Watching the social media and mainstream media footage of the recent anti-Protocol rally in the County Armagh village of Markethill, I was genuinely shocked by the heckling treatment meted out to the East Antrim DUP MP Sammy Wilson.
TUV leader and North Antrim MLA Jim Allister had to step into the fray and ask the crowd to allow Mr Wilson to be heard. In the aftermath of the rally, there was a media spat between the two Unionist politicians as to what caused the heckling.
Put bluntly, the rally will be remembered, not for unity against the Protocol, but for Unionist disunity in the run-up to the planned 5 May Stormont General Election.
As it was a bitterly cold evening, skeptics could easily dismiss the heckling as crowd frustration against the stormy weather. But is that taking too flippant an attitude? Are we witnessing the public opening shots in dissident loyalism airing its anger against sections of political Unionism over the latter’s failure to get the Protocol axed?
Sources close to the DUP have alleged some of the hecklers may have been sympathisers of the banned dissident terror group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force.
The LVF was formed by former Mid Ulster UVF leader Billy Wright in the 1990s in the aftermath of the 1994 Combined Loyalist Military Command ceasefires and the increasingly Left-wing leanings of the UVF’s political spokespeople, the Progressive Unionist Party.
Wright was later shot dead by the INLA inside the maximum security Maze Prison in December 1997, around four months before the historic signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.
In the years after the death of Wright, his LVF was seen to descend into criminality, so is there the danger Unionist anger against the Protocol could be seen as an excuse for the LVF to re-assert itself within the Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist community, or was the Markethill heckling merely a flash in the pan episode?
Our family knows the danger which the LVF can pose. At the height of the annual Drumcree protest in Portadown in 1998, there was a sectarian attack in Ballymoney in my late dad’s North Antrim constituency in which three young Catholic brothers died in an arson attack.
At that time, my late dad, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, was a North Antrim Ulster Unionist MLA and senior Orange Order chaplain. Dad was pro-Agreement and on the Trimble wing of the UUP.
He and the late James Leslie (later a Junior Minister in the era when David Trimble, now Lord Trimble, was UUP leader and First Minister) had been elected as UUP MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly’s first mandate.
Dad and two other senior Orange Order chaplains issued a joint statement calling on the Orangemen to leave Drumcree hill as a mark of respect to the three dead Quinn brothers. Within hours of their joint appeal, the LVF issued a death threat to dad and his fellow chaplains.
Dad had already been booked to preach the religious sermon as part of the platform proceedings at the Twelfth demonstration in Irvinestown in County Fermanagh.
Dad was always a staunch preacher of the evangelical Gospel and there was no way he would be prevented from this opportunity of sharing the Gospel message. The police arranged to meet us at the Ballygawley roundabout and gave him an escort into Irvinestown.
There was no hassle at the pre-demonstration lunch or the main parade itself to the demonstration field. The platform proceedings were a different tale! Speaking first was Dad’s fellow UUP MLA for Fermanagh South Tyrone, Sam Foster, another pro-Agreement Assembly member.
1998 was the era of the militant Orange pressure group, The Spirit of Drumcree. No sooner had Sam taken to the platform for his speech than the heckling began from Spirit supporters. It was constant right throughout Sam’s speech. Listening to Sammy Wilson at Markethill and the heckling experience reminded me of that event in Irvinestown.
Dad was the next speaker and I feared the worst. But like a re-enactment of the Biblical Daniel in the lions’ den, the Spirit supporters remained totally quiet throughout Dad’s sermon and he was able to get his Gospel message across.
However, for weeks after that LVF death threat was issued, we as family members would have a rota to stay with Mum if Dad was away on Assembly or preaching engagements.
As Wright had been shot dead by the INLA months before his LVF issued the death threat, I often wondered - given Wright’s background in Christian evangelism which he turned his back on - would the statement have been issued if Wright had still been Chief of Staff of the LVF?
Then again, if Wright had still been alive and active with the LVF in 1998 would there even have been a peace process, let alone a Good Friday Agreement?
At that time in 1998, I was an educational columnist with the News Letter. Years later, when I was Northern Political Correspondent for the Irish Daily Star, I found myself in the unusual circumstances of having tea and biscuits with a well-known LVF sympathiser.
There was just the two of us in the room. The thought entered my mind if this individual knew about the threat to my Dad, or indeed, was I looking at the person who allegedly approved the wording, or even allegedly worded the death threat itself?
It was just one of those weird moments in my career in journalism when a family issue dove-tailed with a career query. I did not ask this individual in case I got an answer I did not want and, as I’ve no legal evidence to substantiate the allegation in my mind, I have given this individual the benefit of the doubt that they had nothing to do with the death threat.
Bringing the issue back to 2022, could the heckling at Markethill become a wide scale backlash against the Unionist parties on 5 May?
Could one, or all, of the pro-Union parties, suffer at the ballot box during the Stormont showdown as opinion polls suggesting Sinn Fein will emerge as the largest party in the Assembly become an electoral reality?
Is Markethill a taste of what is to come for some Unionist candidates as they campaign on the doorsteps?
Or, is Markethill simply an outworking of what the DUP created in Bannside and North Antrim during its Paisleyite days as the Protestant Unionist Party?
I recall interviewing a Paisley supporter in the mid 1990s who told me of being given tickets to infiltrate meetings of the ruling Unionist Party to disrupt those meetings because of the liberal Unionist policies of Terence O’Neill and James Chichester-Clark. They were given those tickets by Right-wing Ulster Unionists opposed to the liberal strategies in their party.
The Paisleyite tactics worked as it drove many middle class and aristocratic Unionists away from the party as they did not want to face the heckling. As a result, many UUP branches folded, especially in the North Antrim Westminster constituency captured by Paisley senior in the June 1970 General Election.
Given this history of heckling, Unionist politicians - and especially the DUP - should not be shocked at the loyalist beast which has been created. As the Good Book states, you reap what you sow!
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
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.