A People Divided – by Michael Flanagan


Unionism is splintering and falling apart at a time when political Unionism needs to stick together.  A very revealing glimpse of this ‘splintering’ recently came to light, after a young man called Joel Keys represented the Loyalist Communities Council before Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.  There was something strange about young Joel Keys being pushed forward to speak to a high-powered Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.  Until two days prior, he was just a Loyalist kid living in South Belfast, then, as a new member of the LCC, was all of a sudden placed in front of British MPs speaking on behalf of all Loyalism and by all accounts Unionism, in the North of Ireland.  Why did the LCC allow a 19-year-old man to speak on behalf of Loyalism?  The short answer is, he was young and of the Loyalist persuasion which seemed to be enough in their eyes.  He then started talking about violence and how Loyalism was still willing to use it as a last resort regarding the NI Protocol.  Is this why Loyalist paramilitaries still exist? As a medium to hold onto power and to put pressure on those who don’t see things their way?

It has become clear in the recent days that elements of the UDA are livid that Joel Keys was allowed to speak, being such a new member of the LCC.  A senior UDA member stated – “The meeting with the NI Affairs Committee was farcical at times. That teenager Joel Keys should never have been asked to go before MPs to explain the LCC position as he had only been a member two days.” It has also been revealed that some within the UDA have become disenchanted by the LCC, viewing it as nothing more than a talking shop, with some within the LCC secretly intent on scaling down NI Protocol protests. So we have the UDA disagreeing with the LCC who, as per their name, supposedly speak on behalf of Loyalist communities, on who they put before British MPs and we also have elements of the same UDA, questioning what the LCC actually stands for.  Too much talking, not enough action.  Fighting words some might conclude.

According to several newspaper reports (see links below), it seems the UDA’s drug dealing is catching up with it, with Loyalist drug dealers becoming so bold as to attack the UDA’s Shankill Road C Company Chief, Denis Cunningham in his own home.  Mr. Cunningham now has his UDA foot soldiers carrying out round-the-clock protection to prevent any further attacks on his house.  It is alleged that a dealer called Dee Jenkins attacked Cunningham’s house with the UDA becoming so paranoid that Jenkins is busy grassing them up to the authorities, including the Paramilitary Crime Task Force, that the UDA has actually held top-level meetings about kidnapping a member of his family as leverage.  So concerned are they about being scuttled by Jenkins, that they have put a £500,000 price tag on his head and will consider information leading to his whereabouts with a £30,000 pay-out.  That right there is big money and why these people and organisations realistically must be removed from the scene.  One could realistically claim the greatest majority of that money was accrued from drug dealing as one of the UDA’s main money spinners.

There have been many points in the recent few months where Unionism has shown it is not the consolidated, concentrated force it once was.  Take for instance a statement made in March when David Campbell, the Chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council said – “We make no secret of the fact that we see this ending in the bringing down of Northern Ireland Executive” further stating”Arlene Foster was left under no illusion that this is something she would have to take responsibility for.” and that Arlene Foster had responded that collapsing Stormont “had to be clearly within the DUP’s thinking.”  

Statements such as these led many, myself included, to wonder if the LCC was actually running the show instead of Unionist politicians.  However, the DUP has denied there was any discussion about Arlene Foster resigning and collapsing the Stormont Executive at a recent meeting with representatives of loyalist paramilitaries.  I wonder if Edwin Poots was happy with that response?  Edwin Poots who has now claimed if “the party” should seek to install him as First Minister he would accept the post.

Something tells me the LCC ain’t all it’s cracked up to be or at very least is actually doing more damage than good to Loyalism.  It may position itself as some kind of link between grass roots Loyalism and the ‘outside world’ but what recent days and weeks has shown is, it is sometimes very much at odds with what grass roots Loyalism wants.  Instead of being a collective of Loyalist community groups and representatives, it is quite literally a collective of Loyalist paramilitary groups who sell drugs and threaten people within their own communities.  Is that really the kind of organisation Loyalists want representing them?  Or do Loyalist paramilitaries think they’re so important to Loyalism that they have the right to speak for all Loyalist people in the North?  They clearly show they hold at least some sway in what happens in Stormont in regard to protests against the NI Protocol and have removed their support for the GFA and are engaged with Unionist politicians almost on a daily basis.

When grassroots Loyalism was rolled out in the form of Joel Keys, Loyalist paramilitaries didn’t like it.  They may have thought it was too much like grass roots Loyalism, left too much to criticise, not as articulate as David Campbell may have been.  Personally, I think Joel Keys seems like a decent guy who does want to represent Loyalist views and concerns but his enthusiasm was used and abused by an organisation representing Loyalist paramilitaries…and they botched it. Joel Keys was brought on board because his views are very much militant. As a young Republican man, mine were the same, only differing in politics, but I was led by some pretty influential people on a different route which got me interested in politics and away from seeing violence as a solution to anything. The LCC is not the place for Joel Keys. A less hardline party like the UUP would be perfect for a young, enthusiastic politically minded man like Joel.  He is willing to talk to anyone, including Nationalists who will talk to him, something with the LCC seems at odds with.

In the end, it seems that ironically, political Unionism and the Loyalist Communities Council may actually be falling out.  The LCC clearly decided at some stage that it could speak for Unionist politicians and Loyalists which earned it a major ‘skelping’ by the DUP and Arlene Foster in the media.  The real fractures are starting to show between the normal everyday Loyalists and what Loyalist paramilitaries think the North should be.  When a grass roots Loyalist was rolled out by the LCC, Loyalist paramilitaries were embarrassed by it and in the end, when Loyalist paramilitaries are embarrassed, they react badly.

Political Unionism must take note.  If Unionism splinters it will be hard to pull back together. It won’t simply split in two, but will splinter in many different directions and I’d hazard a guess that certain paramilitary groups will take advantage of the disarray to garner much more support than they currently have and will push for a military answer to the NI Protocol.  In the end, paramilitary groups must be done away with.  They should have gone away 23 years ago and it is a sad indictment on political Unionism that they are still around and in recent days have shown they’re still armed. They have a hold on Loyalist areas like never before, handing out fines and speaking on behalf of the very communities they destroy.  They take the funding allotted to their communities and spend it on drugs which are sold back into those communities for profit.

Sometimes the glue to hold a community together is harder to find than the hammer which breaks it.




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