It is almost a quarter of a century since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement on 10th April 1998. At the time it was celebrated as a watershed moment in ending an armed conflict that had persisted for over 25 years.

As the parties reached a negotiated settlement, the dominant Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) led by David Trimble fractured in its support for the deal. Its 9 Westminster MPs were reported to be in ‘open rebellion’, starkly illustrated when one MP, Jeffery Donaldson, walked away before the Agreement was announced to the public.

At the time, the Times saw Donaldson as ‘the young pretender’ who would not countenance sitting in a power-sharing assembly with Sinn Féin without IRA decommissioning. As the newspaper noted, Trimble faced a ‘battle for the soul of Unionism’.

It was a battle Trimble did not shirk from entering, but he had to contend with opponents on two fronts.

On the one hand, his attempts to sell the deal to the Unionist community lacked weight in the face of the Provisional IRA’s refusal to decommission. On the other hand, the UUP received diminishing electoral returns and were soon eclipsed by the Anti-Agreement Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by firebrand MP Ian Paisley.

Although the Agreement was endorsed in an historic referendum in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, the overwhelming majorities in favour masked deep divisions within the unionist community. It was estimated that a little over half of unionists voted ‘yes’ in the referendum; the same poll reported an endorsement by 99% of the nationalist community.

Unionists split into two rival camps, with Trimble’s UUP and the loyalist paramilitary linked PUP and UDP remaining in favour of the Agreement and Paisley’s DUP and other minor Unionist parties setting themselves against it.

This was reflected in loyalist paramilitary groups too. Acting under the umbrella of the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando (RHC) ordered their members to support the emerging process.

However, a smaller number of members resisted. In a bid to enforce total compliance, the CLMC resorted to issuing death threats to the UVF’s Mid Ulster commander Billy Wright and the UDA’s Alex Kerr. Other loyalists – like Belfast UVF commander Tommy Stewart and RHC member Frankie Curry – were executed by their respective organisations.

While Wright’s Mid Ulster UVF carried out a number of murders before being stood down by the UVF’s Belfast leadership in 1997, the group proved unwilling to sanction other units in North Belfast and South East Antrim who had engaged in similar violent acts. Although pro-Agreement loyalists in the PUP and UDP tended to label these rogue elements as “drug dealers”, the reality was that the only difference between them and ‘mainstream’ paramilitaries was in the latter’s support for the peace process.

Unionists and loyalists, therefore, had contrasting views on the peace process that would shape their political, strategic and tactical decisions in the two decades after the Agreement.

According to Lee Reynolds, a political activist who left the UUP for the DUP in 2003, ‘There are two types of peace agreement – instrumental and constitutive. In constitutive you agree everything, and everyone knows what they have to do, when, and where and how. And if anything goes wrong then everybody knows who to blame. And then you’ve instrumental, which is basically where you have 50 things you don’t agree about. We’ve agreed on 20. We’ll make a start on those, and we’ll try and deal with those as we go along. The Belfast Agreement was sold to Unionism as a constitutive agreement when it was an instrumental agreement.’

The Belfast Agreement was hailed by its supporters as a mechanism by which unionists and nationalists could finally bury the hatchet and move forward into a new political dispensation where relationships would be based on trust and mutual respect. It was an accord born out of the euphoria of the 1990s when conflicts based on ethnicity ran like a soundtrack to world events. Amidst the horror of Bosnia and Rwanda, a certain optimism took hold in Northern Ireland that it was possible to awaken from such ethnic nightmares.

Some of us shared that liberal optimism and would personally go on to facilitate Track Two informal diplomacy aimed, specifically, at building confidence within and between communities. The neo-liberal peace process template indicated that it was possible to put the past behind us and move forward together.

It was an honourable cause to pursue, even if recent years have felt like a return to the armed ethnic conflict by other means. Sadly, as we know from the other places we looked to in hope, in the absence of genuine reconciliation and the eradication of inequalities, fear and mistrust continues to breed intolerance.

The imperfections in the peace process demand a return to the arguments put forward by those who have consistently rejected it.

Clifford Peeples, a loyalist activist from Belfast, had orchestrated a four-year information campaign against those who supported the peace process in its early, heady days. Reflecting on these years, he observed how he ‘gave people information about the background of individuals who were now… leading loyalists towards surrender… We informed people… about the [Provisional IRA’s] Tactical Use of Armed Struggle. Told them that the British government and the Irish government would promise anything. They would bring loyalists in. They would destroy the RUC. They would destroy the UDR. They would destroy loyalists’ will to resist. And anyone who was willing to make a stand against that would be blackmailed, would be taken out. And everything we said came to pass.’

Peeples’ argument that the two governments pumped huge resources into the referendum campaign to manufacture consent in favour of the Agreement is an interesting one. It suggests that Ulster unionism could have derailed the entire peace process because of its lukewarm feelings about the deal.

Grassroots loyalists remained perpetually disappointed by their Unionist leaders in the years that followed. Despite the DUP and Sinn Féin agreeing on modifications to the Agreement at St Andrews in 2006, rejectionist feelings around the Agreement persisted, even after the return of power-sharing in 2007.

This disaffection grew steadily until it exploded in violent protests on the streets in 2012. The so-called ‘flag protests’ – when Belfast city councillors voted in favour of restricting the number of days the Union Flag could be flown aloft council premises – were the most serious signs of a popular resurgence of rejectionist sentiment.

Jamie Bryson, who came to prominence at this time, recalled how he believed ‘the flag protest was the tipping point in so far as that was a symbolic moment. And I remember that first night at City Hall and I seen the people and heard the anger in the days that followed and I just remember thinking, “everything’s changed. And it just spread like wildfire. And it was just, it was like the last straw. It was taking the scales off people’s eyes and, finally, people could see, “wow – what’s going on?” From being Anti-Agreement was heresy almost to – all of a sudden – it was becoming more pronounced.’

Bryson saw this as part of a broader “deceptive snare” to push Northern Ireland out of the Union with Great Britain.

His views were not universally shared.

Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston had also been drawn to the flag protests, though more out of an explicit intention to address social injustice in her community. She subsequently joined the PUP along with an estimated 250 new members. ‘Billy [Hutchinson] really ignited a fire in my belly that was to do with local politics that was to do with the bread-and-butter issues, he made me feel empowered that I could actually bring some sort of change to the areas that the party was rooted in,’ she recalled.

Hutchinson believed those engaging in street protests might be persuaded to take up the mantle of the PUP’s brand of “progressive loyalism”.

Yet, within a few short years the PUP had lurched to the right.

‘It was the sentiment, the ethos, everything that we had set out to achieve changed. And the goals were different,’ said Corr-Johnston.

The PUP’s transformation was partly attributable to the swing in unionist voters in favour of Brexit and the emergence of a fundamentalist reading of sovereignty. A feeling that working class loyalists had lost out in the peace process only increased after the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement between the EU and UK and a customs border in the Irish Sea.

The decision by loyalist paramilitaries in the UDA, UVF and RHC to reject the Agreement was quickly followed with the PUP’s decision to commit itself to a volte-face on the peace process.

Ironically, loyalism has now come full circle to accept the rejectionist arguments advanced by those who were derided, intimidated and even murdered for their hard-line views on the peace process.

It is not yet certain if this form of rejectionist unionism will win the argument within the wider unionist community.

Doug Beattie’s revamped UUP is moving into an election advocating a more positive and inclusive form of unionism.

In contrast, Jeffery Donaldson, now leading the DUP, told a rally in March 2022 that his party would not return to power-sharing until the Northern Ireland Protocol had been removed.

As we approach the Assembly elections, it seems that the battle for the soul of Unionism is far from over.