Northern Ireland needs real leadership, not soundbites

GUEST POST: Timothy McLean is a Parliamentary Researcher. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and the structures envisaged therein were premised on the understanding that cross community consent would be required for all important and controversial decisions. Throughout the Brexit process, the Conservative administration and the EU were at pains to point out their unwavering support for the agreement in all its parts.  

While an explosive cocktail of grievances is responsible for the recent violence on our streets, the UK government and the EU cannot absolve themselves of responsibility. Promises were made and broken. Warnings were delivered and dismissed as hollow. The lack of appreciation or, dare I say, disinterest in the genuine concerns of loyalism has led us to this dangerous juncture.  

It is hardly surprising that loyalism has reacted angrily when, by their actions, both sides have given credibility to the narrative that violence pays. If the mere threat of violence from dissident republicans is enough to achieve a political solution (i.e., no Irish land border) then loyalism will, rightly or wrongly, conclude that their actions are an acceptable means to an end. 

At the Conservative hustings in Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson was adamant that under no circumstances would he agree to a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. Fast forward to the present day and the streets are littered with signs which read ‘Ulster betrayed by Boris’. It cannot be understated just how palpable the sense of anger and betrayal is within the wider unionist and loyalist family. 

Unionism and loyalism feel strongly that the Protocol has usurped Northern Ireland from Great Britain and fundamentally undermined the constitutional settlement without consent. Who can feasibly argue that subjecting one part of your nation to the rulings of a foreign court doesn’t represent a constitutional change? 

Of course, violence must be condemned and is no solution to the problems which the Protocol has created. It is also fair to say that the crisis of confidence within loyalism is influenced by a range of factors, not least the failure of the PPS to charge any Sinn Fein politician with breaching Covid regulations at a mass republican funeral last June. 

However, it is not good enough for the government and the EU to say that loyalism must suck it up. Northern Ireland can only operate properly when there is consent from all sides. The Protocol does not command that support, undermines the Belfast Agreement and is at the root of the recent violence we have seen. The Conservative party has a duty to stand-up for Northern Ireland and the integrity of our country. Will they rise to the occasion? 

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This piece was written for our website.