Thanks to some fancy footwork in Brussels and Strasbourg by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Brexit was associated in the international mind with its potential, c/o armed guards at customs posts, to revive republican violence in Northern Ireland and even to re-ignite the Troubles.
To judge by this evocative report by News Letter deputy editor Ben Lowry, the politicians and the media may have misread the story. The real threat to peace, according to Lowry’s report of a Loyalist gathering in Portadown – once memorably described as ‘the citadel of Orangeism’, by the SDLP’s Brid Rodgers – may instead come from militant Unionism.
I guess we’ll find out soon enough. Lowry’s report should be required reading:
On Wednesday evening loyalists met at Carleton Orange Hall in Portadown to protest against what is being dubbed Boris ‘betrayal act’.
The News Letter was asked to witness it, the latest in a series of meetings across Northern Ireland that have been closed to media. I went along to gauge the atmosphere.
The room was overflowing, by my counts about 320 people – 150 or so people in the main seating, 50 down each side, and 70 standing at the back, out into the stairwell.
An Orangeman, Robert Wallace, was chair, and also on stage was the loyalist Jamie Bryson, and the Upper Bann candidates Carla Lockhart (DUP) and Doug Beattie (UUP).
“We are in the final days of the Union if this withdrawal act goes through,” he said. Noting that the Republic of Ireland was staying in the EU, he added: “When it comes to regulations that would affect Northern Ireland on goods, the Dublin government would have a greater say over Northern Ireland than the sovereign government in Westminster. Is there anyone in this room, any unionist in NI who thinks this is acceptable?”
There were shouts of ‘no’ and ‘never’ from the audience,
Mr Bryson blamed the 1998 Belfast Agreement but said he saw why people voted for it. “No unionist or loyalist voted for it as a process. They voted for it as a settlement.”
Instead, he said, the end of the “peace process” was a “referendum to join a united Ireland and every seven years after that.”
It was, Mr Byrson said, the “politics of hostage, Support the Belfast Agreement and the peace process because if not the IRA might kill us”.
He said: “The British government, the Irish government and the EU have caved into the threat of nationalist violence.
“The Irish prime minister went to the EU and said if there was so much as a camera — so much as a camera on the border — that dissident republicans would attack it and plant bombs and shoot it down.
He said unionists were “expected to be embarrassed about being British citizens lest we offend the permanently offended Irish nationalists. I’m sorry, I have had enough.”
A voice in the crowd shouted ‘hear hear’, as sustained applause came from the body of the hall.
Mr Bryson went on: “The loyalist and working class unionist community — we have been criminalised, dehumanised, mocked, and sneered at, people have made fun if us, they’ve poked at us, they have done this consistently and then they wonder why they have created this monster.”
Carla Lockhart MLA spoke, saying she was known to people in the room and had helped many of them on constituency matters.
“We are utterly opposed to it,” she said of the Boris act. “We voted against and will continue to vote against it if and when we are returned to Westminster.”
Avoiding making a party political point against the UUP, she added: “It is important that everyone no matter who you come out to vote for, you vote. We need to send out a strong message about this deal which will break up the Union.”
Doug Beattie then spoke. He had served his country all his life, as did his parents in forces, and his uncle had been murdered.
“Where we are right now is bad … I have not known NI to be so dislocated from the rest of the UK more than I have seen it now.”
He said that the UUP had “on measure” to back Remain in the EU referendum, because they thought there was a danger to the Union. But the party accepted Brexit as the democratic will of the nation.
The Boris deal would separate NI from GB, he said. Everyone in the room had to reject to that deal, but Jeremy Corbyn would do “everything he can” to cut NI loose.
Mr Beattie too declined an opportunity to criticise the DUP specifically. Neither he, nor anyone in the room during the 90 minute meeting, mentioned that they had agreed a regulatory (but not customs) border in early October, albeit if Stormont had a lock.
“What about South Belfast?” shouted a man as Mr Beattie spoke. He said he would address that later, but the matter did not arise again.
Mr Wallace said threats to Protestants, from 1641, had been resolved by “men on the ground”.
From the floor, a succession of often angry men spoke (90% of the audience was male).
The first said NI had been under a war of attrition from the “pan nationalist front” in every year since his birth in 1949.
Another man said people were looking to be led, like unionists were once led by Lord Carson, but who now would lead them? How would the panel empower people to do what they are talking about?
When Ms Lockhart reiterated that she was there to listen to what people wanted, saying she had delivered for unionism. It all starts on December 12 she said, emphasising that unionists should unite against the deal, whoever they voted for.
Mr Bryson then answered the question more directly saying loyalists have a right to defend themselves in the face of a betrayal.
“We are not being driven into an economic united Ireland … to appease the Provisional IRA …” he said, to loud applause.
Mr Wallace said unionists had won past fights, but then lost the peace due to having no endgame.
A man who said he served in the UDR on a South Armagh “border, which isn’t there any more” railed against unionists who had supported disbandment of the B Specials and Stormont and then backed the Belfast Agreement. Even at Drumcree people were told to go home, “everything will be OK”.
A man from east Belfast said “we all know what the British government is doing to us” but what are we going to do to stop it? “When challenges fail and Boris’s deal is still there, then what?”
He said he was 52 and “fortunate” because he would never see a united Ireland, because it would be “over my dead body” [applause].
A loyalist then said “peaceful protest is finished” and what did the parties on the panel have to say about military resistance if the agreement is pushed through?
Ms Lockhart said she sensed the mood in the room, but she still expected a hung parliament. A man in the crowd shouted, “that is never going to happen Carla”. She said 10 DUP MPs had defeated the deal. “They said it wouldn’t be a hung parliament in 2017,” she said.
“What if it isn’t?” a man shouted? She said she supported law and order, not violence. “What about the Ulster Covenant?” said a voice?
“When politics fails support the people!” shouted another.
“I support the people!” she said, suddenly annoyed, saying she worked daily for the loyalist people.
The independent unionist Paul Berry joined the stage, apologising for being late after a victims’ event. He said unionists had been Tory puppets for a century.
Mr Wallace then asked three questions: whether anyone supported the deal; would accept an Irish identity/unity; whether there were any lengths to which they would not go to resist the destruction of their country? The crowd shouted no each time.
The meeting closed with the national anthem.
• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor