Loyalist Communities Council chairman: If DUP goes soft on Northern Ireland Protocol it will stir unrest in UVF/UDA ranks
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David Campbell was speaking amid simmering speculation of an imminent breakthrough in the UK/EU negotiations, with the Prime Minister visiting Belfast on Friday to meet with the five main parties ahead of any deal concerning the Protocol.
However, Ulster Unionist councillor Dr John Kyle has urged loyalists to resist any drift towards unlawful behaviour.
The East Belfast representative said: “The protocol has created more difficulties than anything in the past decades for unionism, and there are still unanswered questions, but one thing we know from the past is that political violence is self-defeating and ultimately does not achieve any lasting good.”
Mr Campbell – a former long-serving chairman of the UUP and chief-or-staff to David Trimble – launched the LCC in 2015 as a kind of channel between the realms of mainstream unionist politics and loyalist paramilitarism.
Specifically, it involves figures with ties to the UDA, UVF, and Red Hand Commando.
The News Letter asked Mr Campbell if the loyalist leaders with whom he deals are having trouble keeping a lid on anti-Protocol anger within their respective groups.
He said: "I think with regard to their own organisations and their own groups, they retain the confidence of the membership, and that really is down to the fact Jeffrey Donaldson has stuck to his word, and the DUP have followed through on their electoral mandate.
"The LCC has made no secret of the fact that it supports the seven tests the DUP are seeking.
"In meetings with Jeffrey it has been made clear to him that they support him holding the line on this even though everyone recognises it’s very difficult with the financial circumstances we’re in not to have an Assembly operating.
"So in one way because there has been a sticking to the position by the DUP, I think that has relieved pressure on the ground.
"If that were to shift, if there were to be a deal that simply fell short of dealing with the core breaches of the agreement, then that pressure will come on bigtime again – of that, I have absolutely no doubt.”
Asked if a deal comes forward in the next few weeks that falls short of these seven tests, we could be in for a “difficult summer”, he said: “Potentially.
"My worry has always been that the current leaderships – which, despite what people think, have actually steered their organisations by-and-large not only away from paramilitarism but away from criminality and they get actually precious little credit for that – my concern would be that maybe those elements within those organisations that are much more sceptical would attempt to brush the old leaderships away.”
It was put to him that there are frequent news stories of criminality linked to the east Belfast UVF and the South East Antrim UDA.
"Those elements that you’ve just described essentially aren’t part of the LCC,” he responded.
"I’m satisfied that, if you like, 90%, 95% of mainstream loyalism has decisively moved away from let’s just say nefarious activities of the past.”
Unionists have often sought to criticise nationalists – the Irish government in particular – for invoking the spectre of a return to violence to attain their political objectives around Brexit.
Couldn’t people make similar criticisms of what he is saying?
“Well, I’ve made no secret of the fact that if the basis of the ceasefires is removed – in other words the constitutional stability that the Belfast Agreement provided – then these organisations are going to doubt the very basis on which they agreed their ceasefires,” he said.
"In a way, the line is being toed because people are satisfied with the political leadership that unionism is being given at the moment.
"It’s in all our interests to maintain the core guarantees of the Belfast Agreement, because that maintains our peace.
"Many of us have worked hard over the past 30 years to try and keep that position. It’s one of the reasons I’m doing what I’m doing with the loyalist organisations.”
He was also asked what he makes of the UUP’s current stance on the Protocol.
"It’s hilarious if it wasn’t so serious,” said Mr Campbell, who quit the part in about 2015.
He questioned why the UUP would oppose a unionist boycott of Stormont, when it is “clear” that being part of devolved government “means implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol”.
He added: “I just lament the UUP now. It’s just not relevant. And it’s current leader and the immediate past leaders have unfortunately made it irrelevant. So the focus is on Donaldson and the DUP – whether we like it or not.”
The News Letter sought comment from the UUP, but none had been received at time of writing.
Meanwhile People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll issued a statement on Friday saying: “The DUP remains non-committal [on a deal] because they must sell any Protocol deal to hard-line loyalists.
“Unelected Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has come to Belfast to placate a party that dances in tandem with political extremists.
“We know that the DUP has consulted loyalist paramilitaries over the Protocol in the past, but people should not be held to ransom by sectarian gangs or fringe loyalist figures.
"I would reiterate calls for the DUP to sever all ties with groups like the LCC.
“Clearly, the DUP has taken a hard line against the Protocol because they are haemorrhaging support to parties and individuals to their extreme right.
"This whole Protocol debacle has been a case of the tail wagging the dog."