Scores of masked paramilitaries took part in illegal loyalist parades this week ahead of a key Brexit deadline for EU safety checks on goods traded from Britain into the north of Ireland.
Protests in Portadown, County Armagh last Saturday and on the Shankill Road in west Belfast on Thursday are the latest loyalist demonstrations against the Irish Protocol of Brexit following similar gatherings in County Antrim.
One of the speakers in Portadown said those in attendance should “be prepared at short notice to be called on to resist the Protocol”. Paramilitary flags were carried by men wearing balaclavas.
On the Shankill, a stream of invective was broadcast over a PA system as a large Sinn Féin banner, or a copy of one, was burned against the interface peace-line. The banner was described as having been “liberated” from Sinn Féin by “vigilant loyalists”. Some loyalists held sinister banners targeting US President Joe Biden.
Those present were told the new port checks were “the single greatest threat to Northern Ireland’s sovereignty and status within the United Kingdom”.
A delay in the implementation of the checks on processed meats at the ports, as required under the Protocol, has led to warnings of a potential trade war between Britain and the EU.
Unionists want to reverse the British government’s negotiation of the Protocol, which has frustrated their goal of a hard border through Ireland.
The attendance at both parades was estimated in the hundreds, including those who turned out “to observe”. In Portadown, that included new UUP leader Doug Beattie and DUP MP Carla Lockhart.
Among those who marched was a small child in a balaclava, as well as a number carrying illegal paramilitary flags.
“Across the towns and villages of Ulster and beyond, people are mobilising in a way unseen in a generation to resist this Protocol and to provide a united voice from within the unionist and loyalist community”, those present were told. “They have had enough.”
Sinn Féin Assembly member John O’Dowd called on the PSNI police to investigate the illegal parades, which violated legislation on parades and flags as well as Covid-19 regulations. The PSNI were present but took no action.
“While everyone has a right to peaceful protest there is an onus on everyone to act within the law,” Mr O’Dowd said.
Efforts to ratchet up a ‘hot loyalist summer’ have also seen loyalist flags provocatively erected in nationalist areas of Glengormley in north Belfast, while mixed areas of Lisburn have been daubed with red, white, and blue paint.
Despite his party previously supporting it, the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party has said he wants to scrap the protocol entirely. After holding talks with loyalist paramilitary representatives this week, Edwin Poots said the time for talking is over and called for action “to make Northern Ireland work”.
Meanwhile, the Tories have been using the increased tensions in the North to pressure Brussels and Dublin into conceding to their trade demands. They have been making false claims that the protocol was imposed on Britain by the EU, while British ministers themselves have encouraged the bogus idea that the Protocol led to food shortages in the north of Ireland.
Part of the British strategy has been to refuse to introduce the necessary health checks at the ports in the north of Ireland. This is intended to force checks to be implemented elsewhere, either at the ‘sea border’ between Ireland to the EU, or ultimately on the line of partition through the island.
Now there are concerns that British state agencies may be covertly helping to encourage violence to trigger a full default on the Protocol. Loyalists at the Portadown march claimed that “men with big cars” have been promising money to buy weapons.
Sinn Féin’s Paul Maskey said political leaders needed to condemn the intimidation in Portadown and west Belfast.
“Hooded men on our streets or calls to provoke instability have no place in our society and those in positions of leadership need to make that clear,” he said.