Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson is combative, conservative – and hellbent on saving the union: ‘I’m a unionist before I’m a democrat’
Jamie Bryson, once the poster boy for loyalism during the flag protests, has the ear of hugely influential people in Northern Ireland these days. Articulate, cheeky and quick with a quip, he courts controversy, and, at times, publishes provocative social media comments. Wherever there is political chaos, Bryson is usually in the thick of it.
All of this makes him, for some, a public pain in the ass. He is argumentative, but not thin-skinned. Once, I characterised him on radio as “more Frank Carson than Sir Edward Carson” after he stood on top of a wheelie bin to deliver a speech. He reminds me of this and laughs, as we meet on Monday evening in Bangor, and find a quiet bar to have a discussion.
Bryson is upbeat, largely due to rumours that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will make a statement in Westminster the following day regarding legislative changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol. He welcomes this, but insists: “My position on the protocol hasn’t softened in any shape, or form. So the protocol must go, its fundamental organs must be stripped out, and they can leave it as a corpse. As long as Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom is fully restored and is not trapped in an economic united Ireland.”
He opposes the Belfast Agreement, though suggests that loyalism won’t stand in the way of a DUP entry into the Executive if the protocol goes: “I’m not going to kick up a stink about it…if the protocol is properly sorted, then I accept that Jeffrey Donaldson will have a mandate to go back in and he will have the support of the majority of the unionist and loyalist community to do that and make devolution work.”
‘Sorting’ the protocol issue could take months, and Northern Ireland is suffering a cost of living and health crisis. Meanwhile, the DUP refuses to enter a Stormont Executive, which he supports. I ask him: “What do you say to somebody who’s sitting on a waiting list for an operation for cancer?”
Bryson has a tendency to answer a question with a question. He replies: “Direct rule could fix the health service as well?” I point out that waiting lists grew during the last period of Stormont inactivity. “We are entwining two different things here. I think unionism is clear that they want to see good governance…”
“But they’re not governing…” I argue.
“If unionism continues on a process to dismantle the union, there’s not going to be an NHS,” he responds.
I ask what he means. “A process by its very definition has a beginning and an end,” he says. “If there is a vote for a united Ireland, there’s no provision for how Northern Ireland can return to the United Kingdom — it’s final. So unionism and the union is basically placed on the cliff edge until such time as enough people want to push it off and once it’s off, there’s no way back.”
I mention that Mary Lou McDonald has stated she wants a order poll in five years.
“Well, what is she trying to do, provoke some type of civil war? I think that’s reckless, it’s totally irresponsible.”
Is he a democrat? “I’m a unionist before I’m a democrat….I think the notion that unionism and loyalism would ever accept going into a united Ireland is for the birds. Sinn Féin do not want to make Northern Ireland work.”
I find myself defending the party. They say they do want to make it work, I tell him.
“Have they forsaken their fundamental objective to dismantle the union?” he shoots back. Bryson is energised by this topic: “I don’t know what would happen in the event of a border poll. I don’t know how people would react. I don’t know how I would personally act. Unionism comes first, above all else. I’m protecting and defending the union, too many people fought and died for it. People can read into that whatever they want.”
His tone is combative, but not surprising. Some sections of loyalism have publicly withdrawn their support for the Belfast Agreement in recent months. In March, the UVF was blamed for a hoax bomb device outside a Belfast peace event hosting Simon Coveney. I ask Bryson if he condemns it. He deflects the question three times, complaining that the “people who created the precedent that violence can be used for political leverage in the modern era is the Irish government.”
I ask again. “I’m not taking a view on it either way, I don’t want to see anyone engaging in violence, I want to see peace and stability,” he says.
Similar non-condemnation of loyalist actions in the past has led to questions about the nature of his relationship with illegal loyalist groups.
“I am not nor never have been a member of any proscribed terrorist organisation. But I am willing to work with anybody in loyalism, who is genuinely committed to the union,” he says. “I firmly condemn any criminal activity, especially drug dealing and racketeering. But I’m on record as saying that I believe loyalists had the right to defend themselves during the conflict.”
I challenge him, stating that most of the targets of those groups were innocent Catholics. Bryson answers: “It’s very easy to look at things in hindsight. I mean, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t involved in loyalism…” I see the contradiction in his reply, and interject: “But yet, you believe that they have a right to defend themselves?”
“I put myself in the situation of communities targeted by the IRA and felt the government weren’t capable of protecting them,” he replies. “And they decided to hit back. People can take moral views on that. I don’t think everything that loyalists did was right or was morally defensible. Young unionists and loyalists should lift a law book rather than a petrol bomb.”
Bryson reads three books a week, particularly enjoying those about America’s Supreme Court, and rarely drinks. Once on the extreme wing of loyalism and on the sidelines of unionism, he has increased his influence in recent years.
“I would say definitely in the last five years, I have developed very strong relationships with the leadership of mainstream unionism,” he says, though he thinks it’s unfair of me to suggest that he also has the ear of the Tory European Research Group (ERG).
“Individuals involved have a relationship with me — that’s entirely legitimate, but I have no relationship with the ERG as a corporate body,” he stresses.
He has had conversations about a possible future electoral run, though won’t say with whom: “It’s not something I’ve given deep thought to — who knows what’s around the corner?”
A fan of Jim Allister, he is also close to senior DUP politicians. He calls Doug Beattie a friend, though is unsure if the UUP leader, whose stance on the union he has been scathing of, would still use the same description.
Bryson is socially conservative, and accepts he is in the minority, but believes there is a “space for a socially liberal unionist party”, adding: “The problem is the UUP are confusing being liberal on issues with being liberal on the union. If Doug could build a party which was TUV on the union and the Alliance Party on social issues, he would have a model that could attract a younger generation of unionists.” I ask him if he accepts Beattie’s description of himself as both Irish and British. “He can call himself a penguin if he wants, I’m a British citizen,” he replies derisively, adding: “Everybody’s entitled to express their own identity, and I wouldn’t criticise anybody for it.”
Bryson once tweeted that he was going to make a “citizen’s arrest” of Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly. I remind him of this and he smiles, pointing out he came to public prominence when he was 21: “I was young, and made mistakes. I look back at some things and think I wouldn’t do that again.”
In 2018, he went bananas on Twitter about GAA fans hoisting a flag of “a masked terrorist”, until social media users rounded on him, pointing out the “balaclava” was actually crowns on a far-off Munster flag. He laughs: “I don’t take myself too seriously. Sure we had a bit of craic.”
It’s been 10 years since the flag protests. I still have memories of sitting in traffic, a crying baby on the back seat, cursing the ground Bryson walked on, and tell him this. “Sorry Máiría,” he replies, smiling.
“Have you,” I ask, “stood on a bin since I called you Frank Carson?”
He laughs and says: “The protocol needs to go in the bin.”