Sandy Row, Belfast. © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster
In a shocking escalation of tensions between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, Loyalist Paramilitaries have informed Boris Johnson that they have withdrawn support for the Good Friday Peace Agreement. Both the DUP and the Loyalist Communities Council have assured Boris Johnson and the public that this withdrawal does not mean that Loyalist Paramilitaries will resort to violent resistance to the Northern Ireland Protocol, but the recent attempted bombing of two offices of Nationalist politicians would suggest otherwise. Loyalists are irate over the Northern Ireland Protocol which has placed a border down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland (NI) and the UK. They see this as undermining the Union between NI and the UK, and creating an “Economic United Ireland”.
On the 25th of February, leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster met with representatives of the Loyalist UVF, UDA, and Red Hand Commandos paramilitaries to discuss their concerns with the NI Protocol. A day later, NI’s Minister for Agriculture, Gordon Lyons, of the DUP, instructed customs staff to stop levying charges on traders importing goods into NI from the UK at the ports. He also ceased construction of customs inspection facilities and paused recruitment of inspection staff. On Wednesday, the UK government unilaterally extended the grace period on post-Brexit checks on agricultural goods traded between NI and the UK. The EU reacted angrily, asserting that this was in contravention of the Brexit Deal and a breach of international law. The EU has vowed to initiate legal proceedings against the UK.
It is unclear what legal remedies the EU will seek to this impasse. The EU previously threatened legal action when the UK government introduced the Internal Markets Bill in September of last year. Certain provisions of the bill would have allowed the UK to unilaterally contravene elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol, including border checks. The UK removed the contentious clauses after the EU threatened legal action. Having actually breached the NI Protocol on this occasion, it is unlikely that the UK will back down without significant concessions to the Protocol. As the NI Protocol facilitates an open border between NI and the Republic of Ireland, the natural punishment would be for the EU to renege on their side of the Protocol by instituting checks on goods between the two states. This would not be an effective remedy, as this is the arrangement preferred by Northern Irish Loyalists and Unionists. If the EU wishes to compel the UK to roll back on its unilateral decision, they may have to place sanctions on trade between the UK and the EU.
When the NI Protocol was being negotiated, few considered the threat it posed to peace in NI. The possibility that Loyalist paramilitaries would react violently to the arrangement was never discussed. The entire focus was on the probability that Republican paramilitaries such as the IRA would violently oppose the imposition of a hard border dividing NI from the Republic. It was said that the installation of border inspection facilities would contravene Section 8.2.ii of the Good Friday Agreement, which committed the UK and Irish governments to “the removal of security installations”. No consideration was given to the threat to peace that an Irish Sea border would pose. The consequences of this oversight have now become centre-stage. If the actual purpose of the NI Protocol was to maintain peace in Northern Ireland, then the EU must be cautious in how they deal with Unionist and Loyalist concerns. Arlene Foster has accused the EU of taking a “very belligerent approach” to Unionist concerns; taking harsh legal action against the UK will not appease the Unionist community, and will not pacify Loyalist paramilitaries.