Loyalist threats raise worries about post-Brexit stability in Northern Ireland
By: Ruben Pfeijffer
In early March, Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups sent a threatening letter to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Michaél Martin. In this letter, the loyalist groups stated that they would withdraw their support for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, unless the customs border between the UK and Northern Ireland is lifted. The Good Friday Agreement, which formally ended the Troubles and ushered in a new era of peaceful cohabitation and cooperation between republicans and loyalists, has been under increasing pressure since Brexit.
The Northern Ireland Protocol
The primary source of the current discontent among loyalist groups is the so called ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’ that is part of the Brexit Arrangements between the UK and the EU. The protocol, which went into effect this year, was one of the most heavily debated topics during the Brexit negotiations. Reaching an agreement that was sufficiently satisfying for all involved parties proved to be an enormous challenge.
The Northern Ireland protocol was conceived in order to safeguard the terms of the Good Friday Agreement by avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern-Ireland, while preventing the UK from having a backdoor into the EU internal market by establishing a customs border between the UK and Northern Ireland. Loyalist groups are upset with this arrangement as they claim it cuts them off from their desired union with the UK, and moves them closer to reunification with Ireland.
Republicans on the other hand are relatively satisfied with the Northern Ireland protocol. The arrangement ensures - in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement - the absence of a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, keeping the existing all-island economy intact and safeguarding the rights of Northern Irish citizens with an Irish passport.
This apparent disparity in satisfaction with the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol has caused a noticeable increase in unrest among loyalist groups over the last few months, culminating in the threatening letter sent to Boris Johnson and Michaél Martin by the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC). The LCC is a legal umbrella organisation that represents the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commandos.
Although the LCC has pledged that opposition against the Northern Ireland protocol will remain peaceful and democratic for the time being, they have also warned that they would permanently withdraw from the Good Friday Agreement if the protocol were not repealed or amended according to their terms.
EU and UK response
Despite the recent threats by the LCC, it is unlikely that the EU is willing to change its stance on the Northern Ireland protocol. On the contrary, they are doubling down on the enforcement of the agreed regulations. On the 15 March, the EU announced that they would launch legal procedures against the UK for breaking international law by circumventing parts of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Back in January, the EU allowed the UK a three month ‘grace period’ in order to give affected industries the opportunity to adapt to the new customs border between the UK and Northern Ireland. However, the UK has decided to unilaterally extend the grace period beyond the agreed period of time, a move which is in clear violation of international law. By extending the grace period, the UK and Northern Ireland avoid certain bureaucratic requirements of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The UK’s decision to unilaterally extend the grace period was certainly welcomed by unionist/loyalist parties in Northern Ireland, as the absence of most border checks means they remain in relative union with the UK despite the Brexit. However, the UK’s move was met with strong disapproval from republican parties, Ireland and the EU.
America as potential mediator
Recently, the US has decided to become more involved in the ongoing EU-UK dispute. Home to almost 32 million people of Irish decent, the US has historically often shown interest in (Northern) Irish affairs. In 1998, it was a US senator that chaired over the historical Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles. Being of Irish decent himself, US president Joe Biden lately seems to have taken a stronger stance on the Northern Ireland protocols.
During a virtual meeting with Irish Prime Minister Michaél Martin on St. Patrick’s day, president Biden expressed his strong support for the Northern Ireland protocols, as he claimed the protocols are integral to preserving peace and stability in Northern Ireland. However, US officials have also stated that they are currently unwilling to pick a side in the EU-UK dispute. Instead, they call upon all involved parties to sit down at the negotiating table and discuss the re-implementation of the protocols.
Is the unrest here to stay?
Even if the EU and UK are able to resolve their dispute on their own and move towards full implementation of the Northern Ireland protocols, the issue of the LCC will persist. The UK’s circumvention of the bureaucratic requirements of the protocol has so far alleviated unrest among loyalist groups to a certain extent. However, since this move violates international protocols, the British will have no choice but ending the extended grace period in the near future or face possible EU sanctions.
Regarding the LCC’s threats, the organisation claims that they will protest against the Northern Ireland protocols peacefully and democratically. Since the horrors of the Troubles are still fresh in the memories of the majority of the Northern Irish population, it is indeed unlikely that a relapse into violence is seen as a preferable solution to the current dispute.
Regardless, in recent weeks posters and graffiti with texts like: “Our forefathers fought for our freedoms and rights, no border in the sea or we continue the fight” have been spotted around the country8. While a return to full conflict remains highly unlikely for now, the threat of potential small-scale incidents should be taken seriously. After all, there is also a younger generation of loyalists that has no personal memory of the Troubles.
Despite the fact that Brexit negotiators from the EU and UK considered the Northern Ireland protocols as the best possible compromise, it has become increasingly clear that loyalist groups in Northern Ireland will not accept a customs border within the UK under the current terms. Unless their concerns can be addressed and alleviated, it would seem that the current social unrest in Northern Ireland is here to stay for the time being.
This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.
For source references, please download the PDF version.
About the Author:
Ruben Pfeijffer is a graduated anthropologist who currently follows the MA program Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. While working on his bachelor thesis in the Netherlands during the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, Ruben gained experience with conducting ethnographic research under the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, and has learned to be adaptable with his research methods.