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"A Deep Psychological Blow to Unionism": The NI Protocol, Loyalist Anger and Class.

by Conor McFall
April 19, 2021

How does the relationship between unionism and Brexit, recent policing scandals and the post-Troubles economy help understand the recent riots? 4394 words / 17 min read

In the wake of an upsurge in street agitation from loyalists in Belfast, a slew of analysis has been unleashed that has attempted to grapple with its causes as well as the wider context of loyalist anger. While some of this has been rather thoughtful, much of it has missed the mark in understanding the range of dynamics at play. When such incidents take place here, there next comes a gush of pleading from NI commentators and social media posters for the British media to pay it proper attention. However, when said coverage arrives it leaves most unsatisfied. In this case, British centrists such as Ian Dunt sought to subsume the events in Belfast and Carrickfergus into their ongoing psychodrama over Brexit and the wider destruction of British liberalism. An image of the infamous Vote Leave Bus contrasted with the burned out Translink double decker on the Springfield Road was shared around online to signify that this was the direct result of Brexit. The response to this from some was an understandable sigh of disdain that primarily London-based commentators were making what were for many people quite frightening incidents all about them. However, this response involved something of an overcorrection that asserted that Brexit in fact had nothing to do with what has been happening. This is not the case. The implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which establishes a customs border in the Irish Sea, has been a deep psychological blow to unionism. This article will seek to place the riots of last week into their wider political and historical context examining a range of key factors. This includes an examination of the relationship between unionism, Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol, a look at the state of policing in the region following a year of scandals for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and a revisiting of some of my previous work on the economic picture in post-Troubles Belfast.

Unionism

The recent wave of riots reached their apex on 8th April with the burning out of a bus by loyalists in West Belfast followed by clashes over a peace wall separating loyalist and nationalist districts. Prior to this, there had been a number of other incidents including the hijacking and burning out of two cars near Rathcoole estate and clashes between the police and young people in Sandy Row. Many expressed understandable horror at these scenes, especially due to the age of some of those involved. But as the dust cleared, much of the commentary from the bourgeois centre, such as those affiliated with the Alliance Party, tritely maligned ‘politicians on both sides’ for stoking sectarian tensions. Similar sentiments were expressed by some socialists, who reiterated the need to create a ‘cross-community, non-sectarian working-class movement.’ As if such a thing could be conjured with the click of the fingers. While this is a worthy ambition, such sentiments have become cliché and a ‘both sides’ analysis does not really illuminate the reality of what occurred.

This new wave of street agitation was the just the latest in a mounting campaign of escalating tension from unionism, particularly in response to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which established a customs border in the Irish Sea. Unionist politicians have expressed horror at this development, which is a consequence of the government’s Brexit deal. Ever since the protocol came into effect, there has been a series of incidents and threats that have been given maximum coverage in the compliant local press. Checks on livestock and other goods at the new customs posts in Belfast and Larne were briefly suspended in early February following anonymous threats made against workers at the sites. It has been reported that at least one port worker in Larne has been rehomed following threats on his life. The protocol, part of a Brexit deal which First Minister Arlene Foster had previously described as a “gateway of opportunity”, was clearly unpopular with unionist voters. A poll by Lucid Talk had shown Foster’s DUP falling to second place behind Sinn Fein in the next Stormont election in 2022 with the even more hardline TUV surging from one MLA at present to 10.1 Signage protesting against the protocol frequently adorned lampposts around loyalist estates and a grouping called the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), made up of representatives from various paramilitaries, met with both the DUP and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to voice their displeasure. The LCC then released a statement withdrawing its support for the Good Friday Agreement.

While the PSNI have claimed that there is no evidence of paramilitary involvement in both the latest riots and the intimidation of customs workers, it is clear that there has been a concerted effort from unionism as a whole to exacerbate tension over the protocol and just this week there have been renewed calls on Boris Johnson to seek a revision of the terms of the arrangement. Whether one believes it was deliberately orchestrated as such or not, last week’s unrest is being used as a political tool by opponents of the protocol.

But what is often ignored in all of this is the position of seeming strength that the DUP was in prior to the 2019 General Election – a strength that given what had happened in previous years was quite surprising. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to join in the parade of British nationalism, the DUP supported the victorious Vote Leave campaign in 2016.2 Following a humiliating decline in the 2017 Stormont election and the collapse of the assembly in the midst of a financial scandal implicating Foster, the DUP were able to turn their fortunes around essentially by fluke of circumstance, as the hung parliament after the 2017 Westminster election saw them enter a confidence and supply deal to keep Theresa May’s Conservatives in power. This placed Foster and her 10 MPs at the heart of the Brexit process, where they quickly aligned with hardline Eurosceptics of the ERG in support of a hard Brexit. What was the motivation for this? A hard Brexit that brought the entire UK out of the customs union and single market would have necessitated hard enforcement of the border on the island of Ireland. The regulatory divergence emerging from this would see both parts of the island drift further apart and make establishing a united Ireland impossibly difficult. Instead, the opposite has happened. It is worth remembering that the DUP voted against any compromise Brexit solutions that may have negated the border issue. Like a distorted mirror-image of the ‘People’s Vote’ zealots of the British centre, Foster chose to go all-in with a hand that was much weaker than she realised.

Like a distorted mirror-image of the ‘People’s Vote’ zealots of the British centre, Arlene Foster chose to go all-in with a hand that was much weaker than she realised.

It is also important to note that no alternative solutions to the protocol have been put forward by unionists or their Brexit allies. Before the deal was made, Foster and other DUP representatives talked up the possibility of ‘technology border’ in Ireland, except the ‘technology’ suggested was mythical and would have done nothing to deal with regulatory inspections. The fundamental dishonesty of the unionist position rests on the unsaid reality that they sought to impose a hard border on the island in order to diminish nationalists in the North and have instead found that the reverse has happened. And with a Conservative majority in parliament rendering the DUP’s former position of influence obsolete, unionism turns back to the old playbook in order to agitate against the protocol. However, this is deep into a spiral of diminishing returns. The Ulster Workers Council mobilisations of 1973 managed to bring Northern Ireland to a standstill and destroy the Sunningdale power sharing agreement, the opposition to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement brought 100,000 protesters onto the streets of Belfast, but by 2012 the flag protests at Belfast City Hall at best disrupted Christmas retail for around a week and this recent flare-up has resulted in the destruction of three vehicles.

This is not to say that the occurrences this year do not set us on a worrying trajectory. The mainstream unionist parties of the DUP and UUP do as they always have done – agitate for unrest amongst their loyalist base and then wash their hands of the young people engaged in violence once it inevitably occurs. And although this latest upsurge seems to have lost momentum, there are discussions of a new loyalist formation emerging and threats that ‘much worse is coming.’ The class dynamic between the unionist parties and loyalism is important here. The DUP draws its voter base from a cross-class alliance made up of rural business interests, evangelical churches, the conservative protestant bourgeois who envisions themselves as akin to Middle England and from working class loyalism usually found in inner-city estates. Organisationally, the DUP is dominated by the rural middle class (known colloquially as ‘Big House Unionism’) and the evangelicals while the Ulster Unionists are at this point a sad retirement home for ex-military mediocrities. The paramilitaries thus assert themselves as the representatives of loyalist working class communities. The relationship between these groups and the established parties oscillates: the DUP will meet with paramilitaries, particularly in times of crisis, and will even include them unofficially in their election campaigning. This suggests that there is an awareness within the party that they must keep a temperature check on the loyalist base, knowing that they do not necessarily have an organic connection in these areas. There are also informal links between senior members of the party and key paramilitary figures through membership of the Orange Order. They will distance themselves from paramilitaries when politically necessary but there is an understanding that they must be kept onside in order to manage unionism as a whole. Although some factions of these organisations have sought to distance themselves from the riots, there has undoubtedly been an uptick in activity which has included a threat to expel Catholics from an estate in Carrickfergus.

These groups have both an overt and a covert connection to the state. The overt part of this is the funding of ‘community representatives’ and other such initiatives through peace funding, essentially a buy-off to prevent paramilitaries from engaging in sectarian violence. This strategy, argues_ Belfast Telegraph_ security correspondent Allison Morris, has been a failure, but discussions about further funding following the latest unrest can already be found in the local press. The covert aspect of this relationship is obviously more difficult to ascertain but anyone with knowledge of the Troubles will be aware of the long history of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and British security forces. The most infamous example that will be familiar to British readers is the murder of the lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989, a case later acknowledged by Prime Minister David Cameron as involving ‘shocking levels of collusion.’ This was recently acknowledged by exiled former UDA commander Johnny Adair, who in a recent interview referenced a finding that stated that ‘of the 210 UDA members…207 were registered police informants.’ A recent report from Irish magazine The Phoenix asserted that British intelligence were behind the delivery of a threat to a Shankill loyalist which was erroneously attributed to dissident republicans. The purpose of this was to increase tension ‘which appears aimed at effecting the removal of the Northern Ireland Protocol.’ Given recent reports that special forces soldiers have been deployed undercover in response to the riots, as well as last month’s meetings between the DUP, loyalist paramilitary representatives and the Northern Ireland Office, there is a question to be answered about the role of the state in engineering this latest crisis.

Policing

Aside from the protocol, a major grievance aired by loyalists is against the apparent existence of ‘two-tiered’ policing against their community. This came as a direct response to the PSNI declining to pursue prosecution against Sinn Fein politicians for their attendance at the funeral of Bobby Storey, who had been a leading figure in the IRA. The funeral, attended by party leader Mary Lou McDonald as well as Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and former party president Gerry Adams, saw 1,500 mourners gather in West Belfast and in Roselawn Cemetery last June. This was in breach of Covid-19 restrictions against large gatherings and the scandal had been kept alive on local radio in the months since. In response to the PSNI decision not to follow up on their investigations, Arlene Foster called on Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign. The first incidents of last week’s disturbances were clearly focused on drawing the police into loyalist areas to engage them in battle. While this scandal may be politically damaging for Sinn Fein, the cynic in me suggests that it is far easier to stoke the ire of youths in loyalist areas in a battle against the police and republicans than it is to engage them in the boring technicalities of import treaties.

Nevertheless, the PSNI has been embroiled in a series of scandals in the last twelve months, primarily related to their heavy-handed and inconsistent policing of Covid regulations. These do not support any claims about a ‘two-tier’ system but point perhaps to a more general malaise in public attitudes to policing. On 6th June 2020, a raft of fines were issued by police to attendees of solidarity rallies in support of Black Lives Matter. Police also conducted checks on roads and public transport to find potential protesters heading into the city. Having attended the Belfast event, it was clear that organisers were keen to maintain social distancing throughout, pointing attendees to individual grids in Custom House Square. A reactionary ‘Protect Our Monuments’ rally the next week faced no such action from the police. The protest, which included draping on Union flags on City Hall and people in military uniform is perhaps another example of recent attempts to import the rhetoric of the British and American far right into loyalist circles.3 The Police Ombudsman later acknowledged the disparity, although the report laughably claimed that any discrimination was unintentional and not related to race or ethnicity. On 21st February 2021, relatives of five Catholic men killed by the UVF gathered on the Ormeau Road for a small commemoration to mark the 29th anniversary of their loved ones’ deaths. The killings, known as the Sean Graham shootings for the bookmakers where they took place, were among the most notorious of the Troubles and have long been connected with state collusion.4 The small gathering of survivors and relatives were interrupted by dozens of police officers one survivor was arrested. A video of the police actions sparked revulsion among nationalists, especially in the wake of a show of strength by the UVF in East Belfast that went uninterrupted by police. Facing pressure to resign, Simon Byrne eventually issued an apology.

The police have also been called into question following the high profile disappearance case of 14 year old Noah Donohoe, who was later found dead in a storm drain in North Belfast. The details of this case are complex and convoluted and include various eyewitness claims that Noah had fallen off his bike and hit his head, was seen riding the bike naked and that his laptop had been stolen. While the police had initially ruled out foul play, the boy’s mother Fiona has frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the investigation and has sought to gather information herself, citing missing CCTV footage and a promised police leaflet drop in the area of the disappearance not materialising. The lack of clarity about the investigation has left a gulf for speculation and conspiracy to grow around Noah’s death. There has been social media speculation that there was a sectarian or racist element at play – he was mixed race and went to a Catholic school. Many have joined in with the campaign for information while others have gone down a bizarre and somewhat troubling online rabbit hole of constructing what seems like a cult of personality around the boy and this case.5 It seems unlikely that the truth will ever be discovered but the police handling of it, as well as the other incidents discussed, have damaged incredibly the reputation of the PSNI not only among loyalists but in all sectors of the community.

Peace Process Economy

My previous writing for New Socialist has discussed the role of the post-Good Friday Agreement peace process in clearing the space for neoliberal development, particularly in Belfast. Understanding this is an integral factor in explaining the recent violence. Many who responded in the immediate aftermath of last week’s events correctly pointed out that the activity took place in areas of serious deprivation and that young people in these areas were prone to manipulation by paramilitaries because they could not see a better future in front of them. This is essentially correct but requires further exploration.

The Good Friday Agreement split unionism, with the Ulster Unionists under David Trimble signing up to the agreement while Ian Paisley’s DUP opposed it. The DUP have been in the driving seat of unionism for at least the last 15 years. To many loyalists, the peace process has been psychologically processed as a historic defeat. It is true that loyalism is greatly diminished from its mid-20th century apex. The dismantling of the deeply sectarian ‘Orange State’ and the integration of Sinn Fein into the newly power-sharing political process came not long after the deindustrialisation that saw factory jobs disappear. Many of these jobs, most famously in Belfast’s shipyards, had been kept away from nationalists through sectarian patronage. This combination of deindustrialisation and political concession to nationalism greatly damaged the status of the protestant working class as the labour aristocracy in Northern Ireland. However, this loss is understood and exploited not in directly class terms but through the prism of sectarianism. The inference being that losses for working class loyalists are because of direct gains for nationalists or, in local parlance, themuns get everything. This is most evident in discourse regarding educational attainment, where the predominant focus is on underachievement from protestant working class boys. However, statistics show that there are also issues of educational underachievement for working class Catholics. So the question must be asked if this framework of sectarianising the issue simply works to obscure the more pertinent class dimension, essentially operating as a bastardised version of the ‘white working class’ arguments made by the likes of Matthew Goodwin in the UK.6

Deindustrialisation & political concession to nationalism damaged the status of the protestant working class as the labour aristocracy. However, this is understood not in directly class terms but through the prism of sectarianism.

That is not to say that there is not real alienation in working class areas across NI, regardless of community background. As I have written previously, the logic of gentrification in Belfast asserts that sectarianism is a working class idiosyncrasy to be marginalised so that bourgeois consumers can get on with the serious business of building peace through shopping, eating at restaurants and making the place an amenable tourist attraction. All the more insidious is how the history of the conflict is packaged into this offering. A recent report suggested that the riots could ‘deter tourism and investment’, in essence a call for working class areas to be cleared of anything hostile so that they can go back to their real economic function, which is to provide a backdrop for busloads of international tourists as they gawp at murals and hear lurid tales of the bad old days. Not only are the working class largely excluded from the economic benefits of the peace, but their own experience of conflict is taken from them to be reappropriated by marketing campaigns for tourists. As my previous article on gentrification pointed out, Belfast is 3rd in the UK for multimillionaires per head of population. Someone has clearly been making money out of the peace process and it is much more convenient for business interests to sweep these issues under the carpet and continue business as usual than it is to examine root causes, let alone redistribute anything.

Conclusion

The recent outbreak of riots among loyalists have been the product of a range of long and short term factors coming to a head. While there is real and to some extent justified alienation within loyalist communities, the form of this is often displayed in the sort of reactionary cultural resentment one would expect when a demographic of relative privilege suffers a long-term decline in fortunes. This long-term process has reached its flashpoint with the protocol controversy, in which unionism sees itself cut adrift from Great Britain. That the responsibility for this falls largely at the feet of the DUP and its plan to force a hard border on the island hardly matters. Nor does the fact that it was the British government who signed on the dotted line. Instead, this is seen as just the latest instance in a long string of defeats inflicted by malicious Irish republicanism. The very idea that northern nationalists or the Irish government would have different strategic objectives than unionism is treated by media outlets such as the Newsletter as a scandal in itself. Now lacking any leverage in Westminster, political unionism has sought to direct this anger at the old enemy. Arlene Foster this week accused Irish republicans of waging a ‘cultural war’ on unionism while an absurd column in the Newsletter ludicrously asserted that the protocol was a sign of how unionists are treated by nationalists ‘intoxicated with political power.’ With an assembly election upcoming in 2022 and the DUP clearly spooked by recent polling, banging the drum of anti-republicanism and seeking to tie responsibility the protocol disaster to nationalists is in essence a desperate early start to the campaign to shore up Foster’s position. However, while they may be under threat on their right flank from the TUV, the one-man-band party built around anti-power sharing form DUP man Jim Allister boasts no particular connection to the working class experience and instead offers more of the same, but even nastier.

The inevitability of a united Ireland as the eventual consequence of the protocol is not a thought confined to unionist circles. It is also increasingly the tenor of nationalist discourse. Various organisations have assembled talking heads for milquetoast ‘dialogue’ about what a New Ireland will look like. But there is a complacency at the heart of this. Do people seriously think that a referendum to split off part of the UK will simply be granted by a government of chauvinistic British nationalists in Westminster? Meanwhile, nefarious actors both in public and behind the scenes have sought to pour petrol on the flames of resentment and alienation to engineer a crisis and make the protocol untenable. There is no reason to believe that the British state is not at the very least aware of this. While many socialists and progressives in the North laudably seek to promote working class unity as the solution to rising tensions, this seems like an unlikely outcome so long as the overarching political atmosphere is one of borders and cultural resentment. But the protocol is not going away, and Irish Unity is further away than some of its most complacent advocates insist. Instead, the region is in no-man’s-land and perhaps on the edge of a dangerous abyss.


  1. This also showed centrist Alliance Party just one point behind the DUP. Alliance overtaking the DUP could spark something of an institutional crisis. The First Minister position in the Stormont executive is shared between the highest polling party from the two community designations but, as Alliance choose not to designate as nationalist or unionist, they would in theory be denied a share of the office in spite of being the second most popular party behind Sinn Fein. 

  2. Their role in the national campaign was an interesting one. Due to security laws in Northern Ireland, the identity of donors to political parties do not need to be publicly revealed. So when wrap-around pro-Brexit advertising paid for by the DUP appeared on the Metro newspaper in London, it was quickly speculated that this law and the party itself was being used as a loophole to funnel money into the Brexit campaign in secret. Work done by Open Democracy is worth reading for the full picture. 

  3. Former City Councillor Jolene Bunting became infamous over the last few years for her organising with Britain First. Formerly of the TUV, Bunting was removed from the party in 2017 and continued on the council as an independent, using her position to invite British far-right activists Jayda Fransen and Paul Golding to Belfast, around which rallies and leaflets were organised particularly targeting Muslims. While the more republican-oriented Irish Freedom Party have attempted some mobilisation in the North, these incidents with the British far-right have been by far the most high profile fascist activities in the region in recent years and have been counter-protested by the left. It should come as no surprise that the insular and reactionary ideology of loyalism has proven itself to be fertile ground for far-right imports. 

  4. One of the guns used in the killing had been handed in to the police before inexplicably being returned to the UVF. Even more inexplicable was the fact that the gun was later discovered to be on display in the Imperial War Museum in London in spite of it still being part of an open case. 

  5. While I don’t feel comfortable with linking to the social media accounts of private individuals to make this example, anyone who looks at the various hashtags associated with the campaign will encounter people who have devoted their entire online identity to the case. 

  6. Two further points worth considering in this is that the two major parties of unionism, the DUP and UUP, both continue to support academic selection at age 11 and the continued existence of grammar schools, oft a major contributing factor to class stratification in academic achievement. Furthermore, some unionist politicians have engaged in a nonsense culture war with Queens University in an attempt to portray it as a ‘cold house’ for unionists. The basis of this stems from the fact that Queens Students Union elections have been won by some students from a republican background and that one academic has published papers making an economic case for Irish unity.