Destination Belfast is a match for any European capital – a thriving, vibrant place where the sectarian conflicts of the past looked to be giving way to an emerging sense of ‘Northern Irish’ identity and a steadily growing Catholic professional middle class. But more than at any other time I’ve visited, the things we celebrated about the new Northern Ireland feel like they’re stalling.
The Northern Irish Assembly has not met since January 2017 in an argument that started about heating. Like the rest of Britain, Northern Ireland too has suffered under austerity. To the background simmering unrest and industrial uncertainty has been added the turmoil over Brexit, the backstop, the border and as always the possibility of a United Ireland. Over all this hangs the shadows of two high profile killings. But peace persists here, almost in angst, because that is what almost everyone wants.
Those who created the peace process have long since departed the stage, but twenty years since peace was declared Belfast still pays homage at the feet of death. Former terrorists can now be your ‘Troubles’ tour guides – each stop an opportunity to deliver a propaganda coup de grace. Although there is a very real peace here and much of the hatred has exhausted itself, suspicions and superstitions remain. As do paramilitaries.
Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998 paramilitary militias in Northern Ireland have varied in their ability to accept, process and progress peace. Although there were promises to disband by all paramilitary groups, none actually signed the GFA.
Though commentators insist there is little appetite for reigniting a daily diet of bullets and bombs, Republican splinter group the New Irish Republican Army continue to recruit and carry out terrorism and murder. According to the Belfast Telegraph, the Ulster Volunteer Force has killed thirty Protestants since announcing a ceasefire in 1994 – people from the community that they swear they protect.
It’s mid-September. I’m being ‘chauffeured’ across Belfast into the Protestant heartland in the east of the city for an interview rarely requested and rarely given. I’m driven past a derelict drinking den on the Newtonards Road. The Belvoir Bar was raided by the Assets Recovery Agency eight years ago and closed down. Despite being for sale at a cut down price no-one is willing to take advantage of what in any other place could be a money spinning opportunity. But this is not any other place. A painted mural sits above the bar, that from a distance just looks like jaunty sky blue American style signage, but on closer reading carries an ominous warning: “Belvoir Bar – Property of East Belfast Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – Not for Sale
We drive on and pass the newly erected flags of the East Belfast Battalion of the UVF, hanging as crisp as the air from every lamppost. Bold, colourful glorifications are squeezed onto walls of houses, shops and offices, the murals depicting the often unseen and less understood Britishness of the Loyalist community, and its deference to both the history of the British army and its’ heroes in the original and modern UVF.
Eventually I’m taken to a dimly lit restaurant, where I’m unnervingly greeted by an intermediary with what passes for banter; am I a ‘Taig’ (an insulting term for Roman Catholics), that had travelled to Belfast on an Irish passport?They know that I know that the UVF made its fearsome reputation by shooting Irish Catholics. Everyone present enjoys my obvious discomfort. Squirming, I produce my British passport and declare myself an Anglican much to their delight.
Like all the paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, the UVF is a proscribed organisation and being part of it illegal. As a result it’s not possible to find anyone who claims to be member. When messages need to be delivered or conversations had, people appear who have knowledge and connections in the Loyalist movement but of course, no direct role. Earlier this year, the man who denies being the leader of East Belfast UVF met with senior police officers to help calm tensions over a loyalist bonfire at Avoniel Leisure Centre.
No-one I am meeting today would claim to be a member of the East Belfast UVF. In fact, I’m sternly told that as a separate entity it doesn’t even really exist- contrary to what people may believe there is no schism between the East Belfast battalion (which journalists suggest numbers some 3,000 men) and the rest of the UVF, which is thought to number less than a quarter of that. It’s commonly considered to be in breach of the peace process. Last year Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd, singled out the East Belfast UVF for “not living up to” a combined statement issued on behalf of Loyalist paramilitary groups which stated they supported the rule of law.
But as the Brexit deadlock continues, revolving as it does around the vexed question of the Irish border, any understandings between the authorities and the paramilitaries may come under further strain. Understanding what these might be is what has brought me to East Belfast. The spectre of a return to republican violence with any future imposition of checkpoints and border guards has been well discussed, but less is known about the possible reaction of the leadership within Loyalist groups. We all can agree that terror and violence should not be allowed to sway democracy, but it equally I have seen for myself over the years the consequences of failing to understand the motivations and perspectives of the men of violence.
I’m introduced to two men, who are known to me by name and reputation, one of whom, Jamie Bryson, has a public profile as a Loyalist commentator, the other who describes himself only as a ‘mediator’ is close to the leadership of the UVF.
A third will later join us and introduce himself as an ‘ex- prisoner’ before going on to argue passionately that before the ceasefire that proceeded the signing of the GFA, the UVF and the other loyalist terror group the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), were not engaged in sectarian killings, but in the successful targeting of Republicans engaged in the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein. He demonstrates a detailed knowledge of the local Catholic community, reeling off the numbers of every Catholic church and school that falls under East Belfast UVF’s imposed ‘remit’ and also names the opposing Republican groups by their brigades also in East Belfast.
This is not an unfriendly or overtly intimidating interview, but I’m well aware that we are here to talk about an organisation notorious for murder, violence and terror. The men I am with are dubious that as to whether I am the most suitable person to meet with them and had asked serious questions about me in the lead up to meeting.
Though at times the conversation wanders into ordinary, bland everyday chatter about football and family, when I ask a question that’s deemed to transgress the rules of our conversation, Jamie Bryson interrupts sharply to tell me that they are not prepared to answer or that it is off the record.
Recently admitted to the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) after taking his application to an appeal in London, Bryson is a social media commentator, blogger, football coach, paralegal, author and PR man. He came to real prominence in 2012 during Belfast’s flag dispute, when alongside the ‘Protestant Coalition’ (which included Britain First founder Jim Dowson and its current leader Paul Golding) he helped bring the city to an often riotous standstill over a log running dispute over the removal of the Union Flag from Belfast’s City Hall. He always denies angrily that he is a member of the UVF, though he was arrested last year during a police investigation into the group, and has been prosecuted for both unlawful processions and possession of an offensive weapon.
A bombastic argument waiting to happen, Bryson is an oracle of dire warnings about a creeping Republicanism taking over Northern Ireland, whatever he writes or says draws great attention and often derision and sometimes threats. He has become a regular contributor to news and talk radio in a Loyalist political vacuum. Voicing any counter-argument or scepticism risks me being dismissed as part of the “liberal, left elite” and therefore, a potential enemy.
A week after our meeting he will, in the midst of a radio interview about the proposed removal of paramilitary flags from Belfast’s streets, state he believes that any Brexit deal that weakens the position of Northern Ireland in the UK will lead to mass protests, and potentially violence by the UVF. John Mooney from the Sunday Times will also write that in a meeting he had with people connected to the UVF, he was told “anything that changes status of Northern Ireland will be greeted as the start of a process to lead to United Ireland.” Bryson predicts were there to be such an occurrence, there would be a “serious civil disturbance.”
Northern Ireland as a whole voted to remain in 2016, but the vote was divided along sectarian lines. 85% of Catholics (nominally nationalists or Republicans) voted to remain as opposed to just 40% of Protestants (nominally Unionist or Loyalist). In comparison, around 10% more of each community voted for the GFA.
As a matter of course therefore, the DUP is firmly in the leave camp and so too is the UVF. What appears to underpin this is a belief that Northern Ireland out of the EU weakens any position or hold the Irish Republic may have or gain in the north- in particular the prospect of parties from the Republic standing in the north and taking seats at Westminster.
Whilst some have voiced concerns that the return of an internal Irish border will strengthen the demand for a united Ireland, Bryson is dismissive of any detrimental affect Brexit may have on the union between Northern Ireland and Britain, and in fact instead of borders or backstops with the Republic of Ireland, he feels there should be an enormous wall akin to Donald Trump’s proposal to separate Mexico and the United States.
Bryson is keen to point out that nowhere in the GFA does it say Northern Ireland must remain part of the EU, whilst simultaneously seeing the GFA as part of the process by which the British sold out the loyal subjects of the Protestant Unionist community to the ‘Free State’ Republic of Ireland.
The ‘mediator’ nods in agreement. He wishes to clarify that the UVF reject the peace process but “not the peace. Peace is good, of course. But the process in ‘peace process’ is the process of forcing Ulster into a United Ireland.”
I’m not entirely convinced that this opposition to EU membership has always been a fundamental UVF stance. Recalling an interview I did some fifteen years ago with former UVF second in command and Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader David Ervine, I remind the three men that he had opined that Northern Ireland would possibly only survive as a satellite within the EU.
“Ervine’s views, his ‘socialism’ did not always reflect the views of this community. But everyone knew he always had our community at heart and wanted the best for it and our people.” Although I have been instructed there is no split in the UVF and it has one voice, of the PUP, the UVF’s political wing, I am told by one of the men that “the PUP died with Ervine” and that its current leader is a “wanker”. The absence of Ervine and progressive Unionist and Loyalist leaders is one of the reasons people like East Belfast UVF can thumb their noses at the GFA.
All three men in the meeting proclaim Brexit must happen, believing that as British people they have a right to demand that the democratic will of the people as expressed by the 2016 vote must be fulfilled, seemingly oblivious to the inherent contradiction between that and the anti-democratic logic of paramilitary activity.
The pious democratic rhetoric only goes in one direction – they reject outright the idea of abiding by any cross-border plebiscite that favours a unification of Ireland. A poll carried out in the Republic of Ireland by the state broadcaster RTE earlier this year found that 65% of people would vote to unify with the north. “Not them” says Bryson, “who are they to vote on the future of my country, my children?”The ex-prisoner puts it firmly. A tall, large man, he is exquisitely friendly and polite and will even later invite me to join him for a drink. “If you tried to force us into a union with the ‘Free State’, we would dig up our dead and take them with us.” To where? I query. “Nowhere, we’re going nowhere.” I can make of that what I want.
I put forward a doomsday style scenario, first mooted years ago, of diehard Loyalists and Unionists instead accepting a reduced Northern Ireland. Although they concede that could be a possibility, I’m also told that any such an event they would see an orchestrated “scorched earth policy. There would not be two bricks standing together.”
All three dislike what they describe as the increasing accounts of the Irish government “shouting demands” at the British government over Brexit. The Brexit they want – the hardest of hard no deals – one that appears no longer be on the agenda, would put an immediate and angry end to this.
Bryson seizes on a moment of his own clarity, articulating a sense of a lost place in the world and a pessimism about the prospects for change perhaps shared with some of the working communities on the mainland that also felt strongly about Brexit, if for very different reasons.
“We thought we had it all. Us, Protestants, rushed through school into jobs at places like Shorts and Harland and Wolff and other places of industry. These jobs were denied to Catholics and now we find ourselves facing them, like they are our masters.
“Journalism, television, the judiciary all manner of things are now seemingly beyond our reach in our own country.
“Nothing gets delivered here if you are a Protestant because we don’t have the liberal, left elite arguing for us.”
“What d’you think would happen to our lives in a United Ireland?”
The ex-prisoner agrees. “I now do community work because those jobs we felt we were guaranteed are no more. They were not protected at all by the EU or the GFA.
“I do some volunteering at some of the programmes we had to fund Protestant kids
playing football on weekends because there’s a UVF mural painted somewhere.”
This they believe is part and parcel of the peace process; one community being stripped of its voice and apparatus. You begin to understand why, when so many people may have ridiculed them over their anger at the removal of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall, was more than just a housekeeping decision made by Catholics.
The overall sentiment I took away from the meeting was one of, “We [Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists] are the most regimented people on this Island. They will not like being reminded of it.”
That evening, at a meeting in another part of Belfast, a former Republican hunger striker, will tell a meeting Brexit is the opportunity “to build a workers’ republic.” We remain at peace and in angst, walking blindly, perhaps towards a confrontation that nobody wants.