Brexit is far from the top of loyalist worry list

Posted By: April 12, 2018

Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, April  12, 2018

The absurdity of Monday’s loyalist press conference was summed up by the promise from all three organizations concerned to expel any members involved in criminality.

Mere membership of the UDA, UVF or Red Hand Commando is a serious offense, punishable by up to ten years in jail. Just to utter this promise was to break it.

If the conference was a joke then the punchline, with appropriate absurdity, came three days before when former UUP leader David Trimble warned that Irish government brinkmanship over Brexit could “provoke loyalist paramilitaries” in an “extremely dangerous” fashion.

Such warnings, plus cynical foot-dragging by loyalists themselves, should not obscure the lull in loyalist violence since the EU referendum. Most of this decade has been punctuated year after year by major outbreaks of loyalist-driven public disorder, yet in the two years since the EU referendum, the streets have been unusually calm.

There have been other forms of violence, of course. A loyalist feud has claimed two lives, families have been intimidated out of mixed housing and a journalist’s life was threatened only last week.

However, the danger hinted at by Trimble – he spoke of Dublin unnerving loyalists by undermining the consent principle – is the sort of constitutional angst that would be expected to generate protests, marches, rallies, riots and a generally heightened air of tension that simply has not materialized.

Remarkably, if loyalist participation in the marching season and the flag protests is factored in, the past two years have been the quietest period of comparable length in decades. The real danger is that Brexit doom-mongering has stopped us even noticing this, let alone learning from it.

The most obvious lesson is the importance of resolving contentious Orange parades, which are an engine of loyalist anger and a catalyst for further trouble. We may have achieved this just in time – Ardoyne, the last major flashpoint parade, was resolved in September 2016, three months after the EU referendum, in a deal brokered in part by the Reverend Harold Good, who also helped arrange Monday’s loyalist statement.

Bonfires look more likely than Brexit to replace parading as a loyalist grievance – they raise similar fears of a tradition under attack.

The other main driver of rioting over the past decade was a delinquent UVF leadership in east Belfast, whose motivations were more financial than political. What has changed since this trouble abated has been the leadership of the PSNI. Since taking up the office in 2014, Chief Constable George Hamilton has shown more willingness to risk a riot, to put it bluntly, in order to challenge loyalist criminality. His judgment has been correct – the result has been no rioting. The PSNI ramped this approach up last September with the launch of its Paramilitary Crime Taskforce, which brings in the National Crime Agency, operational in Northern Ireland since 2015 but only now beginning to bring its complex investigations to a head. This was presumably critical to Monday’s rather desperate loyalist plea of going straight.

Yet at the same time, the ‘community funding’ has continued. Scandals around the Social Investment Fund (SIF), in particular, the UDA-linked Charter NI, have shown the extreme reluctance of the authorities at both Stormont and the Northern Ireland Office to turn off the cash – SIF received another £25m in last November’s direct rule budget.

Keeping the carrot while lengthening the stick is a deeply dubious tactic – illegal organizations should not be officially indulged, certainly not a quarter of a century after the ceasefires. This must explain why the success of this tactic is not being shouted from the rooftops.

Its success amid mounting political uncertainty, with Brexit becoming fraught, Stormont collapsing and unionism losing its majority for the first time, would support the republican theory that loyalists only take to the streets when unionist leaders order it – but that view is a simplification.

Loyalism, Orangeism, and unionism overlap seamlessly in loyalist areas, all three forces are drawn into trouble when it breaks out, then all start backing away from each other once it gets out of hand. The flag protests, which sprang up organically, caught everyone on the hop and remain a timely warning against stirring up the grassroots.

What can be learned from the relative peace of the past two years is that loyalists are more interested in money, community, and their own liberty than in the high politics of Brexit and devolution. A relentless focus on that should see us through the next few years unscathed.