The former BBC correspondent and author says it’s like a rewind button has been pressed to the past in the North.
THOSE FLAMES IN Belfast on Wednesday night caught the attention of the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – that burning bus that was part of an ugly street play that stretched towards one of the city’s so-called peace lines.
On Twitter, Johnson wrote:
I am deeply concerned by the scenes of violence in Northern Ireland, especially attacks on PSNI who are protecting the public and businesses, attacks on a bus driver and the assault of a journalist. The way to resolve differences is through dialogue, not violence or criminality.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) April 7, 2021
It is like a rewind button has been pressed into the past and those conflict years.
Johnson has shown little interest in Northern Ireland; a place too complicated for his attention span.
He made a flying visit to Stormont in January 2020 to steal a slice of the success when then-Secretary of State Julian Smith and Tanaiste Simon Coveney put their New Decade, New Approach agreement on the table and dared the Northern Ireland parties to reject it.
A weakened Executive
There had been no government for three years. Forty-eight hours after the Smith-Coveney initiative, a new Northern Executive was formed. What was Smith’s reward? To be sacked by Johnson in a Cabinet reshuffle weeks later.
But what has unnerved the loyalist community?
Think of their involvement in the peace process – including the Combined Loyalist Military Command ceasefire delivered with a statement that the Union is safe.
That was in the then of 1994. 2021 is very different.
The post-Brexit arrangements mean an Irish Sea border, which in the minds of loyalists has created further difference and distance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
That Union, no longer as safe.
This is what has been smouldering in the meeting places and conversations that happen in the loyalist community. That loyalist leadership is due to meet again today.
Part of their anger is directed towards the DUP – the charge, that at a time when they had influence at Westminster, they played a good hand badly.
The politics of this place is again in a mess – the pandemic the thread on which the Stormont Executive now hangs.
Brexit, Covid and policing
In this mood, other grievances emerge, including the allegation of two-tier policing.
Loyalists point to the funeral of the senior IRA figure Bobby Storey in Belfast last summer when guidelines and restrictions were ignored. One rule for them – different rules for everyone else.
Unionist leaders have demanded that Chief Constable Simon Byrne resign. The political mess has made its way into policing.
So far, street violence has been localised. There has been no order or orchestration for it to happen everywhere. But there is a worrying momentum.
Young people again being sent to frontlines with bricks and petrol bombs in their hands. And the conflict generation watches a replay of the past madness.
2021 was meant to be a celebration of the Northern Ireland centenary. It is not what it looks like. The page turns so far are into that mood of yesteryear.
Johnson is right that dialogue will be needed. But he is not trusted. In the here and now, he is seen as part of the problem.
Back in October 2019, a senior loyalist predicted the Brexit outcome: “I think we’re fucked,” he said. “If Sinn Fein thinks it’s all right, loyalists will think it’s all wrong.”
They were waiting for what they knew was coming, what they could see at a distance from this negotiation, that to get his deal Johnson would throw Northern Ireland under the bus.
The hope of that 2020 Smith-Coveney initiative has also gone, forgotten in the latest angry exchanges and arguments.
There is another problem, that loyalism is no longer that combined leadership of the 1990s. It is a fractured community in which there are many competing interests. Recently it again withdrew its support for the Good Friday Agreement.
This morning I tweeted:
No news is bad news
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It’s a day for calm words. The Assembly recalled. Talk also of a loyalist leadership meeting. We’re watching and listening to a rewind into the Past. Time for those who should know better to show leadership – to wise up before it’s too late.
— Brian Rowan (@BrianPJRowan) April 8, 2021
Who will be heard above the noise?
Brian Rowan is a journalist and author. He is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast. Brian is the author of several books on Northern Ireland’s peace process. His new book, “Political Purgatory – The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland” is out now at Merrion Press.