Sam McBride: On the streets and in Stormont, the next few months look bleak for Northern Ireland

Since the erection of the Irish Sea border at the start of January, there has been both implicit and explicit dismissal of unionist anger.

Saturday, 10th April 2021, 7:01 am
Loyalist paramilitaries began the year by keeping their members off the streets – but for the last week that is no longer happening. Photo: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker

Even in the face of widespread concern about the practical and symbolic implications of the new trade frontier, the EU has effectively said that the border is there to stay – and said that there should be more checks at Northern Ireland’s ports.

Although the Northern Ireland Protocol – which creates the internal UK trade border – has been presented by the EU as essential to preserving the peace, it is now exacerbating instability.

For his part, Boris Johnson has failed to accept his role in destabilising Northern Ireland by dishonestly denying that there would be an Irish Sea border or the checks which have inevitably flowed from the deal he signed. Even now, he refuses to apologise for misleading the public.

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Some commentators brushed off the possibility of loyalist anger turning violent, with the suggestion that there was no one for them to attack – after all, it was the prime minister of the nation to which they are loyal who betrayed them.

That simplistic understanding of unionist psychology failed to understand unionism’s historic suspicion of London, its belief that in the end it can only rely on itself, and the willingness of a section of unionism to resort to violence when politics has failed to secure its aims.

Just a month ago, Chief Constable Simon Byrne said: “We don’t see the prospect of a return to protest or violence.”

Yet at the time Mr Byrne was saying that, the author and historian Aaron Edwards said that “Brexit and the protocol have breathed new life into [loyalist paramilitary] activities and given it a political tinge. No one should underestimate what that means”. A lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst who has spent years analysing loyalism, Dr Edwards warned that it was wrong to suggest there were no targets for loyalist rage. He said there is a “highly destructive tendency within Ulster loyalism”, which could lead to “lashing out”.

For more than a week now, that lashing out has been happening. Some of it involves the dissident South East Antrim UDA which is smarting from the police targeting its criminality. The fact that Larne Port is in south east Antrim gives particular significance to that group’s actions.

But the trouble did not start in that area, and so that only explains a small portion of a deeper dilemma.

This violence may subside, but the instability which lies behind it is likely to increase because weak leadership is central to current events.

Most of the leaders of unionism, of loyalist paramilitary groups, and of the Orange Order, started this year by playing down the Irish Sea border rather than urging people on to the streets.

On the eve of the new border’s erection, Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson – speaking in a personal capacity – said: “We have to make the best of it. There is no good shouting about it, there’s no good protesting about it...”

DUP leader Arlene Foster similarly made clear last year that she had given up the political fight to stop the border being put in place and began this year speaking of the opportunities which were open to Northern Ireland regardless of the new frontier.

Similarly, paramilitary leaders showed by their actions that they wanted to restrain even public protests and did not move towards violence.

But all of those groups have shifted to more hardline positions. In some cases, such as Mrs Foster, it is clear that the shift follows intense pressure from beneath.

In other cases, we can only surmise as to precisely what has gone on, but in each situation it is clear that leaders are not leading along the path which they initially trod.

That fragility of leadership is a portent of future difficulties.

In guessing where the DUP will go, the last three months show Jim Allister to be a more reliable barometer of future party policy than the party’s nominal leader.

In the opaque underworld of paramilitarism, there is even less clarity about future intentions but recent months suggest that the views of younger loyalists such as Jamie Bryson are more indicative of where loyalism is likely to be than those of veterans such as UDA leader Jackie McDonald.

The way in which the Irish Sea border has been constructed exacerbates this problem because it is not a solitary event, but involves a gradual hardening of the new border over the course of a year.

Each point at which more checks are put in place has the potential to prompt fresh problems – right up to the end of this year when the emotive border for medicines, something still not fully understood by many people, will be put in place.

All of this will happen alongside developments at Stormont which even in themselves would be politically difficult.

More than a year after agreeing to an Irish language act – the DUP’s key compromise to restore Stormont last January – Mrs Foster has not yet delivered the legislation.

Sinn Féin has been surprisingly patient about the lack of movement but there are growing rumours of internal DUP revolt on the issue.

Having last summer suffered the biggest backbench rebellion in the history of the DUP over a technical piece of legislation which few voters understood, the DUP leader will face enormous reticence over something which many DUP voters do understand and dislike.

Yet the longer she delays the decision, the closer it gets to next May’s Assembly elections – and the riskier the decision becomes. However, without that legislation, it is hard to see Stormont surviving because – as my colleague Ben Lowry wrote last month – this is what the DUP agreed.

Reneging now will attract scant sympathy for the party. What moves this beyond a problem for the DUP as a party to a problem for unionism is the hapless state of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Leader Steve Aiken’s calamitous interview with Stephen Nolan last week emphasised how that party is now barely the shell of the entity which built Northern Ireland a century ago.

Whereas two decades ago, as the UUP fell apart under David Trimble there was a professional alternative lead party of unionism, now there is nothing. Jim Allister has enormous personal ability, but lacks the party machine to replicate what the DUP did two decades ago.

Thus, if Stormont survives until next year’s election it will likely see a more divided unionism – probably alongside a stagnant, or falling, vote for Sinn Féin. Piecing together an executive in those circumstances, possibly with the DUP only having the deputy First Minister position, will be challenging.

However, the closer we get to next May’s election, the easier it will be to collapse Stormont. If the pandemic continues to recede, a tactical collapse a couple of months before the election would have limited practical impact on public services but could be seen by either the DUP or Sinn Féin as electorally advantageous.

However, as with a building, collapse is the easy part. Putting it back together took three years after the last implosion of the executive. Next time could be even harder.

A DUP source who was present at the party’s executive meeting in January 2020 where Mrs Foster was defending the deal to restore Stormont said that she had been blunt about the consequences if devolution collapsed again.

Speaking in the Crowne Plaza Hotel at Shaw’s Bridge – the same location where little more than a year earlier the DUP had cheered Boris Johnson as he told them he would never accept an Irish Sea border – Mrs Foster is said to have told senior party members that “if it doesn’t work this time, that’s it for good”.

In Northern Ireland’s centenary year, there is more riding on this for unionists than for anyone else – but unionist leaders are shorn of either ideas to reverse the trajectory towards repeated defeat or the authority to implement such ideas if they existed.

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