Government must engage with loyalist paramilitaries amid fears over unrest, NI security sources say

Harry Yorke
·4 min read
Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland

The Government must begin engaging with loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland to prevent a repeat of the violence that has erupted in recent days, Belfast security sources have warned.

A well-placed insider close to loyalist paramilitaries in the province told The Telegraph that ministers must engage with the groups to “help shape the debate” over Northern Ireland’s future.

The source claimed that while Northern Ireland’s justice department refused to engage, there was a need to start a similar dialogue with loyalists to that initiated by Margaret Thatcher with Sinn Fein and IRA during the Troubles.

“The Department of Justice [part of the Northern Ireland Executive] won’t speak to the paramilitaries, but somebody has to make that relationship work - talk and shape the debate. They did it 20 years ago,” the source said.

Their calls have been echoed by senior figures in the DUP, one of whom told this newspaper they had warned ministers of the need for more “fundamental engagement” to help address the complex and deep-rooted concerns of unionists.

However, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), the umbrella organisation for paramilitary groups, denied any involvement in the rioting, adding that any action taken by “the loyalist community should be entirely peaceful.”

It came as Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, on Friday convened a second round of talks with political leaders in Belfast, where they were given an operational update on the rioting by Simon Byrne, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The talks followed a further night of unrest in Belfast on Thursday, when water cannons were deployed for the first time in six years to quell crowds in a nationalist part of the city.

A further 19 police officers have been injured, taking the total to 74, although the violence was said to be at a lower level than in previous days, when officers were attacked with petrol bombs, fireworks and missiles.

There are now calls for loyalist protests planned this weekend to be cancelled as a mark of respect following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, with DUP MPs urging the community not to “besmirch his memory”.

A number of protests due to take place over the weekend are now understood to have been cancelled.

While Mr Lewis had signalled he was willing to meet anyone who was prepared to work constructively with the Government, there had been no engagement at ministerial level with paramilitaries so far.

Whitehall sources have played down the prospects of a meeting in the near future, with security reports suggesting that the violence of recent days is more sporadic and linked to criminality rather than coordinated paramilitary activity.

However, even with a cessation of violence, there are growing fears that the unrest will grow unless the concerns of loyalists over post-Brexit trade disruption caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol and the failure to prosecute Sinn Fein figures who attended an IRA funeral are addressed.

A senior DUP figure said: “It’s not just about police holding the line. A sticking plaster is not going to fix this one. This needs more fundamental engagement in Government.

“This has been smouldering for a while. This goes back beyond the issues of Brexit, but there is no doubt that the border in the Irish Sea and the non-prosecution of Sinn Fein has really heightened tension here.

“There needs to be an understanding in Westminster, in Dublin, Brussels and Washington that the peace process is not a one-sided coin. That needs to be urgently addressed, otherwise this is going to fester.”

In a statement issued on Friday, the LCC, which represents the views of the Ulster Defence Association, Ulster Voluntary Force and Red Hand Commando, said that all action by loyalists should be peaceful.

It came after Mr Lewis urged the organisation to condemn the violence.

However, it reiterated its calls for Boris Johnson to overhaul the Northern Ireland Protocol, adding in a statement: “We again place on record our absolute determination to remove the hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of our country that has been imposed on us by the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“We have repeatedly urged HM Government, political leaders and institutions to take seriously our warnings of the dangerous consequences of imposing this hard border on us and the need for earnest dialogue to resolve matters. We reiterate that message now.

“To date, there has been a spectacular collective failure to understand properly the scale and nature of unionist and loyalist anger. Indeed there is a complete failure to understand loyalists as people and equal citizens."