Unionists have appealed for calm amid reports loyalist paramilitaries are “plotting action” if Northern Ireland’s place within the UK is threatened by any Brexit deal.
UVF sources told the Sunday Times newspaper it is planning demonstrations and protests if Boris Johnson’s government does anything its members believe dilutes Northern Ireland’s UK status, while UDA sources are making what the newspaper described as “contingency plans”.
This comes amid considerable speculation that a possible new trade deal may involve customs and regulatory checks for goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Jamie Bryson, who describes himself as a unionist activist, told the News Letter an “economic united Ireland” would create an “organic explosion of grassroots unionist and loyalist anger similar to the flag protests, only with much broader appeal”.
Mr Bryson, while stressing he does not support violence, urged the British and Irish governments to “stop poking a stick at our community”.
Unionist politicians, meanwhile, have appealed for calm.
East Belfast UUP MLA Andy Allen said: “The people of Northern Ireland do not want to see a return to the bad old days.”
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “There is no place for violence in this society.”
The Sunday Times quoted a ‘UDA figure’ as saying: “Boris Johnson has shafted the loyalist people of Northern Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party are not the only people Boris should be consulting.”
The newspaper also quoted East Belfast Cultural Collective figure Robert Girvan, described as a prominent loyalist, as saying that if Nortehrn Ireland’s place within the union is threatened “the organisations will step up to the mark”.
Responding, Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey said: “The United Kingdom is a democracy.
“All our decisions should be based on the ballot box not the threat of violence. Threats from loyalists or republicans who would use the bomb or bullet are not a basis for a country to make any decisions. There is no place for violence in this society.”
He added: “As the party standing up for Northern Ireland, we will not agree to arrangements which undermine the Union. We will leave the European Union as one nation.”
Mr Allen said: “We’re obviously in the latter stages of a very important negotiation between the UK and EU.
“What I would say, after seeing some of the messages coming out from the EU side, is that those on all sides of these negotiations need to be very careful of their language. Some of the messages we’ve seen come out from very senior politicians around this haven’t been helpful.
“There’s obviously a lot of emotion with regards to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom. I would appeal for calm. We need to do everything within our means to democratically highlight our concerns. I would appeal to individuals from every walk of life to do that peacefully.”
Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry also encouraged calm, saying: “It is important that everyone keeps an open mind as to any potential deal. It is important not to talk up the potential for protests or violence. In all scenarios it is vital that everyone respects the rule of law.”
In a statement to the News Letter, Mr Bryson said: “I cannot speak for the UVF, but my analysis of the situation is that there is a very clear test for loyalism, and that is; does any potential deal weaken the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, and if it does, then that would be intolerable.
“For three years republicans have threatened violence and nationalism, including the Irish government, has traded on those threats as a means of obtaining political leverage. It’s logical that loyalists might look at that and see that political leverage is being gained by the threat of violence, and that’s a dangerous precedent to set.”
He added: “Whilst I don’t advocate this thinking, it’s logical to conclude that if the threat of republican violence is seeing nationalism rewarded with an economic united Ireland, then naturally some loyalists may see that as a zero-sum game and believe that the same strategy should be used to prevent an economic united Ireland.”
Meanwhile, the DUP has been accused of having “opened the floodgates” with regards to a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Ulster Unionist peer and former party leader Lord Empey made those comments after the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds stressed the need for Northern Ireland to “remain fully part of the UK customs union”.
Mr Dodds, speaking to Italian newspaper La Repubblica, said: “There is a lot of stuff coming from Brussels, pushed by the Europeans in the last hours.
“One thing is sure – Northern Ireland must remain fully part of the UK customs union and Boris Johnson knows it very well.”
But Lord Empey accused the DUP of having already “opened the floodgates by agreeing and advocating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea”.
He added: “This was the green light that Dublin and Brussels were waiting for.
“Having realised their monumental blunder the DUP are now trying to run away.
“Knowing the political jam that Boris Johnson is in, Dublin and Brussels applied pressure and Boris Johnson, with the blessing of the DUP, gave way.
“Nigel Dodds must take responsibility for opening this can of worms. He and his colleagues have been out-flanked, but it is the ordinary business people and the rest of us who will be asked to pay the price.”
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald, meanwhile, spoke with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the phone on Sunday. She said in a statement she had reminded Mr Johnson of “his obligations under the Good Friday Agreement to ensure no hardening of the border”.
She added: “I also sought confirmation that there would be no veto gifted to DUP Brexiteers on protections for Ireland.”