By Billy Hutchinson
From 1986-1994 the Progressive Unionist Party campaigned for a political settlement that would bring about ceasefires.
In 1991 Loyalists called a ceasefire to allow political talks to come up with a solution. Violent Nationalism ignored the ceasefire attacking Loyalist communities killing people.
The loyalist ceasefire ceased when the political talks ended with nothing to offer the people of Northern Ireland. Three years later we were involved in the long process of working towards the loyalist ceasefires, announced by Gusty Spence under the umbrella of the Combined Loyalist Military Command (‘CLMC’) in 1994.
We believed then, and still do today, that our political disagreements are best sorted out in the political arena, rather than via violence or coercion. However, there were many people in loyalism, for various reasons, who weren’t easily convinced of that proposition, which is understandable when viewed in the context of a thirty-year terrorist campaign by violent Irish Nationalists which in the eyes of many led to a process of concessions to republicans as a ‘reward’ for a cessation of their terrorist campaign. In comparison loyalism has been relentlessly dehumanised and criminalised.
For people involved in the conflict, who experienced the very worst of conflict and wanted to prevent another generation from any return to such a dreadful existence, our job is made extremely difficult by the clear reality that time and time again when it comes to republicans, the threat of violence has been rewarded.
And so it was with the Protocol; Inflammatory comments made by the Pan Nationalist Front erroneously warning of the threat of a return to IRA bombs alongside staged stunts by Sinn Fein at the border, this formed the context for the imposition of the Protocol, which according to the most senior judges in this jurisdiction “subjugates” the Union.
So, when a young loyalist generation comes to me and says ‘the threat of violence was good enough to prevent a land border, why shouldn’t the same not apply to a Sea Border?’, what am I to tell them?
Naturally, our first step is to outline the horrors of the past and explain no one would ever want to live through such times again. But after that plea from a point of trying to give the benefit of our experience as former life sentence UVF prisoners who lived through the worst of the conflict, what do we say when we are then again faced with the proposition that nevertheless, the threat of republican violence has again been rewarded?
The truth is, beyond the obvious point that we will always- in all circumstances- discourage all young (and not so young) loyalists from engaging in any form of violence, we have no real answer to the proposition that the threat of republican violence has led to seismic constitutional change being imposed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.
It is obvious therefore that for the maintenance of peace and stability it is vital for the Protocol to be removed, in order to demonstrate that the threat of violence should never have been rewarded. That is a wrong which must be righted.
Fundamentally, our support for the Political process- and the CLMC support for it, and their historic ceasefire- was based on the principle of consent. That, as it was put to us, was a safeguard to prevent against any constitutional change to the status of NI within the Union, safe for the consent of a majority of people living here.
In 1998 David Trimble- who was only able to deliver the Agreement because of loyalist support- said “the Act of Union is the Union”. It follows that there could be no change to that fundamental constitutional underpinning without engaging the principle of consent.
Put simply; loyalists only signed up for the Political process based on the understanding that the principle of consent operated to protect the Union.
And yet now, twenty-four years later (and twenty-four years of a ‘process’ whereby our community has been expected to swallow down concession after concession to republicans) we find out that the principle of consent does not in fact protect the Union at all, rather it solely directs itself to merely the final formal handover of sovereignty.
The Act of Union has been, according to the Court of Appeal, “subjugated” with NI left “primarily in the EU”, subject to foreign laws and foreign courts. As such, if the principle of consent cannot guard against such significant constitutional change, neither would it be able to prevent the handing of law-making powers to Dublin, so long as NI remained symbolically and territorially within the UK.
Had we [loyalists] known in 1998 that the principle of consent was merely symbolic, then there is no chance loyalism would have supported the Belfast Agreement. Indeed, I imagine the loyalist ceasefires in 1994- which factored in heavily that the principle of consent had been secured- would not have been able to command the necessary support.
The Court of Appeal’s judgment (unless it is overturned by the Supreme Court) makes it impossible that any unionist or loyalist would make it extremely difficult to lend their support or participate in the institutions of the Belfast Agreement in the absence of definitive legislative change to put into law the principle of consent as it was constructed and explained to our community in 1998.
People within loyalism took real risks to deliver peace and the Agreement now feel betrayed and deceived. Had we known what we know now, we could not have recommended to our community- or importantly for the sake of peace the paramilitary leadership- support for the Belfast Agreement.
The principle of consent- protecting the substance of the Union- is the bedrock of unionist and loyalist support for the Belfast Agreement. In the absence of the principle of consent, there is no basis whatsoever of support for the Agreement.
It is vital we argue for the ending of the protocol and we must ensure political Unionism work together with one message that the protocol is undemocratic and illegal. The Progressive Unionist Party will continue our call for a unionist convention after the election. It is paramount we stand united to argue for our place in the United Kingdom and make our case heard in the Union and beyond.