By Cate McCurry and James Ward, PA
Northern Ireland's First Minister has blamed “malign and criminal elements” for whipping up young people involved in recent violence and disorder.
Arlene Foster called for people to desist from violence, adding that issues should be resolved at a political level.
It comes as the Stormont Assembly is set to be recalled for an emergency debate following days of unrest in parts of the North.
The DUP leader said she spoke to youth workers across the North who said part of the issue is the closure of youth centres because of Covid-19 restrictions.
“I’ve asked the Executive to look at that urgently and to get those youth centres open immediately … so those youths can come off the streets and come away from some malign influences that are in our society,” Ms Foster said.
“I certainly think in a particular area of Northern Ireland that there are malign and criminal elements who are whipping up some of our young people.
“I do absolutely accept that that is the case in a particular area of Northern Ireland, but South East Antrim UDA does not have rite in other parts of Northern Ireland, so there are concerns right across Northern Ireland.
“The rule of law is very important to me, individually and as party leader, and last week when it was very clear that the rule of law had been damaged because Sinn Féin presented themselves as above the law, a special status for their funeral whilst everybody else had to deal with the restrictions at particular points in time.
“I recognise that there is huge anger about that. But if the rule of law is to mean anything, it is that everybody is equal under the law and everybody has to be equally subject to the law.
“So I say to young people who are angry at this moment in time – do not get yourself a criminal record. It will blight your life for the rest of your life, you won’t be able to go on holiday where you please to go. So please, please, desist from the violence.
“There is a better way and the way is through politics.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long had called for MLAs to debate a motion condemning the recent attacks on police in loyalist areas.
The party secured the required support of 30 Assembly members for the Assembly to be recalled from Easter recess, with a sitting likely to take place on Thursday.
.@JohnBlairMLA condemns overnight violence, says his thoughts are with injured officers, but cool heads are needed in the days ahead after days of publicly undermining the PSNI, adding "those whipping up fear and tensions must share the blame."@BBCgmu
— Alliance Party (@allianceparty) April 5, 2021
The move comes after police were attacked during another night of violence in a number of loyalist areas on Monday.
Nine officers were injured in Ballymena, taking to 41 the number injured in disorder across the North since Friday night.
The most intense clashes on Monday were witnessed in Ballymena, when nine riot police officers were injured after they intervened in an unlawful march of loyalists through the town.
During the unrest, debris, including a wheelie bin, was thrown onto the M2 motorway, forcing its closure.
Disorder also flared in parts of Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey and Derry on Monday, with petrol bombs and other missiles thrown at officers.
The violence comes amid soaring tensions within the loyalist community over post-Brexit trading arrangements, which have created new regulatory and customs barriers between the North and Britain.
Anger ramped up further last week following a decision not to prosecute 24 Sinn Féin politicians for attending a large-scale republican funeral during Covid-19 restrictions.
All the main unionist parties have demanded the resignation of PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne, claiming he has lost the confidence of their community.
Ms Foster repeated her calls for Mr Byrne to resign, adding that she has no plans to meet with him.
“When I think of all those officers out facing the violence over this past few nights, I really feel for them, because their leadership team has left them down and let them burn really bad,” she said.
However, non-unionist parties in Northern Ireland have accused unionist leaders of creating the febrile atmosphere and stoking up tensions.
Commenting on the latest night of violence, PSNI Chief Supt Davy Beck branded the violence “disgraceful”.
“The disorder we witnessed last night, and which our officers had to deal with, is extremely disappointing,” he said.
“Yet again we have seen people make a deliberate decision to damage our communities and target our officers.
“Not only did their reckless and criminal behaviour place the lives of our officers in danger, but such senseless behaviour shows the blatant disregard those responsible have for the safety of others by throwing debris onto a motorway.
“It is extremely fortunate no one was seriously injured, or worse.”
In a statement on the Assembly recall, Ms Long said: “The violence has to stop, but so does the political cover given through vague comments and empty threats.
“There is no room for ambiguity, this violence must be condemned by a united Assembly, which fully supports the rule of law in Northern Ireland.
“Anything less is just allowing a culture of lawlessness to grow and further poison our community.”
Children as young as 12 have been involved in some of the violence that has been witnessed in recent days.
Cars, a JCB digger, a phone box and bins were set alight in the Waterside area of Derry on Monday.
Police said that a brick was thrown at a taxi, which was carrying a passenger at the time, on the Limavady Road.