HomeEuropeEU is warned of summer of violence if Northern Ireland protocol unchanged

EU is warned of summer of violence if Northern Ireland protocol unchanged

Representatives of outlawed “loyalist” gangs warned a U.K. parliamentary committee today that Northern Ireland risks a summer of violence if the European Union doesn’t concede fundamental changes to the post-Brexit trade deal.

The MPs’ discussion, involving convicted veterans of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando, underscored how the Northern Ireland protocol is raising tensions among British unionists within the U.K. region.

Their appearance follows 10 nights of rioting 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, the Loyalist Communities Council (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.

“We are not in the business of issuing threats but we are in the business of issuing warnings,” replied the council’s leader, David Campbell, a former Ulster Unionist Party chairman committed to giving the loyalist outlaws a political voice.

He said the U.K.’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, who met the LCC earlier this month in Belfast, had concluded their unannounced meeting by declaring: “The European Commission needs to hear what I’m hearing.”

Yet Campbell said former chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier “repeatedly declined to meet with us,” while “we haven’t even had the courtesy of an acknowledgement” to their requests to meet his successor, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič.

Convicted UVF member Russell Watton — who spent 13 years in prison for bombings and wounding three Irish nationalists in a gun attack on a pub — accused U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of lying to unionists when he pledged in 2018 to avoid any regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

“Boris Johnson said ‘unfettered’ [trade] and we took him at his word. That’s why there is such seething anger,” said Watton, who today runs a shipping company. Since the protocol became active in January, he said, goods shipped from Britain “must be itemized right down to a teaspoon.”

Northern Ireland’s largest illegal loyalist group, the Ulster Defence Association, had planned to send a representative, Denis Cunningham. He spent two years in prison after reading a UDA threat at a public rally — and was identified by the patterned glasses worn over his terrorist balaclava.

Cunningham was pulled in favor of 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 didn’t want violence but offered a qualified yes.

“There are circumstances where violence is the only tool you have left,” said Keys, who “wouldn’t rule it off the table.”

He argued that people who rule out violence were “admitting that you’re not willing to back up anything you believe in.”

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 “a barrier to reconciliation and an oppressive force in communities.”

“Are you saying the LCC only represents the well-behaved paramilitaries?” she said, adding: “People are running out of patience for criminals operating under a paramilitary banner.”

A former Red Hand Commando chieftain, Jim Wilson, retorted that he wanted “to take gangsters and drug dealers off our streets.”

“You paint a picture that loyalism is nothing but drug dealers, scumbags and gangsters,” Wilson said. “It’s just so sad.”

This insight is from POLITICO’s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Transition Pro subscribers. To request a trial email [email protected]

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