Northern Ireland news

Analysis: Loyalist letter should be seen as negotiating tactic

Graffiti in the port town of Larne

IN withdrawing support for the Good Friday Agreement in a letter to prime minister Boris Johnson, the Loyalist Communities Council has made a very loud political statement.

Founded in 2015, with a high-profile launch at an east Belfast hotel fronted up by former Downing Street Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell, the LCC was originally intended as a vehicle to nudge loyalist paramilitary groups "off the stage".

That they still existed, and in many cases continued to recruit and retain their leadership structures, was becoming problematic for political unionism.

The reasons are well rehearsed. Loyalism fractured in the years after the signing of the 1998 agreement, with further violence levelled against their own communities and in many cases their own or rival members.

As well as the potential for money-making rackets, there was safety in numbers and no-one wanted to be the first to relinquish power and leave areas vulnerable to attack by a rival faction.

The LCC was intended to address all of this and more.

However, more recently the organisation representing the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando seems to have morphed into a pressure group, responding to loyalist anger at the Northern Ireland Protocol and so-called Irish Sea border.

A controversial meeting with the NIO in January was followed by discussions with the DUP leadership last week.

Interestingly, while the NIO meeting was intended to take place without any public commentary, the DUP released a statement confirming its engagement with the LCC.

This was no back-channel communication, it was a meeting intended to show loyalism in all its forms that the DUP was listening to their anger, evidenced by the presence of party leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds.

Many DUP MLAs and councillors rely on working-class loyalist votes and a recent poll showing a loss of support benefitting the hard-line TUV leader Jim Allister will have shaken the party.

It is known that during that DUP meeting, efforts to keep unionist and loyalist responses to the protocol in the political arena were discussed.

But how long could the hawks within loyalism be relied on to stay away from violence and unrest on the streets?

The LCC letter claims the protocol "gives effect to the Irish nationalist position at the expense of the unionist position".

It says this "undermines the basis on which the Combined Loyalist Military Command agreed their 1994 ceasefire".

And it warns: "If the EU is not prepared to honour the entirety of the Agreement then it will be responsible for the permanent destruction of the Agreement".

Strong words, ones which in other times could be interpreted as an intent to return to violence.

However, a more nuanced analysis is that this is a negotiating tactic, aimed at putting additional pressure on Boris Johnson to remove sea border checks.

Strong words to try to prevent anger escalating to violence - and to convince more radical loyalists that they are being heard and heard in the highest offices in the land.

And it does political unionism no harm having an angry dog at their side when negotiating with the British government over the protocol.

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