Belfast Telegraph

No appetite among loyalists for Brexit violence after flag protest lessons

A child runs past a UVF mural
A child runs past a UVF mural
Gareth Cross

By Gareth Cross

Loyalist community leaders have said there is no appetite for violent protest against Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Brexit deal, particularly after the lessons learned from the flag protests.

Senior loyalists did say there was much anger over the deal, which would in effect put a border down the Irish Sea and see firms having to complete declarations in order to trade between GB and NI.

There is a fear the deal paves the way to a united Ireland.

Scores of loyalists met in east Belfast's Con Club on Monday evening to discuss their response to the PM's withdrawal agreement and similar events are to take place over the next week.

Grand Secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland Rev Mervyn Gibson was among those to attend. He said he hadn't heard "one single loyalist paramilitary organisation threaten violence".

Rev Gibson said there was "widespread disquiet" within the unionist and loyalist community over the proposals to create "economic unity".

"I think people will want to oppose this deal but I don't think any of those involved want violence," he said.

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"Action will be taken to try and get this stopped but nobody is calling for violence, people want to register their opposition."

The Orange Order leader stressed he would be calling for peaceful protest. He said people were feeling betrayed, particularly by the British Government.

"Talk of violence comes from the Irish Government, particularly the Taoiseach, of violence from dissident republicans," Rev Gibson added.

Rev Mervyn Gibson
Rev Mervyn Gibson

"What's behind people's anger is the threat of betrayal, people need to listen carefully to what the concerns are and everyone has a part to play in shaping a sensible response."

We don't need to get involved in any criminal behaviour, there's no place for it. Billy Hutchinson

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has warned of a potential for "loyalist disorder" if Brexit threatens Northern Ireland's place in the union.

Monday's meeting was attended by a number of high-ranking members of loyalist paramilitaries, including the UVF and UDA.

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson stressed the real issue for people was around the consent mechanism and he couldn't see any loyalist wanting to go to jail over Brexit. He said there was people who were angry and confused.

He said his party would be meeting with Secretary of State Julian Smith to discuss their issues and despite the assurances offered he wanted to study the "minutiae" of the situation.

Billy Hutchinson
Billy Hutchinson

The former UVF member said the EU and British and Irish Governments had not taken the view of unionists and loyalists into account when reaching their Brexit deal, but again he hadn't heard anyone advocating for violence.

The city councillor said that the Brexit agreement was "only a trade deal" and the issue should be kept to the political arena.

People don't want to go through what they went through during the flag protests. Jim Wilson

Councillor Hutchinson said he was "happy" to see protest meetings take place, "there is anger and that has to come out somewhere".

"We don't need to get involved in any criminal behaviour, there's no place for it," Councillor Hutchinson said.

"Are young loyalists going to go to jail over Boris Johnson and Brexit? No."

Jim Wilson
Jim Wilson

"I don't want to see anyone ending up with a criminal record."

Former Red Hand Commando and east Belfast community worker Jim Wilson also also attended the Con Club meeting acknowledged there were many different viewpoints expressed.

However, he said 99% of people were adamant that they wanted to see "anything but violence".

"People were saying that they didn't want our young people going through what they went through during the flag protests," he said.

"Over 300 young people ended up with criminal records."

Loyalists took the streets of Belfast after a 2012 decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union flag at city hall.

Dr Aaron Edwards
Dr Aaron Edwards

Mr Wilson said loyalists stayed out of the Brexit debate for three years to allow politicians to "get on with it", but they now believed they had "been shafted" because they were the path of least resistance in the eyes of the EU and the UK and Irish governments.

The peace process was supposed to be inclusive... Protestants don't feel they have benefited. Dr Aaron Edwards

Mr Wilson said the upset around Boris Johnson's Brexit deal spread to ordinary working class people.

"Loyalists engaged with the peace process because we wanted a better way forward," he said.

"Our views need to be taken on board."

Dr Aaron Edwards, author of UVF Behind the Mask, said that the anger and disaffection amongst the loyalist community should not be underestimated.

"The flag protests demonstrated loyalists still have the ability to mobilise," the University of Leicester lecturer said.

"They have demonstrated the ability to carry out protest action over decades and to kill in the name of maintaining the union."

Dr Edwards said that loyalists had the potential to pose security issues and they felt "under siege" over Brexit, legacy and political issues.

He added that despite the 1994 ceasefires loyalist organisations had maintained their paramilitary structures and been able to replenish their ranks.

Dr Edwards said those paramilitaries continued to control the areas in which they exist with many being involved in criminality.

He said that the organisational skills and potential existed for there to be opposition to the PM's Brexit deal on a similar level to the flag protests.

"The Chief Constable will have access to all sorts of intelligence reports," he said.

Dr Edwards said that the loyalist community's community's perception of being marginalised needed to be addressed across a range of issues in order to ease their concerns.

"The peace process was supposed to be inclusive and many people in the Protestant community don't feel they have benefited," Dr Edwards said.

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