Ben Lowry: There is barely any unionist support for violence, despite justified anger at the Irish Sea border betrayal

Amid many remarks this week in the row over the Irish Sea border, two stood out for me.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 6th February 2021, 11:54 am
Updated Saturday, 6th February 2021, 12:19 pm
Simon Byrne, after a remote meeting of the Policing Board. on Thursday. By criticising political rhetoric around the Irish Sea border, the PSNI chief constable risked appearing to condemn robust denunciations of the disastrous new barrier
Simon Byrne, after a remote meeting of the Policing Board. on Thursday. By criticising political rhetoric around the Irish Sea border, the PSNI chief constable risked appearing to condemn robust denunciations of the disastrous new barrier

Arlene Foster on Thursday called on people not to look for ‘lundies’. The same day Simon Byrne, the PSNI chief constable, described the rhetoric around the new frontier as ‘febrile’.

Taking these comments in turn:

The DUP leader said on Thursday that when unionists face “difficult circumstances ... they turn in on themselves and people start to look for lundies, and start to look for people who they can blame”.

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A ‘lundy’ refers to a Protestant traitor in the 1688 Siege of Derry, as a ‘quisling’ refers to a 1940s Norwegian collaborator with the Nazis.

Jim Nicholson, the ex UUP MEP, in this newspaper this week also asked unionists not to seek lundies. But it was more notable from the first minister than Mr Nicholson, because in latter decades the DUP was more associated with levelling charges of lundyism than the UUP.

Mrs Foster did say she was pleased there had been no such search for lundies but rather “a coming together of unionism” after the EU triggered Article 16.

But her remarks sounded self serving. If as a leader you preside over concessions you should not say: ‘don’t chase us concession granters!’ The community you lead is entitled to assess the concessions and conclude you have gone too far.

Unionists have long been under so many pressures that there is certainly a case for reforms to secure the Union. Last year the DUP was under further pressure, blamed for the absence of Stormont. Its bad election results in late 2019 had added to that. Even so, the list of things it conceded in 2020’s deal to restore Stormont is deeply worrying, many of them not yet visible.

At Westminster, the party was under two years of pressure to concede some type of Irish Sea border, from Theresa May’s 2017 backstop until Boris’s 2019 NI-only version.

When on October 2 2019 it accepted a regulatory border on basis of a Stormont veto, Ireland/EU shot it down in flames. It wasn’t enough.

In broadcasts then in the Republic and Great Britain I said they had got no credit for showing flexibility. With hindsight we see how Boris Johnson used it as a stepping stone to a (form of) customs border too.

While the DUP was betrayed, it can’t escape the fact that its regulatory border concession, however understandable in 2019 context, would if implemented have led to the Irish Sea barriers we have now.

As to Mr Bryrne, he said “political rhetoric ... has become increasingly febrile and [it is time] for calm heads...” The chief constable, who told the prime minister in 2019 he could not police a hard land customs and security border, said this week it is “time to de-escalate” language over the sea frontier.

He was referring in part to remarks the ex UUP MLA David Campbell gave on BBC Nolan. Even so Mr Bryne risks appearing to criticise robust speech. I have called the new border the betrayal and constitutional outrage it is.

Unionists never backed political representatives of paramiltaries (most nationalists also rejected Sinn Fein until after IRA violence).

Yet unionists are angry to have seen appeasement of the IRA, from tardy decommissioning to Stormont spying, the Castlereagh break in and Northern Bank heist. They saw Sinn Fein collapse Stormont for three years, then get reward.

While veterans face legacy trials, IRA on the runs got assurances.

After the 2016 Brexit vote unionists saw terror cited to stop any change at the land border. Leo Varadkar showed EU leaders a 1972 IRA attack on customs. Not only was it misleading, the Republic was then an easy base for the IRA. Yet the UK did not contradict Mr Varadkar.

To the dismay of unionists, London always takes Irish criticism.

A 2018 Queen’s University study found that only 20% of nationalists would find CCTV at the border “almost impossible to accept” and 10% would support attacks on cameras.

So you could say that only people with dissident republican instincts endorsed terror against minor border infrastructure (a 2010 Liverpool University found 14% of nationalists had some dissident sympathies).

Yet two successive Tory prime ministers accepted this notion that CCTV was entirely unacceptable.

I always accepted that nationalist Ireland had reason to be upset by Brexit. I thought unionists failed to debate properly not only Brexit pre 2016 referendum but solutions post it (the Norway compromise of UK staying in single market would have meant no regulatory border anywhere but an Irish custom border).

But unionists have cause to be furious at how for decades they have opposed terror but seen the threat of it repeatedly indulged.

Despite this there is still no sign of support for violence, or of loyalist groups endorsing the current threats. Even loyalists like Jim Wilson and Billy Hutchinson have rejected a violent approach, let alone the vastly bigger group of unionists who never endorsed physical force.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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