The Northern Ireland Secretary raised the alarm on Wednesday about the levels of “lethal” Republican violence in the province and warned that deep sectarian divisions could wreck efforts to grow its economy.
Theresa Villiers’s comments follow riots during the summer marching season and fears among ministers that numbers of dissident Republicans prepared to attempt terror attacks are growing.
Ms Villiers announced the establishment of a Whitehall taskforce to boost the flow of cash to business people in the province.
But she warned: “It’s hard to see how Northern Ireland can reach its full economic potential while sectarian division continues to spill out on to the streets with disgraceful scenes of rioting and violence.”
Ms Villiers condemned the sustained attacks faced by police from Loyalist rioters who injured more than 50 officers in one day alone in Belfast in August.
“The idea that British identity and culture can be defended by people who wrap themselves in the union flag and attack police officers with bricks and blast bombs and ceremonial swords is grotesque,” she told Tory activists in Manchester.
“We in this party have always stood four-square for the rule of law and we condemn all those who seek to attack and undermine it, whether that attack comes from rioters who call themselves loyalists or from the lethal dissident republicans who continue to plot murder and mayhem.
“So we stand fully behind the Police Service of Northern Ireland.”
The former US diplomat Richard Haass is chairing all-party talks on how to tackle issues such as parades and flags which continue to divide some Protestant and Catholic communities.
But Ms Villiers said Northern Ireland’s leaders needed to “take ownership” of compromise solutions.
She said: “I don’t underestimate the difficulty of the task ahead. And the decisions needed for real progress may be painful, but those who are prepared to take them will be displaying real leadership.”