In the past week, we have heard calls for the PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign over how the Bobby Storey funeral was handled. Words used to describe his input into the funeral were along the lines of “facilitated” and “negotiated with Sinn Fein” and “terrorist” and “two-tier policing”. Simon Byrne hit back by essentially saying any other police force would have done the same thing and…he’s right. Policing good practice guidelines dictate the police must engage with the public and organisers on these issues. Funerals, events, parades…you get the drift, all fall into this category. Not to engage with the organisers on what was clearly going to be a huge outpouring of respect and sadness would have been a dereliction of responsibility on the part of the PSNI. They knew it was going to be a big funeral and let’s be honest, they don’t have enough officers in Belfast to stop that amount of people doing as they please. So they were right to stand back and gather intelligence.
I have more than a slight suspicion the outcry from both political and grass-roots Unionism stemmed from the fact they felt this would have been a death blow for Sinn Fein and when that judgement didn’t materialise, it left a sour taste in many mouths of loyalism and unionism. That decision by the PPS changed unionist tack from complaining about contravention of Covid-19 regulations to the accusations of two-tier policing. What I am absolutely sure about, however, is that this feeling of betrayal of unionism by the PPS and the PSNI is not by any means universal. Many unionists simply just do not care what happened at the funeral and the statement by political Unionists and the SDLP that the people of the North of Ireland are outraged is an intentional generalisation when it is unequivocally false.
The fact that numerous funerals took place in and around the time of Bobby Storey’s funeral sheds some light on just how much attention is being brought to bear on both Sinn Fein and the funeral. Loyalist funerals, John Hume’s funeral, DUP Councillors attending huge rallies, all took place around or close to the time of the Storey funeral and politicians were present at every single one of them, yet none of these is being viewed with the same scrutiny as the Storey funeral. And the reason for that? They weren’t republican funerals.
The Loyalist riots taking place over the past few nights started over the NI Protocol and then somehow diverted to “Sinn Fein/PSNI attacking our culture”. For the life of me, I can’t see how the NI Protocol is attacking anyone’s culture, nor can I see how the PPS decision would in some way be attacking Unionist or Loyalist culture. What is actually happening is the youth, some as young as thirteen are being drawn into these riots and have no idea why they’re rioting. Some very good journalists have started fingering the South East Antrim UDA for last night’s rioting in Newtownabbey and linking it to the recent spate of drug busts and Paramilitary Task Force operations against South East Antrim UDA claiming they are “rattled”.
I have no doubt the Unionist community is extremely agitated over the NI Protocol and honestly, I don’t blame them. However, their anger is directed in the wrong area and at the wrong people. The real issue here is the DUP’s inability to say YES. Had the DUP said ‘yes’ to any one of the Brexit deals laid before them during negotiations, it would have foregone a border in the Irish Sea, it would have swerved the use of the NI Protocol and in turn, there would have been manageable discontent within working-class Unionism. What we’re actually seeing being played out on the streets of the North is the imminent realisation that the PSNI is not the RUC, is not the Unionist militia the RUC was, and that the PPS is not going to prosecute someone just because they are republican.
Additional to that has been the ramping up of tensions by unionist politicians, just as they do every time they don’t get their way. Reference the run-up to the 11th and 12th of July almost every year as an example. They have once again allowed that anger and discontent to boil over onto the streets in violence and soon we will see the DUP come riding in on their big white horse to calm everything down, telling Stormont and Westminster – “If you do away with or at least dumb down the NI Protocol we will make it stop”. If Simon Byrne resigns in the face of Loyalists rioting, he will have literally capitulated to terrorists, something the next Chief Constable will need to grapple with. The irony of all this is, while these rioters are carrying out this violence because of the NI Protocol, it is now they who are forcing businesses to close and essential workers to forego their work simply because Unionist politicians couldn’t say YES.