The announcement by loyalist paramilitary groups that they are withdrawing their support for the Good Friday Agreement has been a largely symbolic move that may herald a variety of unintended consequences, argues Aaron Edwards.

That there has been general anxiety amongst Ulster unionists surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol is unsurprising. It is a crisis that has been brewing for some time and can be traced back to the DUP’s bullish position on Brexit, which has oscillated from preferences for a hard or soft border, depending on the mood music coming from Downing Street. There was always at least an outside chance of the Conservative government pursuing its own agenda since the DUP lost the balance of power at Westminster in the 2019 election. 

Despite the best efforts of Arlene Foster to reassure the DUP’s support-base by talking up the prospective benefits of Northern Ireland’s unique place in a post-Brexit world, loyalist paramilitaries have claimed they may be unable to contain the more destructive tendencies of their followers. There is anger out there amongst loyalists, no doubt, many of whom remain incredulous at what they see as the dilution of their British identity. If you cannot be treated equally, like your fellow citizens elsewhere in the United Kingdom, so the argument runs, then the union itself is almost certainly in jeopardy. 

This is ironic given that some of the very same people have attempted to halt the extension of British rights for British citizens in Northern Ireland by way of the access to health care provision for women. It took a Sinn Féin Minister, Deirdre Hargey, to remind the DUP of their duty to extend these rights to everyone, including unionists. In an unprecedented move, the British government will now compel Stormont to implement new abortion laws. 

Despite attempts to place the blame elsewhere for these political failures, the fact remains that the DUP have held the leadership mantle for Ulster unionism since the electoral eclipse of the UUP in the early 2000s. This presents something of a paradox to those loyalists who, on the one hand, turn out to vote for the DUP, even if they frequently find themselves at odds with the decisions that leadership has taken.

16 years ago, I watched as a UVF chief of staff told dozens of his top commanders that they were awaiting a leader, saviour-like, to take them out of the current political impasse. Given that loyalists regarded Rev. Ian Paisley with suspicion at the time, he was not seen as the prophet who would lead them to the promised land. 

Many loyalists saw Paisley as speaking from two sides of his mouth on their armed campaign. They remembered, bitterly, how Paisley enthusiastically marched them up to the top of the hill and abandoned them. Despite their scepticism, loyalists continued to pay deference to Paisley and the DUP at the ballot box. Loyalists never believed they could shape the big political decisions within unionism. They merely followed, head down, chest out, providing the muscle to strengthen the hands of leaders like Paisley. 

Nowadays, the relationship between unionist leaders and loyalist followers has changed. Unlike in the nationalist community, where a radicalisation amongst supporters has taken place thanks to Sinn Féin’s democratic centralism, unionist leaders have had to win the consent of their loyalist supporters. This is a support base that has rejected time and again the progressive politics of parties like the PUP. The long tail of the 2012–13 flag protests saw, at first, the return and accentuation of left-leaning voices who were subsequently rejected at the ballot box in favour of the DUP. 

Ironically, we now have unelected gatekeepers of the 1994 ceasefires corralled into a Loyalist Communities Council who were the same people who delivered the Good Friday Agreement to their followers. Now they find their same followers have rejected it. If this flip-flopping proves anything it is that there is a fundamental disconnect between leaders and followers within the broader unionist family. 

This disconnect is not unique and has been mirrored in different parts of the world, from electrifying protests in Arab countries to driving white, pro-Trump militias to attempt a coup on Capitol Hill. Northern Ireland is not a place apart. 

In his pioneering research on Ulster loyalism, Dr Sean Brennan has referred to our local militias as a kind of ‘warrior regime’, led by and beholden to a privileged class. Think soldiers of the Ulster Division charging the German guns at the Schwaben Redoubt on the Somme in 1916 led by posh public school educated officers. Another obvious example is the loyalist mobilisation against the power-sharing Executive in 1974, which, after its fall, handed power back to the unionist political class. 

Today, as the union looks increasingly under threat to many unionists, the loyalist warrior regime seems to be stirring, once again threatening a violent reaction. There are signs of potential trouble on the horizon once COVID restrictions have been lifted. 

Although the continuing presence of loyalist warrior regimes is concerning, it is by no means certain that they will return to killing or large-scale street violence. For one thing they haven’t yet worked out who they should direct their ire towards. And for violence to have any strategic utility, as all good analysts of war know, it must have a clear objective, otherwise it is nothing more, or less, than senseless, mindless criminality. 

Loyalists face momentous decisions in the weeks and months ahead. The withdrawal of support for the Good Friday Agreement – an Agreement they supported and, indeed, even killed and maimed some fellow loyalists to maintain – is regrettable. What would be even Imore regrettable is if loyalists – who now find themselves in a leadership position – fail to prevent their own followers from committing acts of violence and, thereby, rip up the democratic gains of the past 25 years. 

That would be the real tragedy.