Brexit tensions risk igniting Northern Ireland’s loyalists

More than 20,000 people, including 140 traditional marching bands, are expected to march through Belfast on Saturday as the loyal Orange Knights celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland in what organisers say is a “colourful and joyous” wonder”.

The event, which was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic on the region’s anniversary last year, is expected to be one of the largest ever. Organiser Harold Henning, deputy head of Ireland’s Great Orange Hotel, described it as “a celebration of gratitude for our small country, which we have had for 100 years… . . and the future”.

The march will be a highlight of this year’s Loyalty March season, which has proven to be a source of conflict between the main Protestant unionists who support the preservation of a part of Britain in Northern Ireland and the main Catholic nationalists who support a united Ireland.

Mervyn Gibson, chief secretary of the Orange Knights, called for the lifting of customs checks on goods left in Northern Ireland at the start of the march: “No adjustments, no tampering, no fudge . . . no reason”.

The region also must not be subject to foreign laws, he said.

“If the agreement is not sequenced, make no mistake . . . there will be no next 100 years in Northern Ireland,” the Presbyterian minister said. “The cry of those who are trying to convince us, negotiate us or push us to join United Ireland is… . . NO SURRENDER!”

Some fear that the fallout from Brexit is so tense that the tempers of loyalists could soon boil over as it divides the region’s major parties along similar lines and leaves it politically mired.

“It’s powder keg territory,” said Alex Cain, the former communications director of the Ulster United Party.

Riot broke out Last year, a younger generation of loyalists expressed anger at post-Brexit trade arrangements that created customs borders in the Irish Sea.Royalists and unionists say so-called Northern Ireland Protocol Undermining their British identity and hoping to scrap it.

Riot police confront loyal thugs in Belfast, April 2021 © Paul Mcerlane/FT

The protocol checks goods entering from the UK to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Open borders were a key element of the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that ended decades of trouble for British security forces and Republican and royalist paramilitaries.

The UK government has warned that the deal is undermining the Good Friday agreement and has swear to introduce A bill unilaterally tearing up parts of the protocol will be introduced within weeks unless the EU agrees to changes.

Tensions have risen recently. In March, loyalist paramilitaries were accused of Belfast’s sinister bomb scare Against Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

Security concerns were reignited this week when Congressman Richard Neal, who led the US delegation trying to build the bridge, leaked his Northern Ireland timetable to loyal paramilitaries. Report in the Belfast Telegraph.

Before the trip, Neal told the FT that there was still a risk of sporadic violence. “The danger is that it will be hobbyist. It will quickly get out of hand.”

“We’re at a very dangerous time, I think there’s no doubt about that,” warned the loyalty group’s spokesman Winston “Winkey” Owen. He added: “We’re not seeing politicians delivering on their promises. … that’s creating a very dangerous vacuum.”

Winston 'Winky' Owen
Winston ‘Winky’ Irvine warns: ‘We are at a very dangerous time’ © Paul McErlane/FT

No one believed that going back in time would be in any serious danger. “There have been riots among royalist paramilitaries,” said Jon Tonge, a professor of political science at the University of Liverpool. “But I don’t see broader violence.”

Still, the political temperature has risen sharply since the election earlier this month won by nationalist Sinn Féin, long considered the mouthpiece of the Republican paramilitary IRA. The party is committed to reuniting Ireland.

The long-dominant Democratic Unionist Party responded by boycotting Stormont council and vetoing any new power-sharing executive until the customs border in the Irish Sea was removed.

Unionist political commentator Sarah Creighton fears loyal youths could stage violent protests in the streets, as they did at Easter last year. “There does seem to be a [younger] A generation of loyalists appears to be agitating to express their anger. “

The Coveney scare was a hoax – although Irvine said the hoax appeared to be “sophisticated, well organised and well planned”. But Creighton said it was the “message sent” that worried her.

John Stevenson in Portadown, Armagh
John Stevenson says political instability poses risks © Paul McErlane/FT

Political tensions have been rising since February, when the DUP pulled out of the executive branch over its Irish Sea border demands.

John Stevenson, a grassroots royalist activist in Portadown, said royalist groups had given the party an ultimatum a week early: “Take down the administrators this week or we’ll take to the streets.” The DUP said it “doesn’t acknowledging” that version of the event.

Stevenson said that while he didn’t think Loyalty had any interest in returning to a military-type campaign, he said political instability poses risks. “If it’s not resolved, it may go further,” he said.

For Owen, who is believed to be close to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteers, Brexit “reignites all the hatred and all the signs of division”. The dangerous message is that “if politics can’t fix it, the streets will fix it,” he said.

Jackie MacDonald, a senior figure at the paramilitary group Ulster Defence Association, jailed during the troubles, says veterans don’t want to return to violence. But he said some young people felt they didn’t want to be the “lost generation” in their community and believed: “We’re not going to be told what to do by grey-haired old people”.

“If the deal isn’t resolved, I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” he warned.

Jackie McDonald next to a banner against the Northern Ireland deal © Paul McErlane/FT

Cain admitted that he, like many others, had turned a blind eye to the unexpectedly strong electoral performance of the hardline traditional Union Voice party, which was uncompromising on its anti-deal stance. He noted that there were also royalist rallies ahead of the election. “So there’s something going on locally and that’s concerning.”

He said the etiquette battle had created an “existential crisis” in the loyal community “about their identity, citizenship”, adding that he hoped there would be “enough common sense” to avoid violence.

Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington

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