The leaders of a number of loyalist paramilitary factions have held talks to discuss how to force the British government into a u-turn over a draft Brexit deal agreed this month between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the European Union.
Loyalists have said they are angered by reports of new regulations they describe as an “economic border” between Britain and Ireland.
At a high-profile meeting at the Constitution Club in east Belfast, members of various UDA and UVF factions, some of whom still claim to be maintaining a ceasefire, discussed “measures” to defeat the plans.
The latest Brexit Withdrawal Plan negotiated by the London government calls for the island of Ireland to be treated as a single unit for the purpose of agriculture, health and safety regulations. Although it will remain in the British customs zone, an arrangement will allow British officials to process EU customs charges in the north of Ireland.
The package has been described by unionists as a “border in the sea” between Ireland and Britain. Loyalist militants have depicted the proposals as a “betrayal” and a “surrender” to the “IRA-EU” which puts Ireland “in the waiting room” for reunification.
The plan has also concerned nationalists in that it drops the previously negotiated ‘backstop’, intended to prevent a remilitarisation of the British border through Ireland. But the new proposals appear to have killed off the unionist dream of a totally divided island, by avoiding the need for new checks in the border area.
Loyalists have said that the “threat to the Union is of an economic united Ireland, not a political one”.
Senior Belfast UDA and UVF leaders attended the meeting to discuss their response, which reportedly includes disturbances in the manner of the 2012/2013 flags protests.
Prominent figures from the hard-line South East Antrim UDA and North Down UDA were in attendance, despite tensions over a simmering feud within that organisation. Members of the Mid Ulster UVF along with members of the Red Hand Commando were also in the room, as well as a number of unionist politicians, prominent Orangemen and former British soldiers.
Blogger Jamie Bryson has warned of loyalists “taking to the streets”. He called for unionist politicians to help generate more “fuel” for loyalist anger and stop pouring “cold water” on the idea.
“The energy galvanising grassroots unionism and loyalism is lighting a fire of resistance to the Betrayal Act [Brexit Agreement],” he said. “That doesn’t need cold water, it needs more fuel.”
Bryson has claimed there will be “mass resistance” and that “there are people who feel that republicans have been rewarded because of their threat of violence”.
A spokesman for the DUP defended their involvement in the meeting, saying “the party engages with a range of stakeholders”.
The party issued a similar statement earlier this month, when it secretly met with senior unionist paramilitary figures in advance of a key parliamentary vote at Westminster.
Sinn Féin described the coming together of unionist politicians and paramilitaries as a “worrying development”.
“I believe that (meeting) needs to be condemned by political unionism,” said Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill.
“I don’t think it is a tolerable situation to say that the UDA and UVF were in a meeting in Belfast last night discussing how they are going to respond to Brexit - I think the most mature thing to do is for political leaders to be political leaders, for people to plan for the future.”
The loyalist ‘anger’ comes despite an attempt by the 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to reach out to unionists in the aftermath of the negotiation of the Brexit deal.
In a radio discussion this week, he said he wanted to see a united Ireland, but only with the consent of a majority of people in the north of Ireland.
“Nobody should be forced into anything they don’t want,” he said. “And also, I think, if we ever get to that point, we need to make sure that unionists in Northern Ireland and British people in Northern Ireland feel that a united Ireland is a warm place for them.
“We don’t want to have a repeat of what happened 100 years ago when a minority were left behind.”
But Arlene Foster blamed Varadkar for the loyalist threats of violence, claiming he had “set a precedent” by warning of the dangers posed to the peace process by a hard border.
“When Leo Varadkar talked about the possibility of dissident violence along the Border, if there were any Border infrastructure, I thought that was wrong. I said so at the time. Because you can’t use the threat of violence to achieve something.”
In response, a spokesman for the Taoiseach said “protecting peace” on the island of Ireland has been “and always will be” the Irish government’s overriding objective.
Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew blamed the DUP for the new militancy among loyalists following their meetings with paramilitary figures. Pointing to a new UVF mural in Moygashel which vowed a response to “defend our shores”, she asked DUP leader Arlene Foster in a tweet: “Are you prepared for the consequences of your actions?”
She spoke out after a loyalist ‘bonfire group’ in the County Tyrone town said it “will fully support direct action” taken by loyalist leaders in response to the British government’s Brexit proposals.
Local Aontú councillor Denise Mullen, whose father was shot dead by the UVF in 1975, said she was shocked by the developments. She said that “at the end of the day that is very fearful for nationalists – statements like that. We are supposed to be living in a peaceful democracy.”