A group of loyalist paramilitary representatives have held a meeting with British officials to demand an end to the Irish Protocol of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, raising questions over London’s attitude to loyalist paramilitary violence.
The delegation from the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – an umbrella organisation for the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando – included prominent loyalists Winston Irvine, Jimmy Birch, Robert Williamson and David Campbell.
They warned of “anger on the streets”, a point reinforced by the PSNI who spoke of “growing discontent” among loyalists.
“There is a lot of fear that our identity is being diluted. There are concerns about empty supermarket shelves and lorries queued at ferry ports,” Williamson said.
While there was no comment from Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party criticised the meeting and said the British government officials were “giving credibility to organisations that should have long since exited the stage”.
A hoax bomb alert on Thursday evening at the constituency office of Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has been blamed on loyalists. Ms Long said the PSNI “have enough to do right now without dealing with bomb hoaxes at our office over Brexit. Whoever was behind the nonsense today needs to wise up.”
The organisations have no claim to be on ceasefire, and the UDA in particular is engaged in increasing numbers of sectarian attacks and gangland-style murders over the years. So there was a cynical response when UVF representative Billy Hutchinson warned loyalist support for the Good Friday Agreement could be withdrawn.
South Belfast SDLP MP Claire Hanna said Lewis “needs to urgently explain why these gangs, which continue to cause pain and misery in communities across Northern Ireland, are being hosted by his department while he continues to turn a blind eye to requests from executive ministers to discuss a pension for victims of the troubles – it is a perverse sense of priority”.
Further trade disruption could lie ahead when a grace period ends at the end of March potentially causing delays in supplies of processed goods with meat-derived ingredients, such as jelly and gravy.
And there was an orchestrated furore on Friday following British news reports, later debunked, that EU officials were attempting to override the Protocol to “block” Covid-19 vaccine from entering the north of Ireland as part of a row with London over vaccine contracts.
The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson had already been claiming the Dublin government was orchestrating the Protocol element to isolate the north from Britain. The MP said it was partially motivated by a desire to “see an increased separation between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
However, a Dublin government official dismissed Donaldson’s claim, describing it was “nonsense and a distractionary tactic”.
Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard accused the DUP of “factual gymnastics” and said the party had “spurned the opportunity to work in partnership with others” to limit the impact of Brexit.
“As a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government sought to work with all across this island and in Europe to help protect our peace process, our all-Ireland economy and limit the harm of Brexit wherever possible,” he said.
“The DUP had the opportunity to engage in that process with Sinn Féin and others – they instead chose Boris Johnson and the Tories.”