By insisting on a Protocol in terms of the Irish Sea border, the European Union in its naivety may have thrown the peace process in Northern Ireland and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement into a state of confusion.
An umbrella group, the Loyalist Communities Council, (LCC) which represents the views of the main pro-Union terror organisations, has written to the British and Irish governments telling them they are withdrawing support for the Belfast Agreement in protest at the Irish Sea trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The LCC represents the four main Loyalist paramilitaries, who between them accounted for a significant number of the estimated 3,500 people killed during the Troubles.
The so-called ‘Big Four’ Loyalist terror groups are the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Red Hand Commando, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Freedom Fighters.
In 1994, the four terror groups came together under the banner of the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) to publicly unveil the loyalist ceasefire.
However, the latest utterance from the LCC is a sign of the growing unease within the Loyalist community that the Protocol poses a significant threat to the constitutional future of Northern Ireland’s position within the UK in this Northern Ireland’s centenary year.
Already the existence of the Protocol has witnessed Unionist parties coming together to mount a legal challenge to get it axed in a show of Unionist unity not seen since the Ulster Says No campaign against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
It was signed by then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald and gave the Irish Republic its first real say in the running of Northern Ireland affairs since partition in the 1920s.
While the LCC letter to London and Dublin says that Unionist opposition to the Protocol should remain “peaceful and democratic”, it will surely sound alarm bells that a section of the pro-Union community in Northern Ireland may be considering the possibility of a more violent reaction towards the Protocol.
Just as the ceasefires from the mainstream Irish republican movement represented by the Provisional IRA spawned a dissident republican movement represented by groups such as the Real IRA and New IRA, so too, there is the danger that Loyalist anger at the Protocol could create a so-called dissident loyalist terror movement.
This happened in the past among Loyalists who disagreed with the 1994 CLMC ceasefire, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the peace process in general.
Dissident Loyalists formed their own grouping to rival the CLMC - the Protestant Military Alliance. One of the most notorious breakaway groups was the Loyalist Volunteer Force formed by leading terrorist Billy Wright, a former member of the Mid Ulster unit of the UVF. Wright was later shot dead by an INLA inmate in 1997 while in the top security Maze prison in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, suspected renegade members of the mainstream Loyalist terror gangs carried out attacks under the cover name of the ‘Red Hand Defenders’ in the years after the CLMC ceasefire.
While these are strong words from the current LCC leadership, even with an emphasis on “peaceful and democratic” opposition, questions are still being asked if Loyalist terror gangs actually have the resources and manpower to realistically mount a terror campaign against the Protocol, or would it be similar to the dissident republicans’ ‘stop-start’ terror tactics.
The Dublin administration will be acutely aware of what happened in 1974 during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike to bring down the then power-sharing Sunningdale Executive.
When Dublin tried to put forward a blueprint to kickstart the peace process, Loyalist terrorists set off no-warning bombs in Dublin and Monaghan killing around 30 people and injuring another 300.
The bitter reality which Dublin must face is that, unlike the UK economy, the Republic of Ireland’s economy - in spite of massive EU cash injections over the years - does not have the financial capacity to ‘soak up’ the effects of a Loyalist bombing campaign south of the Irish border.
While the security assessment of a potential violent Loyalist backlash against the Protocol suggests mainstream loyalism would not engage in such a strategy, it is not taking account of the changing structures of terrorism globally as a result of Islamic fundamentalism.
At the start of the Troubles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Loyalist terror groups were organised in platoons, companies and brigades. Essentially, they copied the structures of the anti-Home Rule UVF militia of 1912.
In later years, some of the Loyalist groups moved to a Maoist terror cell structure of smaller numbers in a so-called ‘Active Service Unit.’
However, the problem posed by the Islamic terrorists is that they operate in very small groups of only three or four people, making it very difficult for the security forces and intelligence community to penetrate.
Unionism is going the legal route against the Protocol because it has recognised that street protests simply do not work. In short, the street campaign which toppled Sunningdale in 1974 failed to have the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement axed.
London could also make the mistake it made in 1971 when it introduced selective internment based on outdated intelligence. In 2021, London, Dublin and Brussels could be basing their analysis of a potential loyalist backlash based on people who were active in the CLMC in 1994.
Has a new generation of influential Loyalist activist emerged for whom 1994 and 1998 are merely dates in a history book? Taking Islamic militancy as a benchmark, it would only take a handful of Loyalist fanatics to inflict murder and mayhem on the Republic in reprisal for implementing the Protocol if it emerged the Protocol was creating an economic United Ireland.
|Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter|
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com