Representatives of outlawed â€œloyalistâ€ gangs warned a U.K. parliamentary committee today that Northern Ireland risks a summer of violence if the European Union doesnâ€™t concede fundamental changes to the post-Brexit trade deal.
The MPsâ€™ discussion, involving convicted veterans of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando, underscored how the Northern Ireland protocol isÂ raising tensionsÂ among British unionists within the U.K. region.
Their appearance followsÂ 10 nights of riotingÂ in working-class Protestant districts in April, fueled by hostility to a U.K.-EU agreement that requires Northern Ireland to remain subject to EU single market rules and enforce checks on goods arriving from Britain.
Both the UVF and Red Hand Commando remain proscribed under British law 23 years after they joined in supporting the Good Friday peace accord, in part because police accuse both groups of stoking street violence and running criminal rackets.
They were invited to speak to the Northern Ireland affairs committee under their legal umbrella group, theÂ Loyalist Communities CouncilÂ (LCC), three months after it formally withdrew support from the Good Friday deal in protest against the protocol.
Conservative committee chairman Simon Hoare asked whether that action represented a threat of violence.
â€œWe are not in the business of issuing threats but we are in the business of issuing warnings,â€ replied the councilâ€™s leader,Â David Campbell, a former Ulster Unionist Party chairman committed to giving the loyalist outlaws a political voice.
He said the U.K.â€™s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, who met the LCC earlier this month in Belfast, had concluded their unannounced meeting by declaring: â€œThe European Commission needs to hear what Iâ€™m hearing.â€
Yet Campbell said former chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier â€œrepeatedly declined to meet with us,â€ while â€œwe havenâ€™t even had the courtesy of an acknowledgementâ€ to their requests to meet his successor, European Commission Vice President MaroÅ¡ Å efÄoviÄ.
Convicted UVF memberÂ Russell WattonÂ â€” who spent 13 years in prison for bombings and wounding three Irish nationalists in a gun attack on a pub â€” accused U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of lying to unionists when heÂ pledged in 2018 to avoid any regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
â€œBoris Johnson said â€˜unfetteredâ€™ [trade] and we took him at his word. Thatâ€™s why there is such seething anger,â€ said Watton, who today runs a shipping company. Since the protocol became active in January, he said, goods shipped from Britain â€œmust be itemized right down to a teaspoon.â€
Northern Irelandâ€™s largest illegal loyalist group, the Ulster Defence Association, had planned to send a representative,Â Denis Cunningham. He spent two years in prison after reading a UDA threat at a public rally â€” and was identified by the patterned glasses worn over his terrorist balaclava.
Cunningham was pulled in favor ofÂ Joel Keys, a 19-year-old man arrested during April rioting in Belfast but released without charge. When asked whether loyalists reserved the right to commit violence to topple the protocol, Keys said he didnâ€™t want violence but offered a qualified yes.
â€œThere are circumstances where violence is the only tool you have left,â€ said Keys, who â€œwouldnâ€™t rule it off the table.â€
He argued that people who rule out violence were â€œadmitting that youâ€™re not willing to back up anything you believe in.â€
The hardest questioning came from the sole MP representing moderate Irish nationalist opinion, Claire Hanna, who criticized the committee for giving militant voices a platform they had not earned through the ballot box.
When Campbell claimed that only a tenth of the more than 10,000 UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando members were involved in crime, Hanna expressed incredulity. She called their groups â€œa barrier to reconciliation and an oppressive force in communities.â€
â€œAre you saying the LCC only represents the well-behaved paramilitaries?â€ she said, adding: â€œPeople are running out of patience for criminals operating under a paramilitary banner.â€
A former Red Hand Commando chieftain, Jim Wilson, retorted that he wanted â€œto take gangsters and drug dealers off our streets.â€
â€œYou paint a picture that loyalism is nothing but drug dealers, scumbags and gangsters,â€ Wilson said. â€œItâ€™s just so sad.â€
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