UVF expert Aaron Edwards on Simon Coveney security alert: Terror group may now take action rather than permit ‘spontaneous’ street violence, says author of UVF: Behind the Mask

The security alert blamed on the UVF on Friday may indicate that it is now “persuaded of the need to act” rather than to permit “spontaneous” street violence, an expert has warned.

By Philip Bradfield
Sunday, 27th March 2022, 6:52 pm
Updated Tuesday, 29th March 2022, 2:37 pm

Dr Aaron Edwards, an historian and author of ‘UVF: Behind the Mask’ was asked by the News Letter if the north Belfast security alert being blamed on the terror group on Friday signals a possible upsurge in its activity.

The alert disrupted the keynote speech being given by Irish Foriegn Minister Simon Coveney at a Crumlin Road event. The PSNI is blaming loyalists and that the UVF are a primary suspect.

Dr Edwards told the News Letter: “If reports of UVF involvement in this latest bomb scare prove accurate, this represents a disturbing development. However, we must ask ‘what UVF?’ the security assessments relate to - is it the Shankill-based ‘peace’ leadership, the East Belfast UVF or a new cross-section of anti-peace process opinion from within the grouping?

“We know that the mainstream paramilitary groups, including the Shankill-based ‘peace leadership’ have, in recent months, turned their backs on the peace process but have so far not posed a direct threat to peace and stability.

“This latest development indicates that the UVF may now be persuaded of the need to act rather than to permit the sort of spontaneous violent protest action we saw in April 2021. What is more disturbing, however, is that the mainstream paramilitary groups are accepting the analysis of those loyalists who have remained sceptical of the peace process since the 1990s.

“There is now an urgent need to disassociate the advantages of the broader peace process from the disadvantages of the NI Protocol in the minds of paramilitary loyalists but, thus far, there have been no serious attempts to do so from within these groups or within broader political unionism. Quite the opposite actually. I am on record as saying that, unfortunately, this will only breathe new life into old paramilitary mindsets, thereby provoking intended and unintended consequences that may only further de-stabilise the security situation.”

Dr Edwards has been researching unionist and loyalist attitudes to the NI Protocol for a new book due to be published this year - Unionists in Northern Ireland from Partition to Brexit.

Asked if reports that the UVF may target politicians is credible, he replied this “may be a strong possibility”.

“That would be a significant departure from the UVF’s much publicised ‘no first strike’ policy, which emanates from its early stated commitment to the peace process and termination of its armed campaign in 2009. It would also open the door to a more coercive security response, which includes new legislation to combat terrorism and crime. There would be a cost to the UVF, which it’s leaders might decide is unpayable.”

However he added that said targetting politicians may still be “a strong possibility if they feel the grassroots support is there within their community to make a stand. This is a battle for the soul of Ulster loyalism.”

He added: “The targeting of politicians by militant loyalists is a menacing new development.”

“However, the language circulating amongst some anti-Protocol loyalists since last year has suggested that it was always a spark looking for a fuse. Those on the extreme fringes of loyalism have been pointing the finger in the specific direction of Dublin and it was only a matter of time before one or two disaffected individuals moved in that direction.

“We should be mindful that this is a historical tactic, with echoes in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, the UVF began its campaign in the 1960s by targeting Dublin in a largely symbolic way - this latest development suggests they are merely returning to a well-worn terrorist strategy of sending a message by spreading fear in service of its political objectives. It is unclear what the group’s objectives now are and whether they’ve changed since the LCC announcement in 2015.”

The Loyalist Communities Council, which includes the UVF, UDA and RHC - all of them proscribed terror groups - was launched in 2015 with stated aims of focussing on political means of addressing loyalist grievances.

Asked if funding to UVF linked groups should be cut if it is confirmed that the group was behind Friday’s security alert, Dr Edwards said financial incentives with paramilitaries were not going to work forever.

“It has been obvious for decades that the carrot and stick approach to dealing with paramilitary violence was going to have a natural breaking point if and when paramilitaries abandoned their commitment to the peace process,” he said.

“We saw sanctions being imposed on the PUP, for example, by the old IMC (International Monitoring Commission) because of UVF actions but the new IRC (Independent Reporting Commission) has none of this power and instead adopts a ‘watching brief’ approach.

“We should also be mindful of the attempts of the NI Executive Minister Margaret Ritchie’s attempts to sanction community groups by withdrawing funding. This ended up in the courts and was regarded as a punitive measure, which never really achieved any of its publicly stated objectives.

“In any kind of sanction-orientated regime, it is always wise in Northern Ireland to return such powers to an independent body. However, for sanctions to work it will require two things: First, there will need to be a rethink of the old ‘carrot and stick’ policy towards paramilitary groups and, second, the Executive and two governments will have to agree to revisit their Tackling Paramilitarism Strategy and establish a revamped IRC/IMC with stronger powers.”

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