A Perfect Storm- The growing discontent across grassroots unionism
By Jamie Bryson
At the centre of the perfect storm brewing in Northern Ireland is the root cause of all the problems unionism has encountered over the past two decades, the Belfast Agreement.
The agreement created a process whereby unionism- as the price of the IRA stopping murdering our community- had to acquiesce to a transitional pathway to a United Ireland. Of course it wasn’t presented that way, rather it was sold to the unionist community as a settlement. But it was always a process, and if that reality hasn’t been illuminated now to every unionist then there is something seriously wrong.
All of the limbs of the monstrous assault on the PUL community comes from the beating heart of the ‘process’, which is in effect a short-hand phrase to describe the Belfast Agreement and its various off-spring legislation.
The Parades Commission was designed with the primary core function of regulating parades. The trajectory of regulation is always to restrict or completely eradicate; it is never to enhance. And so it has been with the Parades Commission; as a statutory body it has been weaponised in line with the purpose for which it was conceived- to wage a war on parading across Northern Ireland. Moreover, in keeping with the core ethos of the ‘peace process’, it has effectively given a veto to nationalist threats of violence.
Policing was conceived in the womb of political appeasement. The PSNI core purpose was to politically placate nationalists, hence why the RUC had to be disbanded. It is no surprise given its politically motivated genesis that the PSNI have clung to that residual core function and for two decades- sometimes consciously and sometimes sub consciously- they have policed with the primary purpose of maintaining nationalist support. The two-tier system is systematic and embedded; therefore, it is not simply the position of the Chief Constable which is untenable, but rather policing itself which is untenable.
The DUP position as to the Chief Constable is correct in so far as it goes, but it fails to recognise the elephant in the room. The structural bias within the PSNI was embedded long before anyone in Northern Ireland had ever heard of Simon Byrne. If he resigns tomorrow, how does that remedy the structural bias conceived post-Patten?
And so we come to the protests which have now taken to the streets. As ever with social media hot-takes from misinformed trolls or social media journalists, there is a complete inability to understand the various nuances and concerns across the loyalist community. The grassroots unionist and loyalist community is not homogeneous. In different areas there are different tensions, motivations, and agendas at play. To seek to group some of those diverse elements together is not only lazy, but at times is deliberately designed to corporately demonise and criminalise loyalism. Conveniently, such an approach assists in evading having to engage with the genuine grievances and concerns of the PUL community.
We have heard that the young people who allowed their anger to spill over into unacceptable violence in Sandy Row must have been manipulated, because basically they are too stupid at 16 or 17 to understand the political issues. Some of this commentary is from a snobbish position by those who spend their days eating avocado and sipping lattes. That they would be completely out of touch, and entirely besotted with the stereotypical view of loyalism, is hardly surprising.
However there are others, some within loyalism, to utter the same misguided viewpoint. This is somewhat strange, because some of the same people were engaged in the conflict at 16 or 17 and would say their motivation was entirely political. So, it seems somewhat condescending to say that one generation of teenagers were politically aware, but another could not possibly be.
The violence-rewarding Protocol is not complex political science. The Union is the Act of Union. The Protocol undermines Article 6 of the Act of Union. It follows that the Protocol therefore undermines the Union. It really isn’t hard to understand, and young people are not stupid. They know that a border in the Irish Sea which drives Northern Ireland into an economic United Ireland is incompatible with their British identity.
The Protocol simply adopted the template of the peace process within which it exists; that the threat of nationalist violence must be rewarded with political concessions. This wasn’t an accident; it was by design. There is no conspiracy and no mistake; the structural ethos of the process is clear and accessible. The only surprise is that anyone thinks that the Protocol is some shock to the Belfast Agreement; it is its grandchild.
And so we see the perfect storm; all of the key issues of the last two decades are coalescing together into a single phase of protest. Bands say they will take to the streets and defy the Parades Commission, thus bringing the touchstone issue of parading; parading inevitably will bring in the issue of policing, and comparisons with the approach taken to the IRA show of strength at the Storey funeral; and hoovering above it all is the most important issue, Northern Ireland’s very place within the United Kingdom.
Never has there been a movement capable of bringing together the two decades of injustices under one umbrella. It is crucial that momentum is not squandered via resorting to violence. Rioting will not advance the objective of seeking to dismantle the two-tier system; it will in fact have the opposite approach of further solidifying and providing justification for the two-tier system designed to criminalise loyalism whilst legitimising nationalism.
The only way to dismantle the structures of the Belfast Agreement is to use the mechanisms inherent within it- which are designed to be weaponised by nationalism- and instead make them work for unionism. Turn them inwards on themselves. Essential to doing this is a vibrant, educated and committed loyalist community.
It is no exaggeration to say that being proficient in using the law to target the structures designed to work against unionism, is going to have a far greater impact than throwing a petrol bomb.
Get active, get educated and let us not squander the last best chances for unionism to impede the trajectory of the ‘process’.