Loyalist opposition to NI protocol creating febrile atmosphere on the ground

In Rathcoole, the scorch marks on the tarmac show where a bus was hijacked and burnt out on Sunday night in what has been linked to loyalist opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol.

There are other signs, too, quite literally, in the placards on lamp posts proclaiming the area’s opposition to the protocol. “The Belfast Agreement has been broken. The deal’s off!” one reads; behind it a mural depicts masked members of the loyalist paramilitary organisation the Red Hand Commando and the slogan: “Don’t play with peace.”

In the large, mainly loyalist housing estate – and an area of high social deprivation – in Newtownabbey, just north of Belfast, there was also disorder around Easter, when several nights of rioting were attributed to opposition to the protocol.

“I am concerned that there are people who see no alternative but to do what they did, and I’m concerned because the good people of Rathcoole are getting tarred with the same brush as the four people who got on and took that driver and those passengers off,” says a local community worker, who asks not to be identified over safety concerns.

“That’s not the way most people in Rathcoole want to be known.”

The majority sentiment in the area, the community worker says, is anger; they “understand people’s frustration” over the protocol – and frustration that they are “not being listened to” – but their anger is over the attack on the bus.

“You’re taking it out on the people it’s going to affect most, which is the people in the area.”

Concerns over the protocol are “one thing among a whole lot of things”, including the lack of academic achievement in working-class areas, the impact of social deprivation and the increasing cost of living. “The people that are suffering are predominantly the working-class people [the attackers are] telling people they’re representing,” the community worker says.

Febrile atmosphere

The hijacking on Sunday was the second within a week. During the first incident, in a loyalist area of Newtownards, Co Down, on November 1st, two masked men held the driver at gunpoint and “muttered something about the protocol” as they ordered him and the passengers off the bus, Minister for Infrastructure Nichola Mallon said.

According to loyalist sources, neither incident is part of an orchestrated campaign by loyalist paramilitary groups, who it is understood do not want a return to violence, not least because they do not want younger members of their community to have criminal records.

However, they also describe heightened tensions on the ground over the protocol and a belief that their concerns – over the protocol and over the perceived treatment of loyalist areas compared with nationalist ones – are not being listened to; this creates a febrile atmosphere in which the potential for violence cannot be ruled out.

Anybody I speak to goes, ‘Why are we destroying our own community; have we not learned from the past?’

“Yes the paramilitaries would be concerned about the whole notion of the union, they would be concerned how Brexit has turned [into] something that the EU in their belief is being zealous about, and they would make the argument that they didn’t want to lose the UK and now [the EU] are sticking the boot in, to use a Shankill Road phrase,” says Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and a former UVF leader.

“Yes, they’re annoyed about all this, yes they’re angry about it, but I do not see them wanting violence on the streets.”

A burnt-out double decker bus on Church Road near Rathcoole in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, after it was hijacked and set on fire near a loyalist estate. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire
A burnt-out double decker bus on Church Road near Rathcoole in Newtownabbey, Co Antrim, after it was hijacked and set on fire near a loyalist estate. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire

In a paper published this week, Hutchinson warned there was “no basis for unionist support” for the Belfast Agreement because “the constitutional guarantee is not as was promised to the unionist community”.

“The temperature in loyalist communities is very high anyway. Pieces of work have been done around that to try to get people to be constructive and positive and move forward, and that’s what’s been happening, and then all of a sudden [buses are attacked],” he says. “Anybody I speak to goes, Why are we destroying our own community; have we not learned from the past?”

‘Random’ attacks

The attacks, he says, are either random or “sleight of hand” by “people who do not want unionism and loyalism to move forward”; if this is the case, “they do not have the support of the leadership”.

Recent violence is “localised and sporadic”, says Brian Rowan, a journalist and author on the peace process. “I think there is undoubtedly evidence that key figures in the loyalist leadership have a foot on the brake, that if they wanted this to spread it would simply be a matter of taking the foot off that brake.

“There are those in the loyalist leadership who know that the outworking of that violence is destroying their own communities and also understand that their fight or their argument is at the highest level of the UK government – that it was Johnson and Frost who negotiated the protocol and the sense of sell-out they have at the moment is at the door of the UK government.”

There are also internal dynamics within loyalism, and the struggle for power at a local level is a factor. Loyalism “is not a monolith”, says Rowan. “In some of those areas of sporadic violence there are people who are involved whose only interest is self-interest, who see this as an excuse to present themselves as defenders when actually in many cases they are nothing more than organised crime gangs.”

Loyalists and unionists are opposed to the protocol – the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement that avoids a hard border by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea – because they argue it changes the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. In the narrative that has emerged post-Brexit, it has taken on totemic status as a fundamental threat to unionist identity even though for most people it has had little practical impact.

A survey commissioned by the University of Liverpool, published last week, found that the immediate concerns for almost 60 per cent of those who wish to remain in the UK were either Covid recovery, health or the economy – broadly similar to the number who favour Irish unification – and post-Brexit trade arrangements were the top priority for only 12.6 per cent of those who wish to remain in the UK.


The report, says its author, Prof Peter Shirlow, demonstrates not only high-levels of inter-community consensus but also “there’s not a homogenous working-class unionist attitude towards the protocol”.

He has spoken to former prisoners and others “very much involved in loyalism” about recent unrest, who say “this is another example of unionist chaos, another example of a lack of leadership, and they have actually reflected on the data and said this is actually the reality of where we are. Not everybody is exercised about the protocol.”

There is an awareness among senior figures, he says, that violence or the threat of it creates instability, “and every time you do that you’re undermining the union. What they’re looking for is a unionist leadership which is actually going to lead on the protocol, but lead in a way that is solution-finding.

“Now, clearly there are others in the room for whom this is their moment, this allows you to assert a traditional type of loyalism, and they have clearly detached themselves from even people within their own group who caution them not to do this, not to be radicalised.”

Back in Rathcoole, the call is for “alternatives for young people. We need to be looking at the way forward and we need good leadership within the areas”, the community worker says.

When a bus is burnt in the area, should the blame fall on Rathcoole, “or do we take it to the door of Stormont or Westminster?”

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