‘The British government cannot see beyond Middle England’ – how loyalist anger turned to violence in Northern Ireland

Kim Sengupta
·7-min read
<p>Petrol bombs have been thrown and buses set alight in Belfast in recent days</p> (Getty Images)

Petrol bombs have been thrown and buses set alight in Belfast in recent days

(Getty Images)

The signs on the streets along Belfast’s Lanark Way declared that all loyalist demonstrations will be suspended as a mark of respect to the royal family following the death of Prince Philip – but “the continued opposition to the NI protocol and all the other injustices against the PUL [protestant, unionist, loyalist] community will take place again after the period of mourning”.

The likelihood is that the protests, with large numbers of youths, which began last week, will start again after the prince’s funeral, and with it will come the risk of further violence – petrol bombs thrown, buses set alight and the police using water cannons and rubber bullets. These are scenes not witnessed for many years.

It is possible that the clashes may not be prolonged. The schools have restarted in Northern Ireland, youths clubs are reopening, some of the Covid restrictions are being lifted, the shutters on the doors of businesses, shops and bars in Belfast, a city under a much tighter lockdown than, for instance, London, will start to lift and a return towards normalcy may help to reduce tensions.

But that is likely to be a temporary respite. The issues behind the strife are not going away and there appears to be little understanding, let alone action, from Boris Johnson’s government on a situation which has become combustible.

Speaking to a cross-section of people from the protestant community in Belfast, one hears tales of anger and frustration at what has unfolded since the Good Friday Agreement. Many feel that they have lost out compared 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 claim, follow a two-tier policy on matters of regulations and law enforcement, favouring nationalists above unionists.

Some of this is resentment, one might say, from a community which no longer has the upper hand it once did; a reaction to loss of privilege. But there are also now huge socio-economic problems in sections of the loyalist community. Protestant boys in some of the deprived estates, for instance, have the lowest level of educational attainment in Europe; there is little sign of social mobility, and plenty of alienation.

Some of the latest violence has been ascribed to “recreational rioting” by youths letting off steam. There are also claims of adults directing the disturbances. But some former paramilitary members maintain that they can no longer control the aggression of the young.

A 60 year old community leader, connected with loyalist paramilitary group Red Hand Commando, told me: “This is on both sides. An IRA man, a veteran, was told, ‘f**k off grandad’, when he tried to intervene during some disturbances. We hear that kind of thing on our side as well, ex-combatants of 30 years service, being told to ‘f**k off’.

“Now, I am sure that on both sides, 50 or 60 people can be found who won’t f**k off, and who can enforce calm with baseball bats. But then that would be breaking the law, and the same people demanding control in the community now will be demanding prosecutions for that. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.”

The community leader acknowledged that there may, indeed, have been manipulation of the violence by some men, but they were, he insisted, basically criminal gangs in the guise of paramilitaries.

The involvement of paramilitary groups in crime has been going on for a long time. The move into drug running and protection rackets was, at one stage, viewed by some as a positive step, as it would not be in the interest of the gangs for political violence and bombs to return and affect their lucrative illicit profit. But they are now a serious threat, with one crime/paramilitary group, for instance, reportedly with 2,000 members, well armed and part of an international crime syndicate.

The fallout from Brexit has come during an already highly difficult and fraught situation. There was always going to be an issue over a border when the UK left the single market and the 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 had always done. “There will be no border down the Irish Sea” he declared, “that will happen over my dead body.”

This was untrue. Johnson had agreed to a border in the Irish Sea to get his Brexit deal through. As one loyalist community leader said: “When your own prime minister shafts you, when he comes to this city and says there will be no border between us and Britain, and then breaks his word so easily, when your voice is being ignored, you feel abandoned.”

There is now, with the Northern Ireland protocol, a border down the Irish Sea and mounting costs for businesses in the region. David Campbell, a spokesman of the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group which represents the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Red Hand Commando, said: “We fully understand the concern of the nationalists that there should be no land border, but the governments must understand the concern of unionist communities about a sea border.”

It was not just the trade aspect that worried the loyalists. The protocol, they feel, would inevitably cleave Northern Ireland away from the UK. The government, Cambell and his colleagues felt, had little idea of what was happening on the ground. “The view in the unionist community is that the British government basically cannot see beyond Middle England,” he said.

The parades and bonfires of the annual marching season will start again this summer. These had been venues for severe violence during The Troubles, but they have taken place relatively peacefully in the last two decades.

They will happen this year as the police and prosecuting authorities are accused of two-tier law enforcement with demand from the DUP First Minister, Arlene Foster, that Simon Byrne, the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), resigns. Loyalist anger arises from the failure by prosecuting authorities to bring charges against 24 Sinn Féin politicians, including deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Adams, over their attendance at the funeral of Bobby Storey, a senior Republican, in alleged breach of Covid rules. Byrne, who was born in England and had at one stage served in London’s Metropolitan Police, refused to do so, insisting that no deal was done with funeral organisers.

Some loyalist organisers of the parades are now saying that they will not liaise with the police because of the “double standards” over the funeral and would not go through the required notification process.

Mark Lindsay, the chairperson of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, had expressed his regret that, “23 years from the Good Friday Agreement, policing has never been more politicised, never been more toxic, in our society.” He warns that there was “only a limited amount of time” to prepare for the marches and urges political and community leaders to ensure that “some of the worst times of the past” are not repeated.

A loyalist community leader, a former paramilitary, talked of the use of petrol bombs, and the coming marching season. He mentioned the death of the three Quinn brothers in Ballymoney, County Antrim, which took place in 1998. I recall reporting on the murders of three boys aged nine, 10 and 11 in the firebomb attack at the time, the year of the Good Friday Agreement.

Was the risk of something like that happening a matter of real concern for him? “Yes, it is. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t. We need to think of the dangers,” he added, “address the problems and end what is happening now, before it all gets out of hand.”

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