The Loyalist letter of comfort

Quintin Oliver
Newry, Northern Ireland, UK; 11 Dec 2017; Brexit Sign at Border

This week, Northern Ireland’s Loyalist Communities’ Council wrote to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stating its intention to withdraw from the Good Friday Agreement in protest at the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol. Quintin Oliver, who ran the YES Campaign in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement Referendum, responds.

Brussels (Brussels Morning) In early 2017, six months after the Brexit referendum, I attended an ‘’Ulster Fry Breakfast’’ hosted by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) at a fashionable North Belfast golf club. In the Q&A, after my potato bread and gelatinous fried egg (what passed for vegetarian fare), I pondered of the platform party (led by Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds) what would the problem be with a border in the Irish Sea? I recounted already being asked perfectly reasonably at Belfast harbour, whenever I took the ferry to Scotland, about carrying guns (security), meat (animal health) and plants (bio-security).

With ferocity, Nigel Dodds, then MP for that area, shot back, ‘’Quintin, we are a Unionist party, it’s in our DNA, it’s in our very name, and just as with the Republic, we accept neighbourliness in protecting each other from terror and disease, but we will brook no other differentiation from the mainland’’.

To be fair to Unionism, they did continually raise their concerns about said border across the water, rather than across the island, over the subsequent stormy four years of negotiation. Unfortunately they had few friends to listen. The DUP burned its boats at home with its unreconstructed, belligerent Brexit stance, and were only needed at Westminster when their ten MP votes counted. Then they were cast overboard, without much of a life raft, by both the UK government, and by everyone else at Stormont –‘‘Ourselves Alone’’, as one wag put it. They proved poor at coalition-building. At one stage, one of the party’s senior MPs even asked me if I could intercede with Dublin to give them a hearing.

Fast forward to this year when that catastrophic Brexit theology became physical at the port of Larne, where, exacerbated by lingering Covid restrictions; pets, pot plants and even digger tyre dirt were refused entry. Unionism exploded, verbally so far, in the media and on the walls as graffiti. The DUP trumpeted, ‘’we told you so!’’, but that only further irritated the rest of us. ‘‘Hell mend you, you brought it on yourselves!’’, many retorted. If we source more goods from the south now, so be it.

Put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary Unionist, for a moment: you voted for Brexit, because you felt let down, betrayed and excluded (remember de Gaulle’s dictum, ‘‘the trouble with referendums is that the voter answers the wrong question’’). You see Scotland, the real mothership for all of those 17th century planters’ descendants, religiously and politically, slipping away from the precious Union; London has surreptitiously imposed abortion and equal marriage against your will; the economy is tanking, your agricultural subsidies are drying up; no-one seems to love you. And insult heaped upon insult, this is your centenary year, when 1921 should have been celebrated with triumph, not humiliation, as a ‘’failed statelet’’.

For the paramilitaries, this represents a godsend; you have resisted disbandment, over the last two fractious decades, maintaining your parlous grip on disadvantaged communities through fear. Now, here is a cause to grasp, an issue to put posters up for, to rally on street corners and flex some muscle. Remember the UVF of a century ago – now we are back with a mission.

Political unionism is drifting rudderless; everything and everyone is against them; Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and First Minister has lost control of her bickering party, her headstrong MPs over the water and of her calm, measured authority. Former leader Peter Robinson came out of retirement to trash her five-point fight-back plan; ‘’what use is a parliamentary petition?’’, he rightly railed. Even David Trimble, now a Conservative peer having abandoned his crushed Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), came out in protest against the sea border.

Which is why this ‘’letter of comfort’’ to the PM and Taoiseach, from the Loyalist Communities Council (incidentally chaired by Trimble’s former chief of staff, and earlier launched by Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff) suits many. For unionism, it gives concrete proof of dissent; for the paramilitants (not known for caring much about commerce), it gives them back a cause, especially for the armchair brigadiers who don’t want to lose control or a sense of status in their community.

Nevertheless, having created this beast and carved it some political space, alongside this oxygen of current publicity, where does it go? Allison Morris of the Irish News suggests it will be a ‘’useful barking dog’’, behind the DUP. Others are more fearful, concerned about the more uncontrollable dogs of war we have seen in the years before.

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Quintin Oliver has enjoyed a career in public policy in his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland. He co-founded the European Anti-Poverty Network in the 1990s, ran the YES Campaign in the Good Friday Agreement Referendum of 1998, and set up his own successful global conflict resolution consultancy in 2000, Stratagem International.