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Despair fuels the flames of young loyalist anger in Northern Ireland


For the schoolboy commander who stood on the grassy hill and gave his name only as Bob, the intricacies and compromises of politics, policing, Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol could all be boiled down to this: his side was losing, and that had to stop.

His side were the Protestants, unionists and loyalists, bulwarks of Britishness on the island of Ireland, and they needed to assert themselves, starting with the traffic roundabout at the bottom of O’Neill Road in Newtownabbey, outside Belfast.

A singed and tattered union jack fluttered from a stick planted in the middle of the intersection, testament to three cars hijacked and set alight there in Northern Ireland’s week of riots. Bob and his band of teenagers, some clutching rocks and bottles, would defend it from any police officer who dared remove it.

The Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and other unionist parties were not defending Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, said Bob. “They’re all ball bags that don’t know how to put their foot down. That’s why we’ve been out here.”

In a nutshell, that is why petrol bombs have been flying. Working-class loyalists feel forgotten and marginalised and are using mayhem to get attention and leverage.

They got the attention. The region’s power-sharing executive held an emergency session, the Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis rushed to Belfast, Boris Johnson issued a joint statement with his Irish counterpart, Micheál Martin, and the White House expressed concern.

A young protestant call Bob watches over a roundabout in Newtownabbey.
A young protestant called Bob watches over a roundabout in Newtownabbey. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Observer

Whether it advanced the loyalist agenda is another matter. The governments and political parties all condemned the violence, which injured 55 police officers, as reckless and unjustifiable. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader and the region’s first minister, called it an embarrassment.

But Bob and his ilk, clad in dark fleeces, hoods and masks, had their own political calculus.

A trade border down the Irish Sea; nationalists flouting pandemic rules at the funeral of a former IRA commander; police and prosecutors not arresting or charging anyone who attended the funeral; in the zero-sum politics of Northern Ireland that meant loyalists were losing.

“We’re part of the UK, but they’re trying to make Northern Ireland into a united Ireland,” said Bob, as his lieutenants nodded. Few had travelled south of the border, just 60 miles away, for the Republic of Ireland was hostile, alien territory. Bob, taller and bolder than the others, had done so, to visit Dublin zoo, and that was enough.

In their view the other side, colloquially known as “them’uns”, was winning. Police patrols and drug busts in Newtownabbey’s housing estates, they said, showed a biased police service beholden to ascendant nationalism.

It is part of a loyalist narrative that the rot set in after the 1998 Good Friday agreement. Instead of a settlement, a new dawn, Sinn Féin and its allies used the agreement to chip, chip, chip away at Northern Ireland, removing royal symbols, removing the union jack from Belfast city hall, erecting Irish-language signs.

Now, in the centenary year of Northern Ireland’s creation in 1921, Catholics may soon outnumber Protestants, Sinn Féin is within a whisker of overtaking the DUP as the biggest party and there is chatter about a referendum on Irish unity.

Loyalists protest against the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement in Larne, County Antrim.
Loyalists protest against the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement in Larne, County Antrim. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

What this defeatist view overlooks is that in recent elections the nationalist vote has plateaued, that nationalists have their own list of grievances, and that the fastest growing political force in Northern Ireland is the non-aligned centre which shuns Orange and Green labels.

Bob was adamant: loyalists had become second-class citizens. “You have police treating Protestants like shit and Catholics like upper-class citizens. The police were born Protestant and should remain Protestant.” He displayed his scorn when up the hill tramped three officers, two of them male. “Hello ladies.”

Older loyalists such as John Scott, 61, a retired musician, were not manning barricades but felt the protests served a purpose. Johnson had betrayed unionists over Brexit, just like previous occupants of Downing Street had betrayed the most British bastion of the UK. “It may help get politicians off their arses. Every now and again the prime minister, whoever he is, needs a slap up the bake [mouth].”

Blunt honesty, perhaps, but there is a murkiness to the riots. Middle-aged men have hovered amid the youthful missile-throwers, raising suspicion that paramilitary elements are directing the violence. “They let us know when something will happen, they warn us so we can close in time,” said one store owner in Newtownabbey, which has a strong Ulster Defence Association presence. Asked who “they” were he smiled. “I can’t say more.”

Some sense the DUP’s hand in the riots, saying the party demanded the chief constable’s resignation over Bobby Storey’s funeral to direct loyalist anger towards the police and away from the DUP’s role in creating the Irish Sea border.

“What we’re seeing here tonight is the outworking of the crisis in unionism,” said Matt Collins, a Belfast city councillor with the People Before Profit party. He spoke on Wednesday night as smoke plumed over the loyalist Shankill Road, where rioters had set a hijacked bus ablaze. “Having delivered nothing to their working-class communities they have resorted to sectarianism.”

Matt Collins, a councillor with People Before Profit, says there is a crisis in unionism.
Matt Collins, a councillor with People Before Profit, says there is a crisis in unionism. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Observer

A 63-year-old Catholic council worker who gave his name only as Patrick had a blunter critique. “Unionists and loyalists were used to getting their way – and now that they’re not getting their way they’re complaining like a spoilt child.”

Peter Shirlow, a director at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies and an authority on unionism, said many working-class loyalists viewed compromises inherent in the Good Friday agreement as concessions, surrender, a drip-drip erosion of sovereignty. “They’re constantly told the other side is winning.” In fact most of Northern Ireland’s deprived areas were Catholic and loyalist communities boasted success stories, said Shirlow. “When people say loyalists have been abandoned, abandoned by whom? Like any other working-class community they have their own issues.”

The worst flashpoint last week was in Belfast at the interface of the Lanark Way peace wall, the Orwellian name for barriers that separate neighbourhoods.

Young people from the loyalist Shankill Road and youths from the nationalist Springfield Road waged an aerial bombardment of rocks, bottles and petrol bombs. At one point the gate caught fire and was breached, with interlopers briefly milling in enemy territory, hurling taunts as well as missiles.

In the fresh light of morning you could still read a faded, smudged message painted on the wall, like a message passed down from another era: “There was never a good war or a bad peace.”

Few in Northern Ireland would consider the Troubles, which cost 3,700 lives, a good war. The problem is those who chafe at an imperfect peace and who forget, or never knew, the alternative.



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