Community propaganda is “rife” around the Northern Ireland Protocol, a Belfast community worker has warned.
Eileen Weir, a veteran community worker at the heart of the loyalist Shankill area of Belfast, said the post-Brexit mechanism “needs (to be) fixed” but emphasised that many are “only hearing the negative”.
Ms Weir was among six women who gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Unionist parties have expressed their opposition to the Protocol over checks on goods arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, slamming the situation as a border down the Irish Sea.
Demonstrations have been taking place across Northern Ireland against the Protocol and legal challenges have also been taken.
As part of the committee’s NI Protocol Inquiry, MPs in May heard from the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), that the Protocol could lead to violence.
Ms Weir said of all those she speaks to, none say that the LCC spoke on their behalf, and emphasised there are many different points of view among loyalists.
She spoke of concern that “community propaganda is rife”.
“The Protocol needs (to be) fixed, it’s not good in parts of it but we’re only hearing the negative and we’re not hearing the positive and our communities need to have some positive language coming out, we can’t keep being doom and gloom, we need to have that positive message that comes along with it – and continue working on the bits that aren’t working,” she said.
“I’m not saying forget about it, I’m saying fix it but just don’t dwell on the hardship of it, let’s dwell on some of the good parts of it because a lot of businesses are thriving here within Northern Ireland because people can’t get their supplies in from Great Britain.”
Ms Weir said fear in the loyalist community started in 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union flag only on statutory days instead of all year round, and an unfounded fear around Irish language legislation for some that their Britishness is being taken away from them.
“We need to be smart … not giving another community the feeling they they’re the winners and the other ones are the losers, we need to come away from that type of politics,” she said.
Kate Clifford, director of the Rural Community Network, said there was a “perfect storm” – coming out of the coronavirus pandemic – with paramilitarism on the rise, the threat of a return to violence, along with patriarchy, poverty, political instability, posturing, parades and propaganda.
“We have political posturing. I think we have an imbalance in Northern Ireland in terms of our political agendas at present and I think there is a lot of posturing about the whole talk of a united Ireland at the moment which is unhelpful in the current circumstances where there is already instability and insecurity,” she said.
“There is a talk about winners and losers. I think there is very, very difficult dialogue coming from our political classes, when we have a Secretary of State who stands up and says he is willing to break international law and we as peacemakers are trying to promote lawfulness within communities for whom lawlessness has been a rule of thumb. I think it is really unhelpful and people are afraid to stand up and say that’s not how it is for me or that’s not how it is for our community.
“The difficulty for us is when the language of Parliament and the language of governments is one of brinkmanship, posturing and almost testosterone-driven, that that then plays out in our communities who are uncertain and unsure, and whose default mechanism very often is a return to the known, which is the status quo, which is violence.
People are not saying to us that they oppose the Protocol, what they are saying at worst is that they don't understand the ProtocolElaine Crory, Women’s Resource and Development Centre
“We have to be careful. My plea to everybody is that while it makes great headlines to talk about the Great British banger and all of that, the reality is that there are lives at stake on the ground in Northern Ireland.”
Elaine Crory, from the Women’s Resource and Development Centre, added: “People are not saying to us that they oppose the Protocol, what they are saying at worst is that they don’t understand the Protocol.
“We’re not implying in any way these these people are lacking in intelligence … it (Protocol) is being propagandised, people are claiming it is all kinds of things and it is in fact not.
“When you hold a microphone out and you point it directly at people who oppose it for all sorts of reasons, which is their right, but you only hold it in that direction, you get the impression that everyone opposes it when in fact they don’t.”
There were violent scenes earlier this year at the Lanark Way peace line gate which were blamed on anger at the Protocol as well as a lack of prosecutions over alleged breaches of social distancing at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey.
Ms Crory said the scenes of unrest were “not organic”.
“It was whipped up and designed and it was largely directed by people we refer to as paramilitaries,” she said.
Rachel Powell, also from the Women’s Resource and Development Centre, told MPs that the unrest was “outright manipulation of working-class communities”.
She said she was concerned about future unrest, but emphasised it is not representative of the majority, but a “small group of people who are manipulating these groups”.
She said that a recent survey of women across Northern Ireland indicated there was more concern about the impact of Brexit on human rights than the Protocol.
“The main theme that we got from women when we asked them about their thoughts on Brexit was around socioeconomic rights and how there are major threats to these but that this has been lost in the discourse around the Northern Ireland Protocol,” she said, adding many women do not have faith in the UK Government or the Stormont Assembly to match any future measures brought in by the EU,” she said.