The DUP has “given cover” to the ongoing crimes of the loyalist paramilitary UVF and UDA after a high-level meeting took place between the party and representatives of the two organisations.
This week, the DUP Leader Arlene Foster, DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds, and MP Gavin Robinson met with representatives the loyalist paramilitary groups to discuss opposition to the Brexit protocol on Ireland.
Despite supporting Brexit, hardline unionists are angered and opposed to new Brexit port checks in the north of Ireland, believing they have driven an economic divide between the north of Ireland and Britain.
The loyalist contingent in the meeting is reported to have included UVF representative Winston Irvine, UDA figure Jackie McDonald and Jim Wilson from the UVF-linked ‘Red Hand Commando’.
Although there have been no public protests, unionist politicians have continued to talk up the potential for loyalist violence, most recently by former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who declared last weekend he felt “personally betrayed” by Brexit.
Tensions have increased across the north, and two men were shot and seriously injured this week by UDA gangs in Belfast and Ballymoney, County Antrim, both as a result of internal feuds.
There were bomb alerts in Belfast on Monday and Tuesday when a suspicious object was found at a city council location in the city centre, followed by claims of devices being thrown at a Sinn Féin office in west Belfast and an SDLP office in north Belfast, although nothing untoward was found.
Most observers have said serious loyalist violence is unlikely, but that a campaign of intimidation, which began earlier this month with graffiti threats and a UVF ‘show of strength’ in east Belfast, could continue.
A statement issued by the DUP in the aftermath of their meeting with the UVF and UDA controversially made no mention of the use of violence or threats, but spoke of a “constructive and useful” meeting about opposing the protocol.
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane denounced that statement which he said had “given cover” to the UDA and UVF. He described them as “armed gangs who are involved in serious crimes including murder and extortion” who had recently been making threats of violence.
“The DUP should instead be making it clear to the UVF and UDA that they have no place in society or in our communities,” he wrote.
Aontú Deputy Leader Denise Mullen said unionist politicians are seeking to drum up tension and fears to achieve their own political ends.
“The DUP must abandon their courtship of paramilitary violence and their ‘at all costs’ opposition to the Protocol negotiated to facilitate their Brexit,” she said. “This is not how democratic parties should act.”
The DUP was also accused by Alliance Party leader Naomi Long of legitimising “malignant forces”.
“Proscribed [outlawed] terrorist organisations are not a legitimate part of our community. Our job as ministers is to eradicate paramilitarism, not give them a platform or legitimacy.”
According to the Sunday Independent, a senior member of the UDA claimed last weekend that if politics does not solve the row over the Brexit deal, loyalists could hold a protest on the streets of Dublin, when Covid-19 restrictions are eased. He claimed the unionist identity was being removed.
“At the end of the day, we’ve had conflict here. What do you do when your identity has been taken away? Do you know what you do? You return back to type,” the source said.
In a statement on Wednesday night following what she said was a “disappointing” meeting with EU officials, Arlene Foster said it was now time for the British government to “act unilaterally” and argued that disruption to trade “should not be tolerated” within the British jurisdiction.
However, the British government has not yet shown that it intends to yield to the pressure to renege on its Brexit deal.
In a parliamentary debate among Westminster MPs, taking place after the DUP successively raised a petition to hold one, British Direct Rule Minister Robin Walker insisted that the protocol problems could be resolved by its “sensible implementation”, a message which has been echoed in Brussels.
But on Friday evening, the DUP again moved to advance a strategy of disruption when its Minister for Agriculture ordered a halt to the construction at seaports of food import inspection posts. The Minister, Gordon Lyons, also called a halt on the recruitment of inspection staff.
While the legality of his move is in question, Sinn Féin deputy first Minister Michelle O’Neill branded it as another DUP “stunt”.
“The protocol is a consequence of Brexit,” she wrote. “The DUP championed Brexit and must own the consequences. Business and society need certainty, not stunts.”