There is a secular proverb which states that one swallow does not make a summer.
Applied to the recent trouble in Newtownards, Co Down, one burnt bus does not mean the start of a Province-wide, orchestrated campaign of loyalist violence of the type witnessed over the Easter period earlier this year.
DUP boss Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has already extended his November deadline for pulling his ministers out of the power-sharing Executive if there is no movement on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But the real fuse could have been lit at the recent Sinn Fein Ard Fheis with apparent republican gloating that it will soon be running the entire island of Ireland as if the movement has magically returned to the 1918 Westminster General Election result when Sinn Fein won over 70 of the 105 Commons seats on offer across the Emerald Isle.
Opinion polls in Southern Ireland continue to suggest Sinn Fein will make gains in any future Dail General Election. Certainly, the Provisional IRA’s ruling Army Council will not allow its political wing to make the same error of judgement as the party did in the last Dail General Election, namely not running enough candidates.
That mistake still forced an historic coalition between bitter rivals Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Greens to keep the republican movement out of power and firmly in the opposition benches.
But the key question remains - can Sinn Fein convert those opinion polls into actual TDs so that party boss Mary Lou McDonald becomes the first Sinn Fein Taoiseach in Leinster House since partition?
Throw in the bombshell Lucid Talk poll which has Sinn Fein support in Northern Ireland at 25% and you could have a situation where you have a Sinn Fein First Minister at Stormont working hand in glove politically with a Sinn Fein Taoiseach in the Dail. Now if that’s not a red flag to the loyalist bull, I don’t know what is!
Almost as notorious to loyalists as former West Belfast Sinn Fein MP Gerry Adams’ remark of ‘They haven’t gone away, you know’, is current Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill’s comment at the Ard Fheis: “Well, let me be crystal clear. The days of ‘nationalists need not apply’ are gone.”
Now Ms O’Neill’s remark could be dismissed as merely playing to the republican movement’s party faithful. Such tactics are common at all party conferences - unionist, nationalist, or other.
Or is it a sinister attempt by the republican movement to egg on hardliners within loyalism to resort to street violence in a bid to drive a very clear wedge between middle class Unionism and working class loyalism?
Generally speaking, the pro-Union political parties are united in their opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol. But the use of street violence is one factor which could dissolve that party unity and political influence.
Unionists of my vintage will remember the notorious Day of Action in 1986 against the then Anglo-Irish Agreement which resulted in severe street violence between loyalists and the police. Many middle class Unionists walked away from the Ulster Says No campaign.
How would the Tory leadership under Boris Johnston react if loyalists resumed their ‘Easter Rising’ street violence? If political Unionism cannot get rid of the Protocol, will violent loyalism take the view - well, its our turn now?
This outcome could have devastating consequences with a potential return to Troubles-style violence on the island, depending on whether it will be the Republic or Northern Ireland which economically suffers the most.
If the Republic is financially crippled under the triggering of Article 16 of the Protocol, or indeed if the UK Government succeeds in scrapping the entire Protocol, it will force the South of Ireland to re-negotiate a new Anglo-Irish Treaty.
This new treaty will inevitably witness a diluting of the Republic’s status as a sovereign, independent state, having to embark on a much more formal and closer relationship with the UK if it is not to suffer a repeat of the so-called Celtic Tiger economic meltdown.
The clear solution in this scenario is for the South to become an associate member of the influential Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which represents more than 50 regional and national parliaments across the globe. The anniversary of ‘partition’ and its implementation in the 1920s will merely become irrelevant and defunct terms in history books.
It took millions of euros - much of it from the UK - to bail out the Republic when that economy collapsed, and it will again need British sterling to prevent Brexit reducing the South financially once again into a third-rate, African-style banana state.
In such a scenario, much of the violent backlash will come from the ‘start/stop’ terror campaign of the dissident republican movement in the form of the New IRA, or Real IRA. Maybe, Ireland may even see a reformed INLA enter the terrorism fray.
But what happens if Brexit goes the other way, and it is Northern Ireland which becomes an economic wasteland to the extent that a border poll returns the democratic outcome of a desire to become an all-Ireland state?
Supposing, in spite of a ‘No Protocol Brexit’, the European Union pumps an endless supply of euro cash into the Irish Republic so that it can outgun Northern Ireland at every economic turn.
Could the nightmare for Northern Ireland’s pro-Union community become a reality that in the wake of an unfavourable border poll, that Westminster decides to belatedly mark the centenary of the formation of the Northern Ireland state by politically jettisoning the six counties into a 32-county, democratic socialist republic? Would there be a violent loyalist backlash, or merely a trickle of Ulster Says No protests?
But is talk of Protocol violence political sabre-rattling, or a genuine dire warning which should be heeded by all right-thinking people? After all, parts of the community are still suffering from the sporadic New IRA terror campaign, and the 2021 traditional Eleventh Night bonfire issues saw hardline loyalism flex its muscles.
These incidents should not be dismissed as isolated. What should be taken seriously are the number of moderate politicians who have been warning about a return of such violence.
In January 2019, then Fine Gael Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned that Brexit divisions could be exploited by violent extremists.
In April 2018, former UUP leader and Stormont First Minister David Trimble, now a Tory peer, said the Republic risked provoking loyalist violence over Brexit.
In the same month, former Fianna Fail Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said:
The idea of us going back to any kind of border would be a disaster. I don’t think it will happen. You wouldn’t have to wait for violence - the communities on both sides of the border, with their bare hands, would pull down anything that was put up.
These fears of violence in a post Brexit era were echoed by two other leading Southern politicians, both of whom had served as Taoiseach - Brian Cowan and John Bruton. None of these experienced politicians could be branded as sabre-rattling extremists.
My personal real fear is that the Protocol could see a rebirth of a violent dissident loyalist movement, small in number, but psychotically violent in ethos and action.
I was 62 in September and I’ve spent all of my life living and working in Ireland, 43 of them as a journalist. Having been raised in and reported extensively on, the so-called ‘PUL community’ (Protestant Unionist Loyalist), I make two central assertions.
Firstly, Loyalists can only voice their opposition to any proposed border poll or united Ireland through democratic means; secondly, if Loyalists do resort to an indiscriminate campaign of terror, it would cripple the Irish Republic within a fortnight. I do not make the second assertion lightly.
During my time as a journalist, I have reported on and had articles published or broadcast involving interviews with Ulster Third Force, Ulster Resistance, the UVF and UDA. My most contentious work investigated allegations of collusion between the then RUC and loyalists death squads for the Channel 4 Dispatches series.
Based on these various interviews, I tried to put together a way forward for loyalism based entirely on a non-violent ideology. Entitled ‘Where is the Loyalist Rebellion going?’, it was deliberately published in 2013 on the Long Kesh Inside Out website.
Cynics or critics of this article could well say this was published eight years ago and, therefore, does not apply to the current political discourse in 2021. But to do so risks ignoring both the changing nature of terrorism and the historical use of violence by loyalism against the South of Ireland.
This warning was based on two articles which were published in the Irish Daily Star, when I was the paper’s Northern Political Correspondent.
On June 20th, 2011, under the headline, ‘Loyalist anger raises danger - fear of death squad backlash’, I noted:
Stormont needs to launch a loyalist forum to fully represent the views of working class Protestants who increasingly see ‘Loyal Ulster’ as the coldest political icebox for them in the Union.
Just over a year later, on September 13th, 2012, I published a research feature focusing on the mystery of where a massive South African arms shipment to the UDA in 1988, believed responsible for the murder of 135 people, had gone.
The research article was based on a dossier given to me at the Irish Daily Star which focused on that massive shipment to Northern Ireland, when the weaponry was supposedly divided between the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance.
The article was headlined: ‘Mystery of UDA’s African weapons: Guns used to murder 135 people have never been found.’ The overall feature also focused on ‘Ten murders caused by the South African weapons’, and ‘Ten questions South African government needs to answer.’
While that article itself may be several years old, one question can still be posed in 2021 - how many of these weapons ended up in the hands of the notorious Glenanne Gang? Indeed, how many of these weapons are still in loyalist arms caches?
More importantly, is there the possibility that if the Protocol goes politically ‘pear-shaped’ for the pro-Union community that a new Glenanne Gang could emerge from within the ranks of loyalism?
To explore such a possibility, it is necessary to underline the changing nature of terrorism in Ireland in terms of structure of groups and attitudes.
As far back as the initial Home Rule crisis of 1912/13, militias, such as the Ulster Volunteers, Irish Volunteers, and Irish Citizens Army, were organised along traditional military structures, such as platoons, companies and brigades.
This attitude continued in the past Troubles, when terrorist groups used the same terminology to define their death squads, such as the East Tyrone Brigade of the Provisional IRA, and the Mid Ulster Brigade of the UVF. By the 1980s, gone would be the massed ranks of masked marching men of the UDA during the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, or the Ulster Third Force in 1981.
Ironically, that UWC strike of 1974 was to witness one of the bloodiest terrorist atrocities of the Troubles when more than 30 people were murdered in ‘no warning’ car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan.
While the attacks were claimed by the UVF, doubts still remain if that organisation had the bomb-making capacity to solely make such devices at that time.
What was clear in May 1974 was that the Sunningdale power-sharing Executive would collapse. Knowing that Unionism had no alternative to the Executive, the Dublin government attempted to fill the looming political void with its own suggestions. This sparked the Dublin and Monaghan blitz as a very crude ‘back off’ message to the government in Leinster House.
Dublin boxed a lot more clever politically in 1985 when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed at Hillsborough.
Instead of a full frontal demand for a say in the running of Northern Ireland as had occurred in 1974, Dublin discreetly set up the Maryfield Secretariat near Belfast while Unionists tramped through the streets of Northern Ireland with their Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No campaigns. By boxing this clever politically, Dublin avoided a repeat of the 1974 bomb massacres.
But the structure of terrorism was also to change as loyalist and republican groups suffered as a result of the informer systems and better intelligence gathering by state forces.
This prompted terror groups to adopt a Maoist approach and the development of cell structures of units of several members rather than companies of several dozen.
However, the Maoist structure still left the terror gangs open to heavy infiltration by the security services. A key example of this was the total elimination of the once-feared East Tyrone Brigade of the IRA in the Loughgall ambush in May 1987 when eight terrorists and an innocent civilian were shot dead by the security forces using the SAS.
Perhaps as we mark the centenary of partition and the formation of the Northern Ireland state, talk of mass loyalist opposition to a border poll or a united Ireland as a result of Protocol may be branded fantasy politics.
But it must equally be remembered that a generation of loyalist has developed for whom the 1994 ceasefire by the Combined Loyalist Military Command, and even the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, are mere dates in history books.
A dissident loyalist ideology has emerged - almost as a mirror image to the New IRA in the nationalist community - that recognises it does not enjoy vast political support within the pro-Union community.
Structurally, it is Islamic radicalism which is setting the trend in terms of terror cells; namely, a very small handful of people primed to carry out a single operation.
This should not be dismissed that dissident republicans and dissident loyalists will use the tactic of suicide bombers; merely, the recognition that modern terrorists have adopted the strategy of the even smaller cell aiming at one major operation - one cell, one attack.
This strategy can even be fine-tuned to the ‘lone wolf’ tactic used by the Far Right terrorists, such as mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, convicted of the 2011 massacres in Norway in which 77 people were murdered and another almost 320 injured. They died in a bomb attack in Oslo and a gun attack on an island camp of the Workers’ Youth League.
Judging by the poor electoral showings over the years by parties linked to loyalist paramilitaries, such as the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, dissident loyalists now recognise there would be little support, if any, among the pro-Union community for a terror campaign against the Irish Republic in the event of Unionism losing a border poll.
During the Troubles, various groups appeared on the loyalist side, but were dismissed as merely a ‘two men and a dog outfit’. For example, one such dissident group after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement dubbed itself the Black Friday Brigade.
During my research and writing for the ninth edition of the Northern Ireland Political Directory, published by Blackstaff in 1999, it issued me with a statement from the so-called ‘Strategic Army Command’. I gave the group a brief mention on page 418 of the Directory, but apart from a chilling warning, that’s all that has been heard of this group!
That was dissident loyalism in 1999; dissident loyalism in 2021 may radically be a different beast. It may only be a handful of fanatics, but then again, in modern terrorism, all it takes is a handful to create mass murder and mayhem. All of a sudden, the phrase ‘two men and a dog outfit’ takes on a very sinister meaning.
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.