Daniel McConnell: North risks a return to dark days of the past 

The political rhetoric in the North in recent days would lead one to conclude the lines of communications are badly in need of repair
Daniel McConnell: North risks a return to dark days of the past 

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney 
said given what the UK had done, the Johnson government “could not be trusted”. He, to be frank, was spot on.

We woke up on Thursday to read the news that loyalist paramilitary groups had told Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Taoiseach Micheál Martin they are withdrawing support for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

We were already only beginning to deal with the political fall-out of the British Government’s unilateral decision to extend the three-month grace period which exempts British suppliers from providing certain paperwork when shipping food to Northern Ireland supermarkets.

The outright anger and fury from the EU and from Dublin to this “solo run” on Wednesday was palpable.

We were told that the Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group representing the views of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, said the last time the "unionist family" was so united was in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

These groups between them were responsible for 1,027 of the 3,532 recorded deaths of the troubles.

According to an index of deaths during the troubles, of those killed by loyalist paramilitaries, 878 (85.5%) were civilians, 94 (9.2%) were members of loyalist paramilitaries, 41 (4.0%) were members of republican paramilitaries, and 14 (1.4%) were members of the British security forces.

Perceived neglect

The LCC was founded in 2015 in response to what it called the perceived neglect of working-class loyalists in Northern Ireland.

In the letter, LCC chairman David Campbell stated: "I have no doubt that you are aware of the strong feelings in Northern Ireland regarding the imposition of the NI Protocol", adding that loyalists are determined it "should be replaced".

"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," the letter said.

"The LCC is prepared to play a meaningful role in seeking a workable solution, however, a starting point has to be the acceptance that a hard border of the island of Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, has no cross-community support here and therefore untenable.

"It must be patently obvious to you that the triggers detailed in Article 16 of the protocol, ie the extreme economic and societal difficulties, now pertain and must be acted on without further delay."

Hostility and unhappiness

Unionist unhappiness is nothing new and hostility toward the Good Friday Agreement is also nothing new, especially for the likes of parties like the DUP.

I think of Edward Carson’s famous quote about how Ulster Unionism really features in the minds of those in Downing Street.

“What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power,” he told the House of Lords in 1921.

The withdrawal of the loyalist group’s support, however, is a clear sign the historic agreement which paved the path for the brittle peace which has held since, is without question under the greatest strain since its signing 23 years ago.

As was forecast at the time of the referendum, the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2016 was always going to be a test for the stability of Northern Ireland and the boundaries of the Good Friday Agreement.

The past four years have certainly borne out such concerns and since December the Northern Irish protocol, which essentially put the trade border down the Irish Sea, has caused a significant escalation of tensions among the unionist and loyalist communities.

The various groups within the LCC umbrella made it clear that they were "strongly opposed" to the proposed Withdrawal Agreement due to the treatment of the Irish border question.

Some controversy has erupted in the past two weeks after it emerged loyalist representatives have met with the Northern Ireland Office and last week met the leadership of the DUP.

First Minister Arlene Foster: "Ignoring communities will take Northern Ireland in the wrong direction".

First Minister Arlene Foster: "Ignoring communities will take Northern Ireland in the wrong direction".

At the meeting attended by Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds were PUP spokesperson Winston Irvine, loyalist leader Jackie McDonald and former prisoner Jim Wilson.

Ms Foster defended the meeting, saying: "Ignoring communities will take Northern Ireland in the wrong direction".

However, Alliance MP Stephen Farry hit out at what he called the “normalisation” of illegal groups.

"Does Boris Johnson respond and give more oxygen to the normalisation of treating illegal organisations like any other stakeholder in society?"

The renewed rancour between Downing Street and Brussels over the government’s unilateral act to give Northern Ireland businesses time to adapt to post-Brexit rules is perhaps more alarming.

Criticism of Number 10

Condemnation of Downing Street’s move from Dublin and Brussels was swift and damning.

Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the commission, said it amounted to a “violation” of the withdrawal agreement.

Simon Coveney, the Foreign Affairs Minister, said given what they had done, the Johnson government “could not be trusted”.

He, to be frank, was spot on.

Mr Coveney said that he “strongly advised” Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis against the UK’s unilateral decision to extend the grace period for post-Brexit checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.

If the UK could not be trusted to stick to an agreement and instead took unilateral action then the EU was left with no option but to take legal action, he told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland. “It’s not what we want, but it is where the UK is driving us.” The British side hold that UK minister David Frost made clear to the EU and to Mr Coveney that these were temporary, and limited measures, but that they are needed to create some space and time for the British on the ground for businesses in the North.

It is clear the British feel the aim remains that both sides should find longer-term workable joint solutions to ensure the protocol works in the context of Ireland.

Sources have said that from the British perspective there is a feeling that the Good Friday Agreement must work on an “East-West sense as well as the north-south sense”.

What is clear is that the botched move by the EU Commission on January 29, when it moved to trigger the Article 16 ban on imports without the consent of Dublin, has significantly impacted on relations not only in the North but between Dublin and London.

Lead balloon

Both Dublin and London officials have made clear that the events of January 29 did have an important effect. “It did have the effect of making a difficult situation in Northern Ireland significantly more difficult,” one source said.

Predictably enough Mr Coveney’s strongly critical comments went down like a lead balloon with the DUP and Arlene Foster.

The DUP leader said the Fine Gael minister was ignoring Northern Ireland unionists. “I listened with interest to Simon Coveney’s comments today,” she told a press conference in Dungannon.

“He talks about not having a partner you can do business with. I have to say he should reflect on that, because he’s not listening to the unionist people of Northern Ireland, the entirety of the unionist people of Northern Ireland. He’s ignoring them and thinking that they’ll just go away — well we’ll not go away. And we need to be listened to in relation to our very deep concerns about trade diversion,” she railed.

We have seen instances of violence in the North on the rise and the political rhetoric in recent days would lead one to conclude the lines of communications are badly in need of repair.

None of us may want to go back to the dark days of the past, but if political leadership is not shown soon, by somebody, that is exactly where we will find ourselves.

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