NORTHERN IRELAND RETURNS TO THE BRINK

The future of the Good Friday Agreement, which provided the platform for peace in Northern Ireland over the last 20 years, is under huge strain.

7 min read

In March this year, Loyalist paramilitary groups informed the British and Irish governments that they were withdrawing their support for the Agreement in protest at Northern Ireland’s Irish Sea trade border with the rest of the UK. 

While the letters to the British and Irish leaders called for “peaceful and democratic” opposition to current arrangements, there is a suggestion that the letter from the Loyalist Communities Council (an umbrella group that represents the interests of Loyalist groups, the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando) was written because they themselves are under internal pressure from younger, more militant Loyalists. 

David Campbell, the LCC chairman, wrote in the letter: 

“We are concerned about the disruption to trade and commerce between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom that is occurring, but our core objection is much more fundamental.” 

Campbell said that the Northern Ireland Protocol had breached safeguards in the Good Friday Agreement designed to protect the status of both Catholic and Protestant communities and patience within the Loyalist community was at its lowest ebb since 1985, when Unionists and Loyalists staged mass rallies against the Anglo-Irish agreement. 

Campbell added: 

“Please do not underestimate the strength of feeling on this issue right across the unionist family … accordingly, I have been instructed to advise you that the loyalist groupings are herewith withdrawing their support for the Belfast agreement until our rights under the agreement are restored and the protocol is amended to ensure unfettered access for goods, services, and citizens throughout the United Kingdom. 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.” 

While there appears little overall appetite for an imminent return to armed conflict, some Loyalists have openly spoken about returning to armed action and ignoring the consent principle in the GFA if the status of Northern Ireland being part of the UK continues to be put at risk. 

In a rare interview in 2019 with HOPE not hate, the UVF’s East Belfast Battalion made it very clear, both on and off the record, that it was prepared to fight any idea of a “united Ireland”. They and others believe a military campaign in the Republic would dull any appetite there for a united Ireland. Anger at the Brexit deal, which keeps Northern Ireland within the EU trading club thereby creating some boarder checks with Britain, has been seen as a further sign among Unionists and Loyalists that Irish unification was increasingly likely. 

ANGER OVER BREXIT

a picture of the British and EU flag meshed together in the middle

Anger over the Brexit deal extends well beyond the paramilitary groups. An exclusive poll conducted by Focaldata for HOPE not hate found that 63% of people in Northern Ireland were opposed to the Brexit plans as they now stood, while 69% thought Brexit was going to be bad for the province. 

More worryingly for those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, more people think Brexit makes a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland more likely than those who think it is less likely or won’t make any difference. 

Opinion is split on whether Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, with 44% believing it does, while 18% think it is less likely and 26% who say it will not make any difference. 

A game changer could be if the SNP wins May’s Scottish elections and moves towards independence. Almost half of people in Northern Ireland (44%) think Scottish independence will make a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland more likely, with just 33% disagreeing. 

While the polling shows there is increasing anger and tension in Unionist and Loyalist communities about Brexit and the new sea border, there appears little actual appetite to escalate the frustrations towards military actions – at least at the moment. 

To understand the situation in Northern Ireland today, it is important to reflect back on how the Loyalist community has acted and reacted over the last 30 years. 

LOYALISM IS REFLECTION

On 13 October 1994 the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) issued a statement announcing a ceasefire by Loyalist paramilitaries. 

The statement, issued on behalf of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Red Hand Commandoes (a small affiliate of the UVF) included a sincere and “true and abject remorse” for the deaths of innocent people. 

Then-British Prime Minister John Major’s government would enter into “torturous” negotiations with the UDA’s (now defunct) political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP). The UDP’s representative went into those discussions believing and publicly claiming that Loyalists deserved a larger share in any financial and community-based inducements, due to having gone to the negotiating table before Republicans. It was a naivety which would perhaps come to define the Northern Ireland Office’s relationship with Loyalists for decades to come. 

The UVF also sent two political negotiators, both former combatants, with one in particular being marked by civil servants as “impressive”. 

The hopes of the paramilitary negotiators, having seen the seamless transition from the armed approach of the IRA to Sinn Fein’s ballot box strategy, was they too would be weighed as political representatives with political views and not merely as bag men negotiating the surrender of arms in the run up to the Good Friday Agreement. They fell and failed at the feet of the hegemony of 70 years of ‘Big House’ Unionism. 

Twenty seven years on from those talks and 23 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, no representative of any Loyalist paramilitary political wing sits in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Yet as was once said of the IRA, the Loyalist paramilitaries never really went away. 

The UVF and Red Hand Commandoes, responsible for some 500 deaths during the period of the Troubles, would go on to assume a ‘non-military existence’ only in 2007. Their statement recognised the mainstream Republican offensive had ended and concluded “and thus the union remains safe”. 

Despite still being an illegal organisation responsible for over 400 deaths, the leadership of the UDA was invited to join the Queen at a war memorial in Dublin in 2011. While bewilderment and outrage greets every initiative that involves either the inclusion or consultation with paramilitaries, their ongoing existence is not a matter or question of governments or the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) community simply tolerating their existence. 

The inability of Loyalists to shift mainstream Unionists’ interests and allegiances towards their working class communities remains the most significant reason the power in some PUL communities still derives from the paramilitaries. Similarly, it may be argued, many funding grants and initiatives from a wide range of statutory and philanthropic bodies are made to community representatives and organisations still linked to paramilitary organisations or staffed by former paramilitaries. 

The peace process has allowed or encouraged this period of ‘transition’ to ‘normality’, but it appears to be an inexhaustive process and while paramilitaries, contrary to arrangement or agreement, continue to recruit it will have to be inexhaustible. 

CRIMINALITY AND MURDER

The ‘demilitarising’ and ‘transitioning’ of Loyalist paramilitaries has done little to dull their organisations’ ardour for criminality and murder. There is also acknowledgment even from within the organisations’ themselves that there is widespread criminality and drug dealing by those associated with them. 

The UDA in particular – coincidentally organised on a not-dissimilar model to New York’s five mob families – has both a ‘mainstream’ faction, which engages with the peace process and government initiatives, and an equal amount of renegade ‘Brigades’ and companies that litter Northern Ireland with the victims of their criminality. 

PACEMAKER BFST 22-08-2000:An armed UVF man pictured at a UVF wall mural on the Shankill Road earlier in August.

Similarly, the UVF (the oldest paramilitary group in the entire island of Ireland) has since the Good Friday Agreement become the largest paramilitary group and presents a both conciliatory and confrontational approach in its relationships. It has also killed some 30 Protestants since the 1994 ceasefire.

To agree a ceasefire was one thing for the Loyalist paramilitaries; holding it was another, but the decommissioning of weapons was enough to split factions of the organisations (similarly with Republican groups). Accepting the structures of the Good Friday Agreement was never an agreement on their part that one day they should hold their hands up and acquiesce to a united Ireland. 

Their refusal to go away, disband and fade into the new society is more rooted in the part-governance of the province by Sinn Fein (who Loyalists openly decry are the IRA) than just simply the benefits of largess and crime being paramilitaries brings. 

It’s rooted in the belief that “England” would eventually abandon Northern Ireland in the same way it had abandoned control over the Free State [the Irish Free State established in 1922]. 

THE “ENGLISH” GOVERNMENT

a picture of Westminster Palace, London

The UVF’s negotiator marked as “impressive” by British civil servants back in 1994 was David Ervine, who would for a short time represent the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), the UVF’s political wing, at Stormont. During an interview with this writer 10 years later, Ervine would opine such was the “English” [never British] habit of abandoning people or places, that the future of Northern Ireland was only ever secure in the hands of the European Union and not in the care of the “English” government. Had Ervine lived longer (he died in 2007 aged 53), Loyalism would probably look and survive far differently today. He died not long before the UVF declared the Union safe. 

In 2017 the DUP entered into an agreement which saved Prime Minister Theresa May in a hung parliament. It also ensured Brexit would be accomplished, despite 55% of Northern Irish voters voting to Remain. 

The DUP was particularly conscious that the majority of Protestant voters in Northern Ireland voted Leave (60%) and not just Theresa May’s party was Conservative & Unionist, but also weighed significantly by the fear that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could win an election and force through a united Ireland. 

Contrary to what many believe, senior figures in both the UDA and UVF [PUP] have stated they were in favour of and voted for Remain. Given the overall nature of the Brexit campaign, where complexities were abandoned for questions over loyalty and patriotism, many PUL voters felt Brexit would necessitate a stronger border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 

REALITIES OF BREXIT

A red line dividing mainland Europe from the UK and Northern Ireland.
Credit: Packaging News

Since 2017 the realities of Brexit have antagonised both Republicans and Loyalists. The increasing push for the introduction of the Irish language Act by Sinn Fein in the North, and the party’s increasing electoral success in the Republic, have surpassed irritation and antagonism and some of the more extravagant fears of Unionists feel increasingly about to be realised. 

The introduction of a sea border between Britain and Northern Ireland this year was not without consultation, but it seems to have blindsided both Unionists and Loyalists who demanded a ‘full Brexit’ and all the composite difficulties it entailed. For the DUP in particular there has been a massive haemorrhaging of electoral support linked to the Irish Sea border and the new Northern Ireland Protocol. 

Such is the slump for the DUP, Sinn Fein could even take the post of First Minister in next year’s Assembly Elections. A poll result that would almost certainly hasten the unification of Ireland. 

The sense of panic and anger in the PUL community has seen a shift to the right in polling intentions which would further damage the DUP and, worse still, the intimidation and threats of workers at ports tasked with enacting border checks. As David Ervine prophesied, for many there, it feels as though the English have abandoned Northern Ireland. The hurt and pain is even more tangible than Peter Brooke’s [former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland] pronunciation in 1990 that Britain had “no selfish strategic interest” in the province. 

The British government has been consulting with Loyalist paramilitaries since the beginning of 2021, a “consultation” to gauge both their anger and, no doubt, any willingness to return to war. It is, of course, a consultation that worries and infuriates many, even if it does has a practical purpose. 

The initial noises were that although angry, there was no will to return to conflict. Though the UDA did (ominously) say it would be prepared to take its dissatisfaction “to Dublin”, the scene of some of Loyalism’s worst atrocities. 

The paramilitaries also argue that any border between Northern Ireland and Britain is in direct breach of the Good Friday Agreement. They also conceded that perhaps they would not want a firm border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, much though they may once have thought. 

The DUP’s MP for East Antrim, Sammy Wilson, was reported to have written to colleagues in early March about the use of “guerrilla warfare” to undermine both the Sea border and the protocol. He refused to apologise.

In early March, the Loyalist Communities Council, which supersedes the Combined Loyalist Military Command, told both the British and Irish governments it was no longer recognising and was “renouncing” the Good Friday Agreement. While this is not a declaration of intent to return to conflict, it does provide further fuel to mounting unease and discomfort on the issue as to how those that swore to defend Northern Ireland will respond to another of its long list of darkest hours.