‘The British government cannot see beyond central England’ – how loyalist anger turned to violence in Northern Ireland
he signs in the streets along Belfast’s Lanark Way said all loyalist protests will be suspended as a sign of respect for the royal family following the death of Prince Philip – but “opposition continues to NI protocol and all others injustices against the PUL [protestant, unionist, loyalist] the community will resume after the period of mourning ”.
The protests, with large numbers of young people, which began last week, are likely to start again after the prince’s funeral, and with them the risk of further violence – gasoline bombs thrown, buses set on fire and police using water cannons. and rubber bullets. These are scenes that we haven’t witnessed for many years.
The clashes may not be prolonged. Schools have restarted in Northern Ireland, youth clubs are reopening, some of the Covid restrictions are lifted, shutters on the doors of businesses, shops and bars in Belfast, a city under a much stricter lockdown than, for example , London, will start to rebound and a return to normalcy can help ease tensions.
But it will likely be a temporary respite. The issues behind the conflicts do not go away and there appears to be little understanding, let alone action, on the part of Boris Johnson’s government on a situation that has become combustible.
Speaking to a cross section of people in Belfast’s Protestant community, one hears stories of anger and frustration at what has happened since the Good Friday deal. Many feel that they have lost in relation to the nationalist community, that their identity is being eroded. They feel abandoned by the British government and treated with condescension by the Irish government. The authorities in Northern Ireland, they say, follow a two-tier policy of regulation and enforcement, favoring nationalists over trade unionists.
Part of it is resentment, one might say, of a community that no longer has the upper hand it once had; a reaction to the loss of privileges. But there are also now huge socio-economic problems in parts of the loyalist community. Protestant boys from some of the disadvantaged areas, for example, have the lowest level of education in Europe; there are few signs of social mobility and a lot of alienation.
Some of the latest violence has been attributed to “recreational riots” by young people letting off steam. There are also allegations of adults leading the unrest. But some former paramilitary members argue that they can no longer control aggression against young people.
A 60-year-old community leader linked to the loyalist paramilitary group Red Hand Commando told me, “It’s on both sides. An IRA man, a veteran, was told “f ** k off grandad” when he tried to intervene during certain disturbances. We also hear that sort of thing from our side, 30-year-old ex-combatants being told ‘f ** k off’.
“Now I’m sure on both sides you can find 50 or 60 people who refuse to f ** k off, and who can impose calm with baseball bats. But then that would be breaking the law, and the same people who demand control in the community now will demand prosecution for it. You are damned if you do and you are damned if you don’t.
The community leader admitted that some of the men may have manipulated the violence, but that they were, he insisted, mostly criminal gangs under the guise of paramilitaries.
The involvement of paramilitary groups in crime has been going on for a long time. The shift to drug trafficking and protection rackets was, at one point, seen by some as a positive step, as it would not be in the best interests of the gangs for political violence and bombs to return and affect their profits. lucrative illegal acts. But they now pose a serious threat, with a criminal / paramilitary group, for example, comprising 2,000 members, well armed and part of an international crime syndicate.
The fallout from Brexit came in an already very difficult and tense situation. There will always be a border issue when the UK leaves the single market and customs union. But in August 2020, during a visit to Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson reiterated that businesses here would have unfettered access to markets in England, Scotland and Wales, as they always have. . “There will be no border on the Irish Sea,” he said, “it will happen over my corpse.”
It was wrong. Johnson had accepted a border in the Irish Sea to push through his Brexit deal. As one Loyalist community leader put it: “When your own prime minister bothers you, when he comes to this town and says there will be no border between us and Britain, then breaks his speak so easily, when your voice is ignored, you feel abandoned.
There is now, with the Northern Ireland Protocol, a border in the Irish Sea and increasing costs for businesses in the region. David Campbell, spokesperson for the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group representing the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Defense Association (UDA) and Red Hand Commando, said: No land border, but Governments must understand the concern of Unionist communities about a maritime border. “
It was not just the commercial aspect that worried the loyalists. They said the protocol would inevitably separate Northern Ireland from the UK. The government, according to Cambell and his colleagues, had no idea what was going on on the ground. “The Unionist community’s point of view is that the British government fundamentally cannot see beyond central England,” he said.
The annual march season parades and bonfires will resume this summer. These had been the scene of serious violence during the unrest, but they have unfolded relatively peacefully over the past two decades.
They will occur this year as police and prosecuting authorities face two-tier crackdowns with DUP Premier Arlene Foster’s request that Northern Ireland Police Chief Simon Byrne (PSNI ), resigns. Loyalists’ anger stems from the failure of prosecuting authorities to press charges against 24 Sinn Féin politicians, including Deputy Prime Minister Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Adams, for attending the funeral of Bobby Storey, a senior Republican rank, in alleged violation of Covid rules. Byrne, who was born in England and had at one time served in the London Metropolitan Police, refused to do so, insisting no deal had been reached with the funeral planners.
Some loyalist organizers of the parades are now saying they will not contact the police due to the “double weight” during the funeral and will not go through the required notification process.
Mark Lindsay, chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, had expressed regret that, “23 years after the Good Friday deal, the police have never been more politicized, never more toxic, in our society.” He warns that there was “only a limited time” to prepare for the marches and urges political and community leaders to ensure that “some of the worst times of the past” do not happen again.
A loyalist community leader, a former paramilitary, spoke about the use of gasoline bombs and the coming season of the march. He mentioned the death of the three Quinn brothers in Ballymoney, County Antrim, which took place in 1998. I remember reporting the murders of three boys aged 9, 10 and 11 in the attack on the firebomb at the time, the year of Good Friday. Agreement.
Was the risk of something like this happening really worrying to him? “Yes it does. I would be lying if I said no. We have to think about the dangers,” he added, “address the issues and end what is happening now, before it all gets out of hand . “