Loyalist opposition to NI protocol creates feverish atmosphere on the ground
In Rathcoole, burn marks on the tarmac show where a bus was hijacked and set on fire on Sunday evening in what has been linked to loyalist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
There are also other signs, literally, in the signs on the lampposts proclaiming the region’s opposition to the protocol. “The Belfast agreement was broken. The deal is done! ” we read ; behind it, a mural depicts masked members of the loyalist paramilitary organization Red Hand Commando and the slogan: “Do not play with peace”.
In the large, predominantly loyalist housing estate – and an area of great social deprivation – in Newtownabbey, just north of Belfast, there was also unrest around Easter, when several nights of riots were blamed on opposition to the protocol.
“I’m afraid there are some people who see no alternative but to do what they did, and I’m worried because the good people at Rathcoole are tarred with the same brush as the four people who got in and took this driver and those passengers, ”explains a local community worker, who asks not to be identified for safety concerns.
“That’s not how most people in Rathcoole want to be known.”
The majority feeling in the region, according to the community worker, is anger; they “understand people’s frustration” about protocol – and the frustration of not being “listened to” – but their anger is linked to the attack on the bus.
“You go after the people who will be affected the most, which is the people in the area. “
Concerns over the protocol are “one of many things,” including poor academic achievement in lower-income neighborhoods, the impact of social deprivation and the rising cost of living. “The people who are suffering are mainly the working class people. [the attackers are] tell the people they represent, ”says the community worker.
Sunday’s hijack was the second in a week. In the first incident, in a loyalist neighborhood of Newtownards, County Down, on November 1, two masked men held the driver at gunpoint and “muttered something about protocol” as they ordered him and the passengers to get off the bus, Infrastructure Minister Nichola said Mallon.
According to loyalist sources, neither of the two incidents was part of a campaign orchestrated by loyalist paramilitary groups, who, of course, did not want a return to violence, not least because they did not want the young members of the their community have a criminal record.
However, they also describe heightened tensions on the ground over the protocol and the belief that their concerns – about the protocol and the perceived treatment of loyalist areas versus nationalist areas – are not being listened to; this creates a feverish atmosphere in which the potential for violence cannot be ruled out.
Anyone I talk to is like, “Why are we destroying our own community; have we not learned from the past?
“Yes, the paramilitaries would be concerned about the whole notion of union, they would be concerned about how Brexit turned out [into] something the EU they say is zealous for, and they would make the argument that they didn’t want to lose the UK and now [the EU] put the boot, to use a Shankill Road expression, ”said Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and former head of the UVF.
“Yes they are annoyed by it all, yes they are mad at it, but I don’t see them wanting violence in the streets.”
In an article published this week, Hutchinson warned that there was “no basis for trade union support” for the Belfast agreement because “the constitutional guarantee is not what was promised to the Unionist community” .
“The temperature in loyalist communities is very high anyway. Pieces of work were done around that to try to get people to be constructive and positive and move forward, and that’s what happened, and then all of a sudden [buses are attacked], “he said.” Anyone I talk to says to me: Why are we destroying our own community; haven’t we learned from the past?
The attacks, he says, are either random or “sleight of hand” by “people who do not want unionism and loyalty to advance”; if so, “they don’t have management support”.
The recent violence is “localized and sporadic”, explains Brian Rowan, journalist and author on the peace process. “I think there is no doubt that there is evidence that key figures in the loyalist leadership have a foot on the brakes, that if they wanted this to spread, it would just be a matter of taking the foot off the brake.
“There are those in the Loyalist leadership who know that the result of this violence is destroying their own communities and also understand that their fight or argument is at the highest level of the British government – that it was Johnson and Frost who negotiated the protocol. . and the selling sentiment they have right now is on the UK government’s doorstep. “
There are also internal dynamics within loyalty, and the struggle for power at the local level is a factor. Loyalty “is not a monolith,” Rowan says. “In some of these areas of sporadic violence, there are people involved whose only interest is self-interest, who see this as an excuse to come forward as advocates when in reality, in many cases, they are nothing more than organized crime gangs. “
Loyalists and unionists oppose the protocol – the part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that avoids a hard border by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea – as they argue it changes constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. In the narrative that emerged after Brexit, he took totem status as a fundamental threat to union identity even though for most people it had little practical impact.
A survey commissioned by the University of Liverpool, published last week, found that the immediate concerns of nearly 60% of those wishing to stay in the UK were either recovery from Covid, health or the economy – largely similar to the number of people supporting Irish unification – and post-Brexit trade deals were the top priority for just 12.6 percent of those wishing to stay in the UK.
The report, says its author, Professor Peter Shirlow, demonstrates not only high levels of inter-community consensus but also “there is not a homogeneous working class trade union attitude towards the protocol”.
He spoke to former prisoners and others “deeply involved in loyalty” to the recent unrest, who said “this is another example of union chaos, another example of lack of leadership, and they have fact thought about the data and stated that this is actually the reality of where we are in. Not everyone is practiced on the protocol.
There is a realization among senior officials, he said, that violence or the threat of it creates instability, “and every time you do that you undermine the union. What they are looking for is union leadership that will actually lead the protocol, but lead in a way that seeks solutions.
“Now there are clearly others in the room for whom this is their time, it allows you to assert a traditional type of loyalty, and they have clearly stood out even from the people within their own group who have them. warn not to do it, not to be radicalized.
Back in Rathcoole, the call is on “alternatives for young people. We need to look at the way forward and we need good leadership in the regions, ”says the community worker.
When a bus is set on fire in the area, are we to blame Rathcoole, “or do we have to carry it to the Stormont or Westminster gate?”