During some of the most difficult days of the nascent Irish-British peace process the late bomb-maker turned peace-maker David Ervine, head of the Progressive Unionist Party and political representative for the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force, expressed the view that during times of constitutional or communal crisis – real or imagined – the leaders of unionism were swift to march their most militant followers to the top of the hill and were just as swift to abandon them there when the times changed again.
There is a large element of that familiar refrain playing out in the statements by the Democratic Unionist Party calling for calm after successive nights of loyalist rioting in Derry and parts of Greater Belfast. Though she is nominally the joint First Minister for all the people of “Northern Ireland” the reaction to the violence by the DUP boss Arlene Foster made her identification with one side of the community very clear. From The Irish Times:
The First Minister told Downtown Radio on Sunday that she strongly supported all rank-and-file PSNI officers. “I know that many of our young people are hugely frustrated by the events of this last week, but causing injury to police officers will not make things better,” she said.
“I appeal to our young people not to get drawn into disorder, which will lead to them having criminal convictions and blight in their own lives … I also ask parents to play their part, and be proactive in protecting their young adults.”
While the Fermanagh MLA expressed her concerns about the frustrations of the “young people” in her electoral base, DUP representatives continued to stoke those frustrations, claiming that the disturbances were a reaction to unionist concerns about the effects of Brexit, the new Irish Sea customs border, the potential for Scottish independence, the perception that Sinn Féin has the political and legal upper hand in the north (in the wake of the Bobby Storey controversy) and the widespread feeling in Ireland and the United Kingdom that a referendum on Irish reunification is just over the horizon.
While there might be some truth in these claims, a more important factor in the initial rioting was the need by the Ulster Defence Association, the formerly legal British terrorist organisation, to express its anger at attempts by the UK authorities to crack down on its criminal financing, with the Police Service of Northern Ireland targeting the UDA’s control of drug-dealing, racketeering, sex-trafficking and extortion in a number of loyalist areas. Hence the carefully orchestrated violence in UDA strongholds like the Clooney Estate in Derry and Newtownabbey on the outskirts of Belfast. The latter featuring the activities of the rebellious South East Antrim UDA, the most explicitly narco-terrorist faction of the pro-union gangs.
So, rather than some great eruption of unionist frustration at the Ireland-Northern Ireland Protocol or the European Union or even the underhand machinations of the British premier Boris Johnson, what we initially witnessed over the weekend was loyalist gangsters hitting back at attempts by the northern police to curb their activities, the subsequent street disorder becoming a convenient tool for loyalist politicians to use in their own self-inflicted Brexit contest with Dublin, London and Brussels.
Not that the Democratic Unionists will hesitate at using their rhetoric to turn criminal violence into political violence if the former phenomenon fails to yield the results the DUP and others in broader political unionism are now hoping for.