Masked loyalists face off with PSNI while House of Lords hears warning of rising threat of violence over Irish Sea Border

Crowds of masked loyalists faced off against police lines in north Belfast last night after a parade in protest at the Irish Sea customs border.

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 10:53 pm
Updated Friday, 30th April 2021, 8:43 am

The protest parade on the Shore Road comes after concerns were raised in the House of Lords today that such events will increase over the summer, with an increasing sense that violence is the only way for them to be heard.

Photographs from north Belfast tonight showed large crowds - with most participants masked - parading with banners objecting to the NI Protocol and the related Irish Sea Customs border, which has caused major trade disruption between NI and GB. There were no reports of any violence.

There have been many such protests across the province this month - most of them peaceful - although violence on several nights (see image slideshow above) led to 100 PSNI officers being injured.

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Loyalists take part in a peaceful protest in the Shore Road area of North Belfast in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol. The protest was organised by the North Belfast Unionist Coalition. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

The Loyalist Communities Council and all unionist parties, including the PUP, have urged that protests remain peaceful.

The Government has amended the Belfast Agreement legislation to ensure that unionist consent is not needed when it comes before the Assembly for a vote in four years. The DUP, UUP and TUV have joined forces in a legal challenge to the Protocol in the Courts, arguing that the protocol breaches the Act of Union.

Baroness Kate Hoey told the Government in the Lords today that there are already “serious societal difficulties” in Northern Ireland due to the NI Protocol.

“Every night now across the Province there are dozens of mostly peaceful protests with people feeling ignored and betrayed,” she said.

Loyalists take part in a peaceful protest in the Shore Road area of North Belfast in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol. The protest was organised by the North Belfast Unionist Coalition. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

“They are not reported, of course, because they are not violent and this direct action is going to increase over the next few months with the worry that in many communities there is a feeling that the only way to advance political objectives is with the threat of violence - just like the threat of IRA bombs was used by Taoiseach Varadkar which led to the NI Protocol.”

She asked the government minister of state, Lord Frost, if he would assure people in Northern Ireland that the government recognises the “serious societal difficulties and instability arising from the protocol” which already exist and that it is therefore “unsustainable for the protocol to last much longer”.

Minister of State Lord Frost replied that in all his interactions with the European Commission Vice President “I do drive home the seriousness of the current situation in Northern Ireland - and the overriding importance for all parties of supporting the peace process and protecting the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement”.

He added: “I do encourage the Vice President to meet with business and civic groups in Northern Ireland to hear their unfiltered views and I know he intends to do that. The solution to this problem is one in which we can work with the commission to operate the Protocol in a pragmatic and proportionate fashion.”

Police lines block the road during a peaceful loyalist protest in the Shore Road area of North Belfast tonight. The protest was organised by the North Belfast Unionist Coalition. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Shortly afterwards UUP peer Lord Empey told Lord Frost of the “considerable political instability” which he said has been introduced into Stormont this week - which he said was in part due to the NI Protocol.

He was referring to the resignation of DUP leader Arlene Foster, who has faced criticism for - among other things - the party’s handling of Brexit and the resulting Irish Sea customs border.

“Can he assure us he is encouraging his counterparts in the EU to engage with those who know something about the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, because it is perfectly obvious that they don’t really have a grasp of its balance and purpose?” asked Lord Empey, who was a negotiator of the agreement for the UUP in 1998.

Lord Empey also asked the minister if he would meet a group to discuss the issue further.

Lord Frost replied that he” very much encouraged” the European Commission Vice President and his team to engage with those who have experience of negotiation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

“We do everything we can to drive home the importance of driving home the importance of protecting it as central to protecting stability in Northern Ireland,” he added.

Lord Frost said he would be very happy to meet and discuss the issue further.

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Alistair Bushe