What are we to make of Loyalist paramilitary groups withdrawing support for the Good Friday Agreement over the invidious trade border that now exists in the Irish sea?
The Loyalist Communities Council, a group that represents the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Red Hand Commando, has written to Boris Johnson and Ireland’s Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, warning of ‘permanent destruction’ of the 1998 peace agreement unless changes are made to the Brexit agreement.
‘If you or the EU is not prepared to honour the entirety of the agreement then you will be responsible for the permanent destruction of the agreement,’ David Campbell, the chairman of the LCC, said.
Could Loyalists return again to the violence that left so many innocent people butchered and terrorised? For now, thankfully, this latest iteration of hard line Loyalist sentiment comes with several caveats.
Their target is the Northern Ireland Protocol, the greasy lubricant of Brexit that looks to have
disadvantaged all communities on the island of Ireland. That bureaucratic bungle will however be easier to fix than the unravelling commitment to what was always a shaky prospect in post-conflict Northern Ireland: the rule of law.
The Loyalist communique emphasises that unionist opposition to the protocol must be peaceful and democratic. But in Loyalist and Republican heartlands, where ancient enmities still simmer, young people remain at risk of being drawn back into unfinished business.
Dissident Republicans are animated by grievance and thwarted ambitions for their 32 county socialist utopia built on blood. It’s not inconceivable that dissident Loyalists are also being radicalised by current events. If it happens, the dry lexicon of the Northern Ireland Protocol won’t be the source of any new violence, but it is certainly a harbinger.
Reaction to the protocol is a symptom of a wider crisis of identity and morale within working class Loyalism. The untimely death of David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party in 2007 left them without a voice as Nationalism out-manoeuvred them in status, representation, prestige and power. Statistics wound like the bullets that used to fly in these parts. The next Northern Ireland census may well show that, in numerical terms, Protestants are for the first time outnumbered by Catholics in the province; this is likely to be reflected in the next assembly elections.
This doesn’t mean that a Unity poll, agitated for by the more strident reaches of Northern nationalism, is necessarily imminent or would succeed. But the direction of travel has a powerful potency and symbolism for a community with its back already against the wall.
This is why any threat to abandon exclusively peaceful and democratic change, however carefully hedged, must be taken seriously by politicians across the islands and in the European Union. The Belfast Agreement that all these claim an almost religious fealty to has at its heart a fraught balance of loss.
Unionists were forced to see IRA terrorists released early from prison; nationalist Republicans were forced to acknowledge Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. The list of compromises goes on. But one immutable principle stands out: consent. The leitmotif of betrayal that animates the worst excesses of Loyalism was given fresh legs when the Protocol was quietly removed from the cross-community consent arrangements that underpins the democratic institutions of devolved government here. This has created a very real feeling of grass roots rage because it inflames a suspicion, whether real or not, that Northern Ireland’s economic detachment is the precursor to constitutional disconnection from the rest of the UK.
So in places across Northern Ireland where a culture of lawfulness has yet to take root, such perceptions should matter. Many of these communities have been blighted by former Loyalist paramilitaries who simply switched to organised crime when the ideological reasons for violence were turned off. Police enforcement is fitful and riven with complaints of partiality. Paramilitary godfathers continue to be indulged and underwritten by the state in exchange for the semi-skimmed peace of 1998. Many ex-combatants still in the shadows will be bound for prison again if they break the terms of their licences and they know that. Youngsters radicalised by the current situation will likely not be so concerned.
The confident, generous and assertive Unionism that is required in this, Northern Ireland’s centenary year, will be undermined by such sabre rattling. There is plenty to build on. Despite the lazy caricatures beloved of some nationalist comedians, many working class Protestant communities are vibrant and progressive places. But some deep wells of alienation and blighted life chances remain. Political Unionism must find a way of speaking for these abandoned communities as well as speaking to them. Otherwise the ploughshares could well be beaten back into swords.
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