On the ground in Belfast: Loyalists warn of ‘biggest threat to peace yet’

With special access to people close to Loyalist paramilitaries, The Telegraph was told Northern Ireland is a ‘matchstick’ away from eruption

This article appeared in The Telegraph on May 12, 2021

There is a violent, perfect storm gathering over Northern Ireland.

Among hardline Unionists in the Province, the anger is clear, the tension palpable.  

“The IRA have got what they wanted by bombing and murder. We don’t want to go down that route, but is that the only option for us?” says Stephen, a Loyalist community worker close to North Belfast Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

“London needs to know there’s a new generation that is so angry and bitter you can cut it with a knife. This is the biggest threat to peace there’s ever been.”

The Telegraph was given exclusive access last week to people close to the UDA and two other Loyalist paramilitary groups, the  Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Red Hand Commando.

The groups have issued a chilling warning:  Northern Ireland is “a matchstick away from being ignited”, accusing Boris Johnson of “selling us down the tubes”.

The anxieties and the problems are clear.

First, the customs border created by brexit in the Irish Sea has driven a wedge between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, and a real sense that hardline republicans in Sinn Fein and its one-time military wing the IRA have won.

Next, the failure to prosecute Sinn Fein leaders who broke Covid-19 rules last year to attend  the funeral of Bobby Storey, the terrorist group’s ‘brutal’, one-time head of intelligence, continues to cause a bitter outrage.

Meanwhile the Unionists are in turmoil with Arlene Foster forced to quit as leader of the Democractic Unionist party (DUP) and First Minister. A new leader is due to be elected on Friday. 

Added to the heady mix is the pursuit in Belfast courts of Army veterans accused of murder during the troubles while IRA terrorists received ‘comfort’ letters, and it feels like all the hard work of the Good Friday Agreement is unravelling. And fast. Security sources fear the peace deal is facing its greatest threat since its signing 23 years ago in 1998.

“This community has gained nothing from the peace process. Nothing,” says Dean, a Loyalist community worker close to North Belfast UDA.

He said the area of Tiger’s Bay had gone to “wrack and ruin” since the Good Friday Agreement.

“Boris Johnson has sold us down the tubes and he’ll regret it. He’s seriously misunderstood this.” 

Despite promises that there would be no customs border in the Irish Sea, Boris Johnson agreed to the Northern Ireland protocol as a way of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, amid fears a land customs border between the UK and Ireland would be attacked by Republican paramilitaries.

Speaking in the New Beginnings office in Tiger’s Bay, Michael Bingham, 60, said the Good Friday Agreement is now being used as a “beating stick against the Protestant people”.

“I thought 1998 would be the year this all stopped and our kids could have a normal life. 

“Sitting here in 2021, there’s been some changes but all the trouble hasn’t gone away, it’s still hanging over your shoulder.

“I want to let our children know there is an alternative to all this. But we can’t do it without political backup.”

Michael spoke to the Telegraph at one of the Peace Lines: walls and barriers used to separate protestant and catholic communities. The total length of peace line barriers has increased since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. 

“People are still being attacked in their homes, people are still being shot, bombs are still being planted under cars, prison officers are being murdered,” Michael said. 

“Is it a peace process or not? It only seems to be so on one side at the moment.”

Whitehall sources told the Telegraph a range of issues have left Loyalists feeling insecure about their identity and future, adding: “unrest and unease has been building for some time”.

Both main Unionist parties  are currently electing new leaders, with the DUP expected to elect Arlene Foster’s successor on Friday.

The party’s rulebook says the new leader and deputy – Nigel Dodds stood down on May 5 – will be elected by assembly members, MPs and peers.

Edwin Poots, Northern Ireland’s agricultural minister, is the hardline favourite, having been a vocal opponent of post-Brexit trading arrangements in the province. 

His rival, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s incumbent Westminster leader, is seen as the moderate candidate.

Loyalists will want to see a fresh approach to the Good Friday Agreement and the protocol from the new leader .

Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine, a spokesman for the Progressive Unionist Party, said support for the Good Friday Agreement among Loyalist communities was “haemorrhaging”.

Speaking to the Telegraph in the offices of Action for Community Transformation on the Shankill Road in West Belfast, he said: “People are saying ‘this isn’t what I signed up for, what I went to jail for. This isn’t why my family are lying in graveyards across Northern Ireland.

“The dangers are absolutely massive. We’re a matchstick away from this place being ignited.”

Referring to the riots that broke out across Northern Ireland two weeks ago, Mr Irvine, who is close to West Belfast UVF, said: “We came within minutes of a potential bloodbath. 

“That scene was reminiscent of the outbreak of the Troubles here on the Shankill 50 years ago. The only thing that was missing was people having their houses petrol bombed. 

“Had that happened we would have been into full scale military engagement using physical force; not just petrol bombs and masonry, we would have been in a deep dangerous spiral of tit-for-tat.”

The funeral in 2020 of leading IRA figure Bobby Storey, attended by around 2,000 supporters when Covid rules limited attendee numbers to 15, is a source of particular anger among Loyalists. 

They are disgusted no action was taken against Sinn Fein organisers, or Michelle O’Neill, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, for attending.

“She knew the rules inside out…and they got away with it,” Stephen said.

There were uncorroborated reports of Sinn Fein security guards turning other mourners away from the cemetery during the funeral. 

Stephen says the whole thing was a message from Sinn Fein: ‘we run the show’.

“That’s what that was: ‘we call shots’. I know people who were given £100 fines for having kids’ birthday parties. Not one fine was given out there.”

Mr Irvine added: “Could you imagine a cabinet minister in London going to a similar type of funeral and surviving politically?

“We’re at a really dangerous moment here in terms of the political and peace process. I would urge people to think about these things.” 

Mr Irvine said the Good Friday Agreement consolidated the peace deal that predated it but warned: “The bedrock of the political progress here has been shaken to the core”.

He expects after lockdown, and with better weather, more people will take to the streets. 

Against the backdrop of the parading season and tense political situation over the “juggernaut of Brexit”, it could lead to a long, hot summer.

“If anybody thinks tinkering around the edges of the protocol to ensure freer access here or there for specific goods is going to be sufficient to deal with the issues, they’re deluding themselves.”

“We’re trying to warn people of impending things,” James ‘Jimbo’ Wilson, 69, a former Loyalist internee close to the Red Hand Commando group, said.

“Boris Johnson, the Irish government, the American government, and the European government need to sit down and get something sorted.

“We might have been paramilitaries in our day, but I’m an old man and most of the leadership in Loyalism would be elderly. We will be pushed to the side and these young lads will go ahead and do what they think is right. 

“Fortunately at the moment we still have an influence [but] we’re rolling into something that could make this country explode.”

Mr Irvine agrees: “There is a prevailing sense in the communities that politics isn’t able to deliver on the solutions required to fix the problems at the moment. Therefore people are resorting to other means.”

He describes as “dangerous” former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney’s reference, during Brexit negotiations, to possible Republican Dissident violence in the event of a hard border. 

“I don’t think they priced in the reaction because it sent the signal that the threat of violence will be leveraged; the threat of violence is the currency that has the greatest value in order to gain advantage in negotiations.

“That’s exactly what you’re seeing playing out now. 

“You’re seeing people saying, ‘it worked for them, it may just work for us’. That’s a very dangerous political trajectory to set any community on.”

Loyalist community leaders also worry policing is being politicised in the province. 

When the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), an umbrella group for Loyalist paramilitaries formed in 2015, sought a meeting with the PSNI Chief Constable, the Northern Ireland Justice Minister and leader of the centrist Alliance Party, Naomi Long, was “apoplectic” and “openly politically hostile to the police engaging with Loyalism,” Mr Irvine says. 

In recent years the Alliance Party has taken votes from centrist parties such as the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Ulster Unionist Party. Mr Irvine says that in order to appeal to centre-left voters targeted by Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party has recently adopted a harder stance towards Loyalism.

He contrasts this approach with that taken over the Bobby Storey funeral and says there is no “political cover” for police to engage with Loyalism. “It places the police in an extraordinarily difficult space,” he says.

“It’s not straightforward to say Loyalism has lost confidence in the police and the Chief Constable. No matter who the Chief Constable is, the same problems will occur because you have a Justice Minister who has priced in that being hostile to Loyalist communities is a vote winner.”

“They’re now trying to play the other side of the coin so that they can become the largest party between the green and the orange,” Mr Wilson adds. 

“You can understand why genuine Loyalists get so frustrated.”

A security source in Belfast told the Telegraph many Loyalists now viewed the police as a nationalist force and therefore a legitimate target for reprisals.

Mr Irvine said Loyalists were the strongest advocates for peace as they have experienced first-hand the consequences “when politics doesn’t deliver”.

“The only way we’ll fix this is if we have London, Belfast, Dublin and Brussels on the same page, getting us back in the orbit of the Good Friday Agreement.

“We have a short period of time to do that.

“We don’t want to see a single person going to prison. We don’t want to see another person get a criminal record. But we also don’t want to see the Union being broken up. Loyalism can’t stand by.

“Loyalism needs help, it needs support, and it needs politicians to get real about the problems.”

Doug Beattie, Ulster Unionist MLA member for Upper Bann and the man tipped to be the next leader of the party, says people see in the Brexit protocol “that their concerns have been absolutely ignored by the UK government”.

It created “sheer anger and frustration,” he said.

“Boris Johnson has lied to them; he wasn’t up front, he hasn’t told them the truth.”

He also criticised Leo Varadkar for showing pictures of a bombed out British army checkpoint on the border. 

“Every time the EU spoke about violence, they spoke about violence, on the border. 

“Everybody was only concerned about the frontier between the UK and the EU. They weren’t concerned with violence in Belfast or anywhere else away from the border. That doesn’t affect them. 

“Those threats of violence, led Boris to the negotiating stance that we’re in.

“That’s an awful place to be; that governments are either making decisions based on the threat of violence, or they’re making decisions because of violence. 

“The only way to fix this is if the EU and UK, just stop and look at the mess and realise that, as they beat each other over Brexit, the only people suffering are the people in Northern Ireland.

“Boris Johnson is an English nationalist, [although] I don’t think that’s what the majority of people in England are. He’s concerned with the English vote. There’s no vote in Northern Ireland for him or his Conservative party so he doesn’t care, he’s hands off.

“Whether he stays as Prime Minister is not down to Northern Ireland, it’s going to be down to a vote in England. So his brand of English nationalism is creating a problem. 

“He is a Prime Minister that could lead to the destruction of our union.

“Violence and the threat of violence has returned to Northern Ireland politics.”


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