Boris Johnson's deal has left Northern Irish loyalists uneasy, but will it lead to violence?

Protestant unionists see the Prime Minister's proposed Brexit "solution" as a threat, but for now few are predicting that opposition will go beyond peaceful protest.

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Throughout Brexit negotiations, the spectre of dissident Republican violence has often dominated discussions. Among the chief objections to infrastructure at the Irish border have been concerns that the IRA could view customs posts as “viable targets” for bombings and shootings. However, in the days since Boris Johnson announced his new Brexit deal, the prospect of violence or civil disorder from the loyalist side, which has previously been given little consideration in London or Brussels, has emerged as a potential, urgent threat. 

Loyalists – hardline unionists who identify as British and support Northern Ireland remaining in the UK at all costs – formed a number of paramilitary and terrorist organisations during the Troubles conflict. The most dominant were the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), who between them tortured and murdered hundreds of people, primarily working-class Catholics. Unlike the IRA, they did not carry out attacks on Britain, resulting in them being less well known outside Northern Ireland than their Republican counterparts.

With the advent of the peace process, the groups have largely given up violence and the day-to-day sectarian killings have ceased. Most loyalists do not support violent means and have committed to the democratic processes facilitated by the Good Friday Agreement. However, the UVF and UDA continue to linger as organisations, now primarily operating as gangs focused on drug dealing or community control. 

Many loyalists have expressed horror at the nature of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, which would see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the UK after the country’s EU withdrawal. Potential checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain have been viewed as a fundamental undermining of “the Union”. Meanwhile, the likelihood that Northern Ireland would continue to align with the Republic of Ireland on a variety of customs regulations has been denounced by some loyalists as tantamount to “an economic United Ireland”.

Within days of the details of the deal emerging, posters were distributed on social media under the tagline of “Ulster Betrayed” advertising a “rallying call to all unionists” to attend a public meeting “to discuss resistance to the betrayal act”, accompanied by the traditional loyalist slogan “Ulster Says No”. The event, which took place in the loyalist heartland of east Belfast, was attended by hundreds of locals. According to local media, leadership figures from both the UDA and UVF were among those in the audience. 

Speakers at the event included Jamie Bryson, a prominent loyalist, who afterwards told media outside the venue: “No sensible person wants to see violence. Loyalism has spent three years reaffirming a commitment to peace, but ultimately loyalism’s support for the peace process and the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement was predicated upon one very simple thing; the union is safe.” He added: “People can read into that whatever way they want.”

Two days later, the chief constable of Northern Ireland’s police service Simon Byrne told BBC’s Newsnight: “It's well rehearsed that any hard border between Northern Ireland the Republic will be seen as a return to state institutions by the nationalist community and it will raise the threat of attack towards infrastructure.

"But similarly from the loyalist community... identity is also important... and therefore whatever ends up as a Brexit deal, if there is one that could be perceived in a way that sort of threatens the security of the loyalist community... our concern is also the loyalist community has at times shown it can mobilise quickly, bring large numbers of people on to the streets and engage in public disorder in support of their cause.”

The DUP's deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, has reiterated Byrne's concerns, telling the House of Commons: "You really are in danger here of causing real problems with the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement, the St Andrews Agreement, the political institutions and political stability in Northern Ireland by what you are doing to the unionist community. Please wake up and realise what is happening here."

The most recent mass civil disobedience by loyalists occurred in 2013, when violence erupted following a controversial decision to fly the union flag on fewer days from Belfast City Hall. Violence broke out when thousands of loyalists attended a protest, with officers firing plastic bullets and water cannons, as protests lobed petrol bombs. Dozens of police officers were injured and the City Hall building was stormed by protesters, some of whom smashed windows.

Billy Hutchinson is a former UVF prisoner jailed during the Troubles in connection with the murder of two Catholic men in west Belfast. He became a key figure during the peace process in encouraging loyalists to engage in peaceful means and is now leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), a left-wing, socially progressive loyalist political party, which is perceived locally as reflecting the political thinking of the UVF. As a city councillor, the ward he represents includes the Shankill – one of Belfast’s most disadvantaged and staunchly loyalist areas.

We meet in the cafe of Belfast City Hall, a few days after the details of Johnson’s deal are announced. A softly spoken and chatty man now in his sixties, Hutchinson explains over tea and scones: “From my point of view, Boris needs to listen to what the people of Northern Ireland are saying. It’s a region of the UK and I like to see it not different from the rest of the UK.”

When I ask Hutchinson if he believes similar scenes could return in response to the Brexit deal, he won’t be drawn on the likelihood but is clear that any resistance should be peaceful: “It’s up to people what they decide to do, as long as they stay within the democratic processes. Whatever process they use is aimed at the Tory government to change their mind. People have that right. It’s a democratic right to protest. It’s also a democratic right to carry out civil disobedience but it has to be within the law.” 

He adds: “People need to be careful. I know they want to show their anger but they need to show their anger to the Tory government within the rule of law…Nobody should be involved in violence. For me, you can’t be a loyalist and a criminal at the same time.”

However, he says politicians in London must tread carefully and shouldn’t underestimate the strength of opposition within loyalist communities: “We need to get real about this. There are people who are concerned and unfortunately those people who are at the lower end of the economic scale, who feel they’ve no stake in our society, they’ll be annoyed about all of this. Therefore, it’s not up to politicians to sort of antagonise this. It’s up to politicians to quell this in a democratic way.”

He has a message for Westminster: “They need to remember – don’t strangle us. If they were to strangle us, we’d be in trouble. So they need to make sure that whatever they do, that they don’t put a noose around Northern Ireland’s neck. What they should do is, try to pull them back and put it round their waist and pull them back from the abyss.”

Professor Peter Shirlow, the director of Irish Studies at Liverpool University and an expert on loyalism, says he believes loyalist violence is unlikely: “No one can say for certain that loyalist violence would not re-appear but it seems to not only have declined and dramatically so, but the reactive nature of it seems to have disappeared… I speak to loyalists a lot and have not heard anyone talk about returning to violence.

“I would suggest their communities wouldn’t stomach a return to violence. Working-class Protestants place a lot of store in law and order and reject the criminality that exists. For the criminal elements, a return to violence would not be ‘good for business’.”

He adds that resources and access to weapons are greatly diminished compared to the days of the Troubles: “One would assume that they would no longer have the resources to gain significant weaponry or that most weaponry that may exist is not in the hands of those who would use it. Decommissioning did happen and that heavy arsenal did go.” 

Whether loyalists would have either the desire or the means to launch a knee-jerk reaction to a “border down the Irish Sea” incurred by Johnson’s Brexit deal is far from clear. However, the intensity of the response this week may be cause for concern as the Prime Minister continues his attempt to secure MPs’ support for his plans on the basis that it “solves” the “Northern Ireland problem”, which has been a central stumbling block to negotiations so far. As has been continually highlighted during the UK’s attempts to leave the EU, much of Northern Ireland’s peace process is predicated on a carefully balanced web of arrangements which often can be imperceptible or incomprehensible to those not familiar with the region. It is a balance which, if upset, can see tensions suddenly flair and unintended consequences erupt.

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.