People are being urged to remain calm in the face of attempts by unionists and loyalists to force a reversal of Brexit’s Irish Protocol, which they say has created a border down the Irish Sea and could lead to increasing economic unity on the island of Ireland.
Hardliners including TUV leader Jim Allister, loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson and several DUP MPs have expressed outrage at new checks on trade at ports in Belfast and Larne.
The checks became necessary following the withdrawal of Britain from the EU Single Market as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Although the changes have helped to avert a remilitarisation of the land border through Ireland, the increased paperwork has been blamed for delays to haulage imports from Britain.
Graffiti threats which emerged in recent days lead to the withdrawal of some workers from the Port of Larne last night, and this afternoon a large gang of masked loyalists were seen walking through east Belfast in the company of the PSNI police.
Dozens of men were accompanied by the PSNI through the Pitt Park area, just off the Newtownards Road, although their intent wasn’t clear. Sinn Féin MP Paul Maskey said the incident should be “thoroughly investigated”.
“It is deeply concerning to see footage circulating this afternoon appearing to show a group of over 40 men patrolling the streets of East Belfast,” he said.
“This gathering is sinister and looks to be an attempt to exert control over the community of East Belfast. The PSNI, who attended the scene, must thoroughly investigate this afternoons incident and ensure that criminal gangs are held accountable for their actions.
“This also comes at a time when the emergency services are already under great strain because of the pandemic. We need to see calm heads and responsible leadership at this time and not attempts to raise tensions.”
The scene was condemned by the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party, and it remains unknown to what extent loyalist paramilitary groups were involved in the display.
The source of the graffiti threats also remains unknown, and the PSNI have said they do not believe paramiltaries were involved. The messages included the warning that all border workers are “targets” alongside a crosshairs symbol, as well as criticism of the Protocol, Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement.
A number of graffiti messages have also been directed against offices of the Alliance Party in an apparently political move to blame the moderate unionists for the Brexit outcome.
The DUP Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots blamed an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour” for his “significant” decision last night to withdraw departmental workers who were carrying out agrifood health checks at the two ports.
He later announced that he was stepping down from his post for health reasons, but added that that his decision had the support of the DUP leader Arlene Foster.
TUV leader Jim Allister, who like most unionist hardliners fervently supported Brexit, has described the outcome of Brexit as a betrayal and the result of a republican plot.
He warned of the “evil genius” of the protocol: “disrupting our supply chains from GB will force ever-increasing supply chain dependence on the Republic, and, thereby, the all-island economy becomes a reality,” he said.
In a further attempt to heighten the row, the DUP said tonight it would not participate in any north/south political engagement on issues related to the Protocol.
It said it would strive for a “united unionist” push to scrap the arrangements, build support for an anti-protocol position at Westminster and launch a petition with the goal of forcing a debate on the issue.
Explaining his party’s stance, the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson provoked bemusement tonight when he said it was “not acceptable” to have a “border right down the middle of a country”.
“We want Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market restored,” he said.
“I think that’s fairly basic and simple. I wish someone could show me any other example in the world where you have this kind of border right down the middle of a country, an internal border within a country that separates one part of the country from the other. And that simply is not acceptable.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that any threats must be lifted immediately and she condemned the DUP’s agenda to wreck the Protocol.
“The position adopted by the DUP is reckless and is not driven by the best interests of the people of the north. I urge them to pull back,” she said.
“Now is the time for calm leadership and solutions to deal with the disruption which has arisen as a result of Brexit.”