Mention unease about Loyalism and there is always the danger that I can be accused of political sabre-rattling, upping the ante, and even ‘egging the pudding.’
But the recent European Union debacle over triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the so-called border down the Irish Sea, tackling the Covid pandemic and the impact of Brexit in general has created a radical unease among Loyalism and Right-wing Unionism not seen since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement and the early years of the Drumcree protests in the mid to late 1990s.
What the leaderships of the various Unionist parties seem to have either misread or ignored is that a new brand of Loyalism is emerging for whom the ceasefires of 1994 by the Combined Loyalist Military Command and the Good Friday Agreement four years later are merely dates in history books.
There is an assumption that 2021 Loyalism is more concerned with gangsterism and that modern day Loyalist leaders can be neutralised by throwing plenty of British dosh at community groups.
To make such an assumption is to vastly underestimate the threat posed by the post Brexit radicalism emerging within sections of the Loyalist community.
Historically, Unionism and Loyalism always looked to the British security forces to protect their communities from republicanism - namely the police and the Army.
Those parties linked to Loyalist terror groups - such as the Progressive Unionist Party (linked to the UVF and Red Hand Commando) and the old Ulster Democratic Party (linked to the UDA and UFF) - did not enjoy the same support electorally in the pro-Union community as Sinn Fein has enjoyed within the nationalist community.
Put bluntly, if Loyalism had copied the Armalite and ballot box strategy of the republican movement, then the so-called ‘Big Two’ running the power-sharing Stormont Executive would not be Sinn Fein and the DUP, but would be Sinn Fein and the Progressive Unionists.
The leadership of the modern day dissident Loyalism movement recognises the reality that there will never be electoral support for their militant views or actions within the broad, democratic pro-Union community.
Indeed, they would take the view that probably the fiercest of modern day radical Loyalism’s critics would be theologically ecumenical Protestant church folk and politically liberal or civic Unionists. Again, put bluntly, there is no point in 2021 radical Loyalism forming yet another pro-Union political party as it would have next to nil electoral support.
The danger is that such dissident Loyalism ideologically is adopting the same thinking and tactics of radical Islam, namely actions speak louder than words and groups should be organised in either small cells of two or three people, or even the so-called ‘lone wolf’ tactics of the Far Right.
The view could also be expressed - the Loyalists have no stomach for a fight and just have to accept that at some point in the next quarter of a century, there will be a border poll in favour of Irish unity. That, too, would be a total misunderstanding of the new growing radical Loyalism.
The British and Irish governments as well as political Unionism need to remember what happened in 1974. Okay, the days of thousands of marching Loyalists tramping the streets of Ulster against the power-sharing Sunningdale Executive are long gone.
But what happened in 1974? Political Unionism - then mostly represented by the Unionist Coalition of the UUP, DUP, Vanguard Unionists and UUUP - aided by the street muscle of the Loyalist paramilitaries brought down the Sunningdale Executive during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of May 1974.
But political Unionism had no workable alternative to Sunningdale. Oh yes, they could issue ideas which effectively were old style Unionist majority rule restored. Those ideas, unlike Sunningdale, would never be acceptable to a significant section of the nationalist community.
The then Irish government attempted to break this logjam in 1974 by putting forward its own ideas for running Northern Ireland. But these were very quickly swept off the negotiating table following the no-warning Loyalist car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan which murdered around 30 people and left another around 300 with various degrees of injuries.
Again put bluntly, the Dublin administration does not have the financial clout to ‘soak up’ the consequences of a no-warning Loyalist bomb blitz on the Republic in the same way that the British economy could ‘soak up’ the IRA and INLA’s bombing campaigns in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.
Therein lies the Achilles heel of Leinster House pushing for either a shared Ireland, all-Ireland, Irish unity form of running the Emerald Isle. Again, put bluntly, could the Dublin economy cope with no-warning bombs being detonated at peak time or rush hour at Connolly Station or O’Connell Street?
Critics of Loyalism’s capacity to mount such a campaign might say - surely the British and Irish intelligence communities would have the Loyalism movement so heavily infiltrated with spies and informers that such a terror campaign would never get off the ground?
Whilst it can be agreed that British and Irish intelligence organisations have become more advanced since the days of internment in 1971, they still have been unable to prevent terror attacks by radical Islamic individuals and cells, or the ‘lone wolf’ attacks in Norway and the United States which left hundreds murdered.
The IRA bombed mainland Britain in an attempt to get Westminster to say - ‘here, take Northern Ireland and have your Irish unity!’ In the event of a border poll resulting in favour of Irish unity, are there those in the Loyalist community who could create a terror campaign where Dublin says - ‘here, take Northern Ireland back into the UK, or have an independent Ulster!’
The onus to prevent such scenarios becoming a reality is for the Unionist parties to agree a political solution whereby the Northern Ireland Protocol no longer is perceived to be a threat to the Union.
The pro-Union community has a moral obligation and duty to ensure that current dissident Loyalist thinking never becomes mainstream ideology in Loyalism.
Threats and graffiti are to be soundly condemned, but Unionism must ensure this current radical Loyalism does not become tomorrow’s bombs and bullets. Remember the old proverb - it only takes one rotten apple to spoil the barrel.
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