” language in a tweet about loyalist rioting at a Belfast interface last week.
In the tweet condemning the hijack and destruction of a bus during disorder on the Shankill Road, Mrs Foster suggested the incident would take the focus off the “real law breakers” in Sinn Fein.
She was making reference to the attendance of senior Sinn Fein members at a mass republican funeral last year when tight Covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings were in place.
On Wednesday Mrs Foster was challenged on the remark by SDLP committee chair Colin McGrath.
The DUP leader suggested Mr McGrath was making “mischief” and insisted there was no question that the rioters were breaking the law.
“Of course people who riot, people who injure police officers, people who destroy their own communities, are breaking the law. That’s very clear for everybody to see,” she said.
"Indeed, can I say, I’ve always been unequivocal in my condemnation of violence throughout my long time in elected office.”
The disorder has been attributed to several different factors.
Anger at the Bobby Storey funeral has been cited as one reason, along with discontent over post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created new economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.
There are also more long-standing concerns held by some loyalists that they have missed out on the gains of the peace process in areas such as jobs, investment and housing. They also claim the process has facilitated the gradual erosion of British identity in Northern Ireland.
Nationalists reject the contentions and insist their communities experience just as many problems with poverty, and claim it is their tradition that is under-represented in the region’s cultural sphere.
Sinn Fein committee member Pat Sheehan told the committee hearing: “If people are going to voice concerns and concerns that might raise tensions, they should be supported with evidence, because the evidence doesn’t support what’s being said at times.
“I mean, the majority of deprivation and disadvantage is in nationalist areas yet somehow the perception is that it’s not.
“There does need at times to be a bit of honesty.”
Responding to Mr Sheehan’s comments, Mrs Foster said: “The idea that there’s no cultural war on unionism from republicanism is for the birds, frankly, when you look at the evidence.
“The idea that there’s no culture war against unionism, it’s just not factually right.”
Ms O’Neill suggested many of the claims from within loyalism were perceptions rather than grounded in reality.
“Obviously, people are entitled to feel what they feel, and people are entitled to express their view, and we should all be encouraging people to engage in politics to make that the forum in which to express their view, there’s no space or room for the violence on streets,” she told MLAs.
“People are entitled to have legitimate community concerns, but they should be voiced in a way that is dealt with by politics, that is dealt with by a discussion and debate. I’m certainly open for that conversation.”
The Sinn Fein vice president reiterated her view that some political leaders were “whipping up fears and tensions” in the region.
“Let’s work together in terms of ensuring that we reach out to those harder to reach perhaps young people or communities that in any way feel isolated or don’t feel the benefit of where we are today, because that’s something that we all should be concerned about,” she said.