A loyalist activist has spoken of facing an online backlash for considering how unionists would fit into a united Ireland.
Shortly before the new year, Joel Keys (20) said Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald had made an “appealing argument” by suggesting that unionists were given a quota as part of a united Ireland parliament.
Commenting on Twitter, Mr Keys said it was something that “any serious unionist” should consider.
With many pushing back against the apparent softening of his stance, Mr Keys insisted that he was not advocating for a united Ireland but that securing “more representation” could not be ignored.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he also said he stood by controversial comments made to a Westminster committee last May — in which he said violence could not be ruled out unless the Northern Ireland Protocol was scrapped.
He added that the DUP should share some of the blame for recent scenes of bus burning in Northern Ireland, after failing to follow through on threats to collapse Stormont.
“I know in this country things are very heated, and when you say things people are going to kick off,” he said.
“People give off, but with enough talk everyone respects each other in the end so I don’t take people going crazy too personally.”
On Sinn Fein’s suggestion of a unionist quota in a new Ireland, he said: “My point was mainly that we are not well governed at the minute.
“We don’t have a stable and functioning Stormont, so if Sinn Fein come along with a plan for better representation, the unionist response can’t just be ‘no, never’.
“If representation is a concern, we need to be able to say here’s what the unionist solution to this problem is.”
On the controversy surrounding his comments to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee last year, he said: “My argument was being misunderstood. My big thing was that if you use violence, you need to be accountable.
“That’s why you have the police and the army. It’s why it’s not OK for masked men to go and burn a bus.
“Violence is a tool that can be used for good or evil. And accountability is one of the things that can be used to determine that, that someone has to answer for it in the end.”
Last November, there was widespread condemnation after buses in Newtownards and the Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey were set alight by masked men calling themselves the Protestant Action Force, a cover name previously used by loyalist paramilitaries.
It was largely seen as a reaction to tensions surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Keys said he did not condone the attacks, but the DUP deserved at least part of the blame for ramping up tensions with threats to collapse Stormont.
“If you’re the biggest political party for your community and you make a threat, you have to be willing to follow through,” he said.
“Of course people are going to kick off if you don’t deliver. I think the DUP don’t deserve all the responsibility, but there needs to be an acknowledgement that was a mishandled situation.”
With Brexit negotiations dragging on, he said unionists could not be “left in limbo forever”.
He added: “I’ve heard the latest strategy is actually to not trigger Article 16, as an olive branch to the EU. But the question is ‘how long do you give them?’ How long do you try this before you call their bluff?
“I’m not saying that invoking Article 16 would be favourable or ideal, but it’s a negotiation.”
Article 16 is a safeguard mechanism within the Northern Ireland Protocol which, when triggered, would suspend parts of the deal.
In a previous interview with the Sunday Life, Mr Keys said he was considering joining the Ulster Unionists, but says he is still undecided ahead of the next Assembly elections.
“At the minute there isn’t a party I’d like to back,” he said.
“I think part of the problem that we have in this country is that we look so much at the party.
“I’ll be looking at the candidates, I want someone who is pro-union, positive and can deliver for our young people.”
A frequent criticism Mr Keys has faced, when speaking of considering violence, is that he did not live through the reality of the Troubles and was not even born when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
“Here’s the double standards. People say you don’t have a clue about this as you weren’t born during the Troubles, then they also expect young people to care about it and hold the same grudges and beliefs.”
In September, Mr Keys was interviewed by comedian Patrick Kielty for a BBC documentary exploring the future of Northern Ireland.
Mr Kielty spoke of how the trauma of his father being killed by loyalists had been re-triggered by the Brexit fallout.
The interview also included the former loyalist paramilitary commander Jackie McDonald.
Mr Keys said: “I think for me what was nice to see, was that there was two people from completely opposite ends of the spectrum.
“They both had the same message, that violence was a thing of the past and what we want to do is create a Northern Ireland that is stable and works for everyone. I think that’s a good message to take.”