Brexit tensions risk igniting Northern Ireland’s loyalist tempers

More than 20,000 people, including 140 traditional marching bands, are expected to parade through Belfast on Saturday as the loyalist Orange Order celebrates the centenary of Northern Ireland with what organisers are billing a “colourful and joyous spectacle”.

The event, delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic from last year’s anniversary of the region’s founding, is expected to be one of the largest ever. Organiser Harold Henning, deputy grandmaster of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, described it as a “celebration of thanksgiving for this wee country of ours, for the 100 years we have had . . . and for the future”.

The parade will be a highlight of this year’s loyalists’ marching season, which has proved a source of conflict between the mostly Protestant unionists, who favour Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK, and the mostly Catholic nationalists who favour a united Ireland.

Mervyn Gibson, grand secretary of the Orange Order, kicked off the parade calling for customs checks on goods remaining in Northern Ireland to be scrapped: “No tweaking, no tampering, no fudge . . . no excuses”. 

He said the region must also not be subject to foreign laws.

“If the Protocol is not sorted, then make no mistake . . . there will be no next 100 years for Northern Ireland,” the Presbyterian minister said. “The cry to those who seek to persuade us, Protocol us or push us into a United Ireland is . . . No Surrender!”

Some fear that with tensions high over the fallout from Brexit, which has divided the region’s main political parties along similar lines and left it in political limbo, it might not take much for loyalist tempers to boil over.

“It is tinderbox territory,” said Alex Kane, former head of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Riots erupted last year, as a younger generation of loyalists channelled anger at post-Brexit trading arrangements — which have created a customs border in the Irish Sea. Loyalists and unionists say the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol undermines their UK identity and want it scrapped.

Riot police in Belfast facing off against loyalist rioters in April 2021 © Paul Mcerlane/FT

The protocol imposed checks on goods entering from Britain in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. An open border was a key element of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that ended the three decades-long Troubles involving British security forces as well as republican and loyalist paramilitaries.

The UK government has warned that the protocol is undermining the Good Friday Agreement and has vowed to introduce a bill within weeks to rip up parts of the protocol unilaterally unless the EU agrees changes.

Tensions have flared more recently. In March, loyalist paramilitaries were blamed for a sinister bomb scare in Belfast targeting Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

There were security fears again this week when Congressman Richard Neal, who led a US mission to try to build bridges, had his Northern Ireland schedule leaked to loyalist paramilitaries, according to a report in the Belfast Telegraph.

Ahead of his trip, Neal told the Financial Times that sporadic violence remained a risk. “The danger is it would be the amateurs. It gets out of hand fast.”

Winston “Winky” Irvine, a spokesman for loyalist groups cautioned: “We are at a very dangerous juncture, there’s no question in my mind.” He added: “Politicians aren’t being seen to deliver. That’s creating a very dangerous vacuum.”

Winston ‘Winky’ Irvine
Winston ‘Winky’ Irvine warned: ‘We are at a very dangerous juncture’ © Paul McErlane/FT

No one believes there is any serious danger of turning back the clock to the Troubles. “There are stirrings of unrest among loyalist paramilitaries,” said Jon Tonge, professor of politics at the University of Liverpool. “But I don’t see more widespread violence.”

Still, the political temperature has risen sharply since elections 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 the Stormont assembly and vetoing any new power-sharing executive until the customs border in the Irish Sea is scrapped.

Sarah Creighton, a unionist political commentator, fears loyalist youths could turn to violent protest on the streets as happened at Easter last year. “There does seem to be a [younger] generation of loyalists that seem to be agitating to show their anger.”

The Coveney scare was a hoax — albeit one that Irvine said appeared to have been “sophisticated, well-organised, well-planned.” But Creighton said what worried her “was the message that was sent”.

John Stevenson in Portadown, County Armagh
John Stevenson said political instability carried risks © Paul McErlane/FT

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

John Stevenson, a grassroots loyalist activist in Portadown, said loyalist groups had given the party an ultimatum a week beforehand: “Pull down the executive this week or we’ll be out on the streets protesting.” The DUP said it “does not recognise” that version of events.

While he saw no appetite within loyalism for any return to a military-type campaign, Stevenson said political instability carried risks. “If it’s not resolved, it may go further,” he said.

For Irvine, who is considered close to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, Brexit has “reignited all the animosities and all the markers of division”. The dangerous message is “if politics can’t fix it, the street will fix it,” he said.

Jackie McDonald, a senior figure in the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association who was jailed during the Troubles, said veterans did not want to return to violence. But he said some younger people felt they did not want to be “the generation that failed” their community and took the view: “We will not be told what to do by the grey-haired old men”.

He warned: “If the protocol isn’t sorted out, I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Jackie McDonald stands next to an anti-Northern Irish Protocol banner © Paul McErlane/FT

Kane acknowledged that he, like many others, had been blind to the unexpectedly strong electoral performance of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party, which is uncompromising in its anti-protocol stance. He noted there had also been loyalist rallies ahead of the elections. “So there’s something happening on the ground, and that’s worrying.”

He said the protocol row had created an “existential crisis” among the loyalist community “about their identity, their citizenship,” adding that he hoped there was “enough common sense” to avoid violence.

Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington

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