Bryson has access republicans would never be granted
Bryson has access republicans would never be granted


Jamie Bryson’s journey into the heart of the British political establishment is staggering. The man who led the loyalist flag protests, and who raged against the protocol on top of a blue bin, was mingling with Westminster VIPs on Tuesday.

He argued constitutional law with former lord chancellor Sir Robert Buckland at a parliamentary committee meeting.

He enjoyed lunch in the members’ dining room with Northern Ireland Affairs Committee chair Simon Hoare and had an hour-long meeting with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

That was followed by a 90-minute tete-a-tete with former home secretary Priti Patel in her private office.

Bryson tweeted a photograph of himself and Patel beaming from ear-to-ear after their meeting: “Great catching up with @pritipatel this afternoon,” he wrote.

“A true champion for the Union and restoring the constitutional economic rights of Northern Ireland.

“We will continue to work together seeking to undo the harm caused by the Windsor Framework.”

Just imagine the outrage there’d be if non-mainstream republicans had the same access to those who wield political power in London or Dublin.

It’s not difficult to visualise the fury if MPs and former cabinet ministers were meeting and greeting his republican equivalent.

Being invited to give evidence before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was a big coup for Bryson.

He wasn’t a fan of Simon Hoare in the past. The loyalist ridiculed the Tory MP’s “posh voice” and the way he stroked “his chin, trying to set a serious tone (while) pontificating on Northern Ireland”.

Bryson presented Hoare as an EU puppet and a Sinn Fein supporter who was loathed by unionists.

But, when he met Hoare at Queen’s University conference to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April, everything changed. They shook hands, went for coffee, and had a “heart-to-heart”.

Hoare came back to Northern Ireland for secret talks with UDA and UVF leaders in June, focused on “transitioning” them from crime and exploring what would be necessary to move them on the Windsor Framework.

Bryson was on Hoare’s turf yesterday when he gave evidence to his committee on the effect of paramilitary activity and organised crime on society.

Some of what he said was intended to warn the DUP of what could happen if it accepts a deal that falls short of ending the Irish Sea border.

There has been a hardening of opinion within loyalism, with many young people looking at “non-political solutions”, he said.

The process of transitioning paramilitary groups had halted over concerns about post-Brexit trading arrangements, he claimed.

“Senior leaders in the paramilitary organisations told me that young lads were beating their doors down, wanting to join the organisations to fight against the Irish Sea border,” he said.

UDA and UVF leaders “need to be able to say to their members, ‘The Union is safe’. They can’t do that while the protocol and framework remain.”

Bryson said “the valve” for loyalist anger was “the political action” taken by the DUP in bringing down the Stormont Assembly.

If there wasn’t progress on the Windsor Framework, things could go backwards, “with a new generation of young loyalists taking a course which I don’t think they ought to take”.

Quizzed by Hoare on his relationship with paramilitaries, Bryson said there was “no place in Northern Ireland for terrorism or violence” and all protests must be “peaceful and lawful”.

Earlier this month, it appeared his bromance with the DUP leader had cooled. In a letter to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the loyalist warned of mass street protests and electoral campaigning against “collaborators” if the DUP returned to Stormont without the protocol being binned.

Donaldson responded that he wouldn’t bow to “pressure, threats or blackmail”, and “anyone who thinks they can exert influence on policy or intimidate our party by making such threats is sadly mistaken”.

Yesterday, it was as if that spat had never happened. Indeed, it was a love-in between Bryson and DUP committee members Carla Lockhart and Jim Shannon.

The SDLP’s Claire Hanna and Alliance’s Stephen Farry stayed away from the hearing.

Lockhart said it was “disappointing the voice of loyalism hasn’t warranted attendance by some — that will not be lost on people back in Northern Ireland”.

The exchanges between the Upper Bann MP and the loyalist couldn’t have been warmer.

At times, formalities were briefly abandoned. It was “Jamie or Mr Bryson” from her, and “Carla or Ms Lockhart” from him.

Indeed, the DUP MP hit out at what she saw as the “hostility” towards the loyalist by some at the meeting, saying: “The barrage of questioning and re-questioning, I believe it has been like a character assassination”.

Lockhart said that Bryson had been subjected to attempts to silence him “within the media and the public square”.

He reassured her that he had no plans to disappear: “I’m not going away. I’m going to keep articulating my message.

“I’m going to keep appearing on the Nolan Show. I’m not going to be bullied or intimidated.”

Certain people were unhappy that a working-class loyalist was giving evidence to a parliamentary committee “in a suit”.

“I should be sitting here in a Rangers top and baseball cap with UVF and UDA tattoos and ‘love’ and ‘hate’ on my knuckles,” he said.

If the republican equivalent of Bryson were suited and booted, with not a Celtic shirt in sight, would they receive the same welcome as he did in the corridors of power?

You can bet your bottom dollar that they wouldn’t.

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