‘Protocol fuelling sense that Union is under threat’

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The head of a multi-million-pound development fund has warned that Brexit has opened up “old sores” in NI, and that the Protocol has fuelled loyalist fears of the Union being under threat.

International Fund for Ireland (IFI) chairman Paddy Harte said paramilitary groups on both sides of the divide are gaining support from communities who feel they have been let down by the peace process.

He said a huge amount of work had gone on behind the scenes earlier this year to quell the serious disorder that erupted the Lanark Way interface between the Falls Road and Shankill Road earlier this year, as loyalists rioted over the Irish Sea border for several nights.

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“We were able to put in a fairly rapid response to enable our community workers to work together to ensure that there were young people with credentials there to persuade as many as they could not to get involved,” Mr Harte told the PA news agency.

Paddy Harte, Chairman of the Board of the International Fund for Ireland at Belfast's Peace Walls.Paddy Harte, Chairman of the Board of the International Fund for Ireland at Belfast's Peace Walls.
Paddy Harte, Chairman of the Board of the International Fund for Ireland at Belfast's Peace Walls.

“It was night and day work. Had it not been for the presence of our groups and others, that could have spun out of control, there could have been fatalities – it’s not magic that things didn’t start up again, because people stayed on top of it.”

Significant work also went on behind the scenes at the North Queen Street/Duncairn interface in north Belfast after tensions rose over the siting of a loyalist July 11 bonfire.

However Mr Harte (a management consultant by trade and a former lecturer in “leadership and change” at Letterkenny Institute of Technology) warned: “There is only so long society can expect volunteers and community workers to continue to do this.

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“People continue to work, and it is a fairly challenging environment for communities workers, but with support from ourselves and others I think we’ll get through it, providing that support stays.

“It’s very, very possible (violence could erupt again).

“However the connections that we have within communities and the networks that we have means that we could respond again, but it would be very naive for anyone to think that Lanark Way wouldn’t happen again.

“We are dealing primarily with generations of quite appalling conflict.

“Brexit has brought up issues of culture and identity, and raised old sores that had gone well into the background.

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“The protocol has brought up this threat to the union and opportunity for a united Ireland – that sort of binary position is something that us and others have worked for years trying to show there are much more significant things to deal with.”

Coronavirus had “restricted if not stopped opportunities for discourse” which could have eased tensions.

“The middle ground is smaller now than it has been for the last 15 years,” he added.

The IFI far pre-dates the so-called peace process.

It was set up by the British and Irish governments as an independent organisation in 1986.

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It gives money to projects in Northern Ireland and the southern border counties.

It has bases in both Dublin and Belfast, and its leadership and secretariat are appointed by the Irish and UK governments.

Funding for the IFI has come from America, Canada, the EU, Australia and New Zealand – with the total amount parcelled out to date standing at roughly £749 million, according to its 2020 accounts.

Tory NI Secretary Brandon Lewis has said the fund does “unparalleled work to build and sustain peace by promoting and facilitating reconciliation and by tackling the underlying causes of violence and sectarianism”.

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And Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney has said: “As the world recovers from the social and economic effects of the Covid pandemic, and as Northern Ireland and the border counties continue to deal with the legacy of the past and the impact of Brexit, the work of the fund, through its engagement with the young and the most marginalised, is greatly needed in the period that lies ahead.”

In early October, the Loyalist Communities Council, a pressure group which involves former members of the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando, said that “it is important also that the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party understand that patience is now wearing thin over the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

The group added that, rhetoric aside, “the absence of actual change is worrying”.