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Jamie Bryson: I'm against the peace process...it's peace with a gun to its head

Adrian Rutherford talks to the leading loyalist about how he became the face of the flag protests, his relationship with the police and his plans for the future.

Published 11/05/2015

Jamie Bryson addresses flag protesters in Belfast city centre in 2013
Jamie Bryson addresses flag protesters in Belfast city centre in 2013

Q. You are best known as a flag protester. How did it start?

A. I always get labelled as that and sometimes I resent it.

I've actually been involved in loyalism from my school days, so to call me a flag protester is rather narrow.

I stood for election and had a bit of what I would describe as adverse media attention prior to the flag protest, but nothing on the scale of what happened after 2012.

Q. What drew you into loyalism?

A. I think it comes from where you are brought up. You are proud of your community and proud of your heritage.

Who knows, if I was born in a nationalist community I may be a hardline republican.

The people around you have an influence on you, and this area of north Down is about 80% unionist.

You would not have much contact with Catholics or nationalists, not because you avoided them but just because of the area you were in.

Q. How did you get involved in the flag protests?

A. I went to the first protest outside the City Hall on the night they voted to take down the flag.

The next day I went to a protest at the Alliance Party headquarters on the Newtownards Road. There were a few TV cameras and I gave an interview.

The day following that I was asked by local loyalists to go and address a protest in Newtownards.

It was videoed and put on the internet and as a result I started receiving invites from loyalists from all over the country to come and address their protests.

At one stage we were going and addressing three protests a day.

Q. You went to jail over it. Was it really worth it?

A. Absolutely. I don't regret anything I did. I've no remorse and no regrets.

Sometimes you have to pay a price for what you believe in.

People have spent 30 years in jail for what they believe in, so at the end of the day what is a couple of months?

Q. What was it like to be in prison?

A. Anyone who says that jail is easy is a liar. You are away from your family and confined.

For the first two weeks I was effectively in solitary confinement until I was moved to the loyalist wings.

This might sound strange, and I don't want to portray jail as easy because it's a terrible place, but I've never felt more at peace with myself.

I knew they had done everything they could to break me, and yet sitting in my cell I could still stand over everything that I did, so I knew it would be difficult for them to ever break me.

I felt totally at peace at what I did. If someone had come to me and offered me the chance to walk out the door if I renounced everything I said, I wouldn't have done it.

Q. Essentially it made you more determined?

A. If the PSNI and Public Prosecution Service (PPS) had any sense, they would have let the protests run their course.

Instead, they just increased my profile for the last two years.

There are many who wouldn't support my political viewpoints but who were outraged at the way I've been treated by the courts and the police.

Q. You are from Bangor. Why did the flag at Belfast City Hall matter to you?

A. It went beyond a flag. For me it epitomised the ultimate trajectory of the peace process.

Little by little, every vestige of Protestant-unionist-loyalist culture is being stripped from this country.

The City Hall is the prime civic building in our capital city.

There was a lot of issues building for years which maybe people tolerated, but with this we reached a point where we couldn't take any more.

I didn't wake up on December 3, 2012 [the date of the flag vote] and decide I was going to be angry about the way the political process was going.

I was already strongly opposed to the agreements and Stormont in its current format.

Q. What is wrong with Stormont?

A. I think mandatory coalition is against democracy.

I call it an in-built veto of fear. Sinn Fein are granted a mandatory coalition because if they don't get their own way and be in government then we might go back to shooting and killing people.

It's democracy with a gun to its head.

Q. What do you make of the various parties?

A. I think the DUP have betrayed everything they stood for.

I respect people who maintain their principles, and I think the DUP have betrayed almost every principle they ever had.

Q. What about Sinn Fein?

A. The likes of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly, at least you know what they are.

They have different beliefs but at least they are what they are.

I would actually have more respect for them than the likes of the wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road Alliance Party which just sits on the fence.

At least Sinn Fein won't hide behind the door about who they are.

I could have more respect for them - I don't respect what they have done - but as people I acknowledge that they stayed true to their own cause and they never renounced their own cause.

In my mind you are a more honourable man than somebody who will stand and proclaim their principles and then betray every single one of them.

Q. You stood for election before in 2011. You got 167 votes. It's not very many.

A. Our party was Community Partnership Northern Ireland, and we stood on a ticket for community issues.

We made a mistake because, in two wards, we ran two people in each ward. We cut each other's throats essentially.

Our party leader, Mark Gordon, was within 20 or 30 votes of getting elected.

With myself and the girl who stood with me in Bangor West, had our votes been combined, one of us may have been elected.

I was a young guy and it was my first foray into politics.

I often say that Hitler had millions of followers and Jesus only had 12.

Just because everyone agrees with it doesn't make it right.

It didn't matter whether it was 167 people agreeing with me or 167,000, my views haven't changed and I'm not going to change myself or sell out my views or principles just to gain support.

Q. You were criticised after writing on Twitter that the UVF were not terrorists. Why did you say that?

A. In my mind there's people, especially within the big-house unionism as I call them, who, when the UVF and others went out and targeted the IRA, would have been more than happy and, inside themselves, would have probably thought 'I don't mind that'.

But now, and at the time, they would come out publicly and condemn those very same people. I could not bring myself to do that.

If someone is asking me do I believe the loyalist people had the right to take up arms to defend themselves, then yes I do. That is in the past tense - I don't want to be arrested under the Terrorism Act.

Anywhere else in the world, if your country is being blown up and people are being murdered, if people took up arms to defend themselves they would be regarded as patriots.

As a matter of fact all around the world the British Government and the American government arm people such as loyalists to defend their country. Yet whenever loyalists took up arms to defend their country they were terrorists.

Q. But you can't defend acts like Loughinisland, where people were shot dead watching a football match?

A. No... I think all deaths in any conflict are regrettable, especially civilian deaths.

I think at the time, and I can't speak for the loyalist leadership, there was a lot of anger and frustration after things like the Shankill bomb and things got out of hand.

Nobody wants to go back to those days, especially me.

When I say I'm against the peace process it doesn't mean I'm against peace. I am against peace with a gun to its head.

Q. And yet the flag protests saw some of the worst violence in Northern Ireland for years?

A. A lot of that stemmed from how the protests were handled. There was a lot of very heavy-handed policing. I personally witnessed women and children being beaten off the streets.

It was an outpouring of frustration more than anything.

We did all we could to ensure there wasn't violence.

I don't think anybody wanted violence, I certainly didn't, but I can understand people's frustration.

Q. The flag protests have fizzled out. Why?

A. The PSNI, the PPS and elements of the judiciary set out to break the protests. They put the fear of God into people.

When they arrested the likes of me and Willie Frazer, they were saying to people: 'This is what we will do to you'.

The protests petered out a bit but there is still a loyal core of people every Saturday at the City Hall and fair play to them.

It's an issue which won't go away. It is an open sore for our community.

Q. Is it possible the flag will ever come back?

A. I never thought it was possible it would be taken down, so who knows?

Q. You've described the PSNI as fascists - is that fair?

A. It's the truth. That is how I view their behaviour.

I also believe there is a republican cabal running right through the PSNI. I don't think anyone could deny that. Print that in the paper, absolutely.

Q. You went on the run - for a day - from police in 2013. You taunted them online. You thought it was a good idea?

A. Absolutely. People had said I should hand myself in. Would they have asked the Jews to hand themselves in to the Nazis? Why would I have handed myself in? I stand over everything I said in that video. There was nothing in it which was illegal or unlawful.

It was me expressing my lawful opinion, yet I was remanded in custody and time and time again extracts were quoted.

Q. What did you do when on the run?

A. Hid in the boots of cars, hit in attics and so on.

I have trouble with allergies and I ended up hiding in a friend's attic. I had to wrap myself in insulation foam and when I came down I was covered in the worst rash imaginable.

At one stage I was looking out at the police running about and the helicopter overhead. Police were pleading with community leaders to ask me to turn myself in to save their embarrassment.

Q. How did they find you in the end?

A. I don't know. I was in Pastor Gordon's house.

It's a common misconception that I was hiding in his attic. I wasn't. I was in a converted upstairs bedroom.

Q. You also went on hunger strike, again for a day?

A. When I went into the police station I refused food and water. My solicitor said that if I refused water for 24 hours it was likely that in 24 to 48 hours I'd have to be committed to hospital, and it would drag the whole thing out.

I drank water on the second day, but I still refused food. I didn't trust the police, so I decided I wouldn't eat until I was remanded in custody or was let out.

It was about 36 hours in the end. It became a myth that I was on a hunger strike and ate an Indian curry. I didn't - I don't even like Indian food.

Q. Is it correct that you cheered when a Catholic window in the Short Strand was smashed?

A. No, it's not. There is a video where you see me putting my hand up, but I was actually trying to usher people away.

They were coming under attack from people with balaclavas and all sorts.

I was putting my hand up to move people further down the road because there were woman and children there, and I didn't want them to be seriously hurt.

Q. You are also involved in football?

A. Yes, I am a manager now. I manage 1st Bangor in the Amateur League. I played in youth football for St Andrew's, I had a great coach called Stefan Seaton who went on to manage the Co Antrim Milk Cup team.

I went on to Linfield, played there for a couple of seasons but got badly hurt with my knee, then my ankle. I played a bit for Crusaders' reserve team, then Bangor's first team, but got hurt again and I sort of lost interest.

I played in the Amateur League before I decided to try managing.

Q. What else are you interested in?

A. I'm interested in law. I've started a law degree which I'm going back to finish in September. I read a lot of books, maybe two or three a week. I read political books, also history, war and legal ones.

Q. Do you see yourself in the legal profession?

A. When you want to fight a system such as we have, the only way to fight is by using their own rules against them.

I don't think shooting, bombing or killing is going to serve any purpose. Nobody wants that.

If you want to resist this corrupt system, the only way to do it is to use their own laws and systems against them, by getting into the courtroom, challenging them and exposing them for what they are. So, yes, it is something I would like to do.

Q. You were a mascot at a Northern Ireland match in 2012?

A. I had done some work experience with the Irish Football Association as a teenager and had kept in touch with them.

The mascot for the Azerbaijan game let them down, and I was contacted on the day.

I donned the outfit and it was good fun, but I was disgusted at how the IFA handled it afterwards. They tried to distance themselves from me like I was some form of criminal.

Q. People see you as a figure of fun. The satirical website Loyalists Against Democracy regularly joke at your expense. Does it bother you?

A. I am who I am, I stand over everything I say and have done. I'm not for changing.

People can say what they want about me. What matters to me is when I go to bed and close my eyes, I know I'm true to myself.

In 20 years' time maybe history will show I was wrong, but you can only follow your heart and what you believe. I can't change that.

If the whole world stands and laughs at me, I won't change.

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