We have seen media coverage of the banners, posters and murals being put up rejecting the Irish Sea Border, the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol and even in some cases withdrawing support from the Good Friday Agreement and calling for the collapse of Stormont. However, behind this disapproval and anger, we have not seen analysis of why specifically loyalists are rejecting the Northern Ireland Protocol; their understanding of recent political events relating to it and what they propose to happen instead.
Below I will attempt to analyse loyalism’s response to the Northern Ireland Protocol based on my reading of written statements from various loyalist groups and my understanding of loyalist commentary that I have seen in the media. The anger within unionist and loyalist communities worries me greatly. Calm heads will be needed and rational, point-specific debate will be essential to navigate the uncharted waters Northern Ireland finds itself in during these momentous political times.
I thought it best to begin with the open letter to all MLAs and MPs in Ards and North Down issued on 13 February 2021 by the group calling itself ‘Ards and North Down Unionist Loyalist Collective’ (ANDULC), which I believe is the most comprehensive insight into how loyalists see the Protocol. ANDULC sees the implementation of the Protocol as a “reward for republican threats of violence” and believes this has set a “worrying precedent.”
Interestingly, the letter states that ANDULC differentiates between “two distinct issues flowing from the Protocol.” It sees the “practical day-to-day effects of the Protocol in terms of the impact of the increased paperwork and checks on importing and exporting goods” as “a matter which can be resolved via political solutions.” However, the second issue being “the reality of the constitutional implications of any form of Protocol which imposes an internal UK border” as something that has “no practical solutions” and therefore ANDULC makes clear that “no form of Irish Sea border will ever be tolerated.”
ANDULC also argues that “the cross-community consent mechanism within Strand 1 (5) (d) of the Belfast Agreement has been shredded via a unilateral amendment” to the “Northern Ireland Act 1998 on 10 December 2020.” ANDULC believes this amendment “disapplied the provisions of Section 42, a key Belfast Agreement safeguard, to facilitate nationalist objectives in terms of imposing the Protocol against the wishes of the entire unionist/loyalist community.”
ANDULC states that “it is illogical and inconceivable that political unionism should continue to operate the very institutions which are designed to act as a pathway to a United Ireland… via the transitory process” that will lead to the “incremental all-Ireland harmonisation to economic unity” by “stealth.” ANDULC declares that “support… for the Belfast Agreement was predicated upon the understanding that the Union was safe. This can no longer with any credibility be said to be true,” where ANDULC caution that there will be “growing sentiment against all aspects of the peace process, should our community be forced down this path against our will.”
ANDULC proposes “the triggering of Article 16” as a “temporary” measure against the Protocol and believes that it should be “removed in its entirety” ultimately. The letter does not define how this should be done, though. Statements from other loyalist groups have called for the withdrawing of support from the Belfast Agreement; the abandoning of North-South ministerial relations; and the formation of a unionist convention.
The call for a unionist convention echoes previous calls from the PUP (Progressive Unionist Party) on the formation of a unionist convention for the purposes of unionism to speak with one voice on existential threats to the union on which unionism as a whole could find common ground. At this moment in time, this would relate to the response of unionism and loyalism to the protocol and a possible border poll if one is called in the future.
A consistent theme within loyalist commentary to the protocol that I have noticed is the loyalist understanding of the Belfast Agreement. Loyalists generally see the Belfast Agreement as something that is supposed to guarantee Northern Ireland’s place in the union in terms of the constitution, culture, identity and economy as a constant. When loyalists feel either of these elements are undermined, this is when support for the Belfast Agreement starts to waver due to a lack of confidence and a lack of agreement on how Northern Ireland is supposed to cope in ever-changing political, socioeconomic times. Mainstream republicans don’t have this problem as they generally see the Belfast Agreement as a process towards a united Ireland, a view that many loyalists now also share themselves.
The current restrictions on travel and congregation during the coronavirus pandemic have undoubtedly halted any mass protests against the Northern Ireland Protocol. Though even then, one must question what impact any protest would have. The Northern-Ireland-wide, months-long mass protests from the 2012 flag decision that reduced the number of days the union flag would be flown at Belfast City Hall ultimately did not reverse the decision. Instead, the protests actually damaged loyalism’s image in footage communicated worldwide of loyalists clashing with their state’s own police service. Even if one intends for a ‘peaceful protest’, quite often when a crowd gathers, anything could happen beyond one’s control.
Michael Palmer holds a degree in Politics from Ulster University and is interested in political ideology, the politics of popular culture and wrote a dissertation on unionism/loyalism.