2021 in Review- A year of Unionist/Loyalist activism
By Jamie Bryson
2021 saw the attempted implementation of the Union-subjugating Protocol, which was imposed upon the people of Northern Ireland as a ransom payment, rewarding nationalist threats of violence and mass civil disobedience if the border should be where it belongs between two sovereign territories.
On the 2nd January 2021 I published a book ‘Brexit Betrayed’ which called for the DUP to make the Stormont institutions unworkable, as a means of creating sufficient instability to trigger Article 16. The then DUP leadership branded such a suggestion “foolish”, however only days later a group of DUP MPs- lead by Ian Paisley Jnr- adopted the idea and made calls for the instant triggering of Article 16.
As the months developed it become increasingly clear that the Protocol could not co-exist with the Belfast Agreement, given that, amongst other things, it fatally undermines the core planks of that Agreement.
The 1998 Agreement, pernicious and corrosive to the Union as it is, was nevertheless built upon the key plank of cross community consent for key decisions (Strand One (5) (d) and section 42 of the NI Act 1998). However, when it came to the most crucial decision of all- the Assembly consent motion in regards the Protocol- the Government unilaterally disapplied the principle of cross community consent, ensuring that nationalists could join together with the anti-unionist Alliance party to foist an economic United Ireland upon us. That was never going to be a sustainable basis for peace and stability.
It was unsurprising therefore that (thankfully only sporadic) violence spilled onto the streets as we headed towards April. The anger was buttressed by the exposure of the real extent of PSNI- IRA/Sinn Fein collusion over the terrorist show of strength at the funeral of life-long nationalist terrorist Bobby Storey.
The anger was then harnessed more productively with a mass protest movement coming together for both static protests, and (it seems) a deliberate strategy of engaging in widespread peaceful unnotified public processions, in defiance of the pro-nationalist Parades Commission.
This strategy was undoubtedly effective and played a key role (as set out in the Government’s July command paper) in ensuring the conditions for triggering Article 16 were met.
However, despite that reality, we have yet to see significant progress on the Protocol. This has become even more pronounced by the High Court finding that the Acts of Union- the very core constitutional basis of the Union- had been subject to implied repeal. This finding, which essentially made ‘new law’ in so far as it found constitutional statutes could be subject to implied repeal if they conflict with another constitutional statute (an entirely novel suggestion), is presently being challenged in the Court of Appeal. No matter the outcome, the case is destined for the ultimate constitutional showdown in the Supreme Court some time in 2022.
In the past twelve months unionism and loyalism has collectively set its face against the Belfast Agreement, as the realisation has dawned that it is- and always was- fundamentally imbalanced. Only the UUP stand alone as champions of the Agreement, with an ideological commitment- no matter the price that unionism must pay- to North South arrangements and the corrosive ‘process’.
We have seen the PUP issuing one of the most significant constitutional documents from any unionist party since 1998. This was followed up by a constitutional paper setting out a number of ways by which the constitutional legislative architecture could be strengthened in order to solidify Northern Ireland’s place within the Union.
There have equally been significant developments in grassroots unionist and loyalist communities, with a new wave of young (well, youngish- yes Stacey Graham, I am talking to you) activists coming forward to articulate the case for the Union, and the needs of working-class loyalist communities. A number of such persons formed together to develop Let’s Talk Loyalism, which has carried out some fantastic work in 2021.
The challenge against inherent bias within sections of the media, and the unprofessional journalism of elements within Sunday tabloids has continued. A number of further significant regulatory judgments were secured in cases brought to IPSO, ensuring there is now a strong body of press regulator cases acting as precedents. It is no exaggeration to say that things will never be the same again.
The tipping point was a story in 2019 which mocked the death of a young man from East Belfast and wrongly claimed he had died of heroin in an effort to demonise his family. That was the point by which it was decided that the behaviour of some Sunday tabloids could no longer go unchallenged.
A number of loyalists brought a series of test cases, demanding the basic right for the IPSO Editors Code to be applied equally to all in society, regardless of background. There was significant pushback against this, with Sunday papers trying to argue that there should be no rights for anyone who they deemed to have a paramilitary and/or criminal background. This ‘hierarchy of Editors Code’ proposal was always fatally flawed. It would have permitted publications to simply disapply their obligations of fairness and accuracy if they decided- without any proof- (maliciously or otherwise) that they believed someone was from a particular background. Unsurprisingly that bizarre effort to subvert all forms of accountability was roundly and definitively rejected by IPSO.
I hope when many loyalists now look at Sunday papers, it is realised that things are different- still not perfect- but it will never be the same again. That is a tribute to all those who came forward to bring challenges and to send a message that they had enough of being treated like cannon fodder. Journalism is a vital profession, it is the beating heart of democracy, however it must be responsible, fair, and accurate. A culture had built up whereby all those ideals were sacrificed out of laziness, unprofessionalism or at times the pursuit of warped personal agendas.
A serious issue in regards a Sunday tabloid remains with IPSO, and it is understood it will be explored fully by the regulator in 2022. It raises issues beyond the level of scandal even of Leveson. That isn’t going away.
It is nevertheless hoped in 2022 all media outlets in Northern Ireland- but particularly Sunday papers- will recognise and adhere to their obligations under the IPSO Editors Code.
The new arrival of MediaHuis as the owner of major newspapers in Northern Ireland seems to me to be good for the standard and professionalism of journalism. The company has already published, in an apparent exercise in transparency, their own Editors Code online, and thus set public standards of accountability. That must be welcomed and recognised as extremely positive.
A number of crucial acts of legal activism (or, as its commonly known ‘lawfare’) in 2021 also advanced the cause of unionism/loyalism. In a new approach Tigers Bay Bonfire, under siege from two nationalist Government Ministers, participated as a notice party in a 10th July Judicial Review. The Human Rights and procedural arguments made, both prior to and in written submissions in that case, provided crucial material and arguments which went a significant way to the ultimate defeat of the Ministers Mallon and Hargey in their assault on PUL cultural expression.
The unlawful bringing of the significant and controversial Judicial Review by the two nationalist Ministers is itself subject to legal challenge, presently listed to be heard initially on 19th January 2022 before the High Court.
Late in the year there was also a successful outcome for North Belfast loyalist bandsmen who challenged the legal interpretation of the Public Processions Act. In a precedent setting success, a core weakness in the parading legislation was exposed.
Baroness Kate Hoey, supported by Lord Dodds, has also brought significant legislative amendments to the Executive Bill moving through Parliament. These amendments would restore cross community consent. The next reading is due in January.
Unionist Voice Policy Studies applied to intervene in the legal action brought by Sinn Fein activist Sean Napier in relation to nationalism’s efforts to force unionist participation in North South bodies whilst the East West relationship was demolished. This case seriously backfired, with significant constitutional judgments (especially Napier 2) which effectively point the way to the means by which the institutions can be fatally undermined.
Whilst the application to intervene was ultimately refused by Mr Justice Scoffield, the arguments set out by UVPS were nevertheless impliedly addressed (despite none of the other parties in the case arguing them) in paragraphs 71-73 of the second Napier judgment. This demonstrates the value of such legal activism.
On 26 December 2021 UVPS again launched legal action, this time against the Department charged with implementing the Protocol. The pre action correspondence set out how the continued and any future implementation of the Protocol is significant and controversial, and therefore in the absence of Executive authority pursuant to section 28A (5) of the 1998 Act, the Minister had no power to continue with checks. A response to this challenge is due by 4pm on 4th January.
If successful, the implications are obvious. The continued and future implementation of the Protocol would have to go to the Executive and require a positive resolution granting authority for its implementation to continue. Unionism could veto any such authority being granted, and thus drive a stake deep into the heart of the Union-subjugating Protocol.
As the year came to a close, the PSNI were summed up in a Freedom of Information request response. The organisation confirmed, in writing, that they ‘Paramilitary Crime Task Force’ – “do not investigate PIRA or the IRA”. A startling admission, but one that should come as no surprise. Two tier policing is not perception, it is reality. This was exposed in Unionist Voice’s 20th anniversary policing series, which included a number of significant contributions.
2022 is going to be a big year for Unionism. On behalf of all those at Unionist Voice, I want to thank you for your support in 2021 and we look forward to the breaking of the boom in 2022!