It is a “miracle” that no one has been killed in violent disorder over the last week, the Northern Ireland Assembly has heard.
More than 50 police officers have been injured in clashes in mainly loyalist areas.
Assembly members were recalled from recess on Thursday and unanimously backed a motion calling for an immediate end to the violence and support for the rule of law.
Alliance leader Naomi Long opened the debate saying thoughts are with the police officers who suffered what she said “could be life-changing injuries”.
“It is a mercy that no one has lost their life as a result of this appalling violence and I would appeal again for everyone with influence in our community to use it to end this,” she said.
The Justice Minister described it as disturbing that children as young as 12 had been involved in confrontations with police, and said she was horrified to watch footage of adults “standing by cheering and goading and encouraging young people on as they wreaked havoc in their own community”.
“This is nothing short of child abuse.”
She said while there are many theories of what is behind the violence, there can be “no excuse or justification for what has taken place”.
“Our condemnation of such violence must be unequivocal,” she said.
“Our actions today will impact on our ability to deliver fair and effective policing right across our community both now and for the future.”
First Minister Arlene Foster said the scenes witnessed across Northern Ireland were “totally unacceptable”.
She 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,” she said.
“Northern Ireland faces deep political challenges ahead.”
She said that the future requires political leadership.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill also said it was a miracle that no-one had been killed.
She described the scenes in Belfast as a “very dangerous escalation of events in recent days, and it is utterly deplorable”.
“It is a miracle that, as we stand here today, no-one has been killed,” the deputy First Minister told MLAs.
She said illegal loyalist paramilitaries and criminal elements are influencing young people and orchestrating the violence.
“They stand back and send youngsters out to do their bidding,” she said.
“These people are no role models for our youth; they are outdated, they are antiquated and they are caught in a time warp which has no bearing on where the vast majority of people across this society now are or where they want to be.
“They are holding back their own people and they are holding back their own community.”
Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said the riots were “completely unacceptable”.
“Attacks on any of our police who are on our front line and help deliver our public safety… it is beholden on all politicians to support police,” he said.
“If it does not halt now, the risk of someone being killed or seriously injured is there.
“Any anger must be directed through political and diplomatic and legal channels.
“To use violence is to lose the argument.”
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said it was not the day for a “political blame game” but urged members to reflect on their words.
“The people of Northern Ireland are not stupid.
“They know how we have got to this dreadful point and they know why,” she said.
“What the people of Northern Ireland want to know is what we, as political leaders, are going to do to deescalate the situation and prevent it from reoccurring and infecting another generation of disadvantaged young people.
“I appeal to all members of this House, to reflect seriously on where their words are taking us over the course of the next few hours and the next few days.”