Unionists escalate tensions over Brexit Protocol
People are being urged to remain calm in the face of attempts by unionists and loyalists to force a reversal of Brexit’s Irish Protocol, which they say has created a border down the Irish Sea and could lead to increasing economic unity on the island of Ireland. Hardliners including TUV leader Jim Allister, loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson and several DUP MPs have expressed outrage at new checks on trade at ports in Belfast and Larne.
The checks became necessary following the withdrawal of Britain from the EU Single Market as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Although the changes have helped to avert a remilitarisation of the land border through Ireland, the increased paperwork has been blamed for delays to haulage imports from Britain.
Graffiti threats which emerged in recent days lead to the withdrawal of some workers from the Port of Larne last night, and this afternoon a large gang of masked loyalists were seen walking through east Belfast in the company of the PSNI police.
Dozens of men were accompanied by the PSNI through the Pitt Park area, just off the Newtownards Road, although their intent wasn’t clear. Sinn Féin MP Paul Maskey said the incident should be “thoroughly investigated”.
“It is deeply concerning to see footage circulating this afternoon appearing to show a group of over 40 men patrolling the streets of East Belfast,” he said.
“This gathering is sinister and looks to be an attempt to exert control over the community of East Belfast. The PSNI, who attended the scene, must thoroughly investigate this afternoons incident and ensure that criminal gangs are held accountable for their actions.
“This also comes at a time when the emergency services are already under great strain because of the pandemic. We need to see calm heads and responsible leadership at this time and not attempts to raise tensions.”
The scene was condemned by the UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party, and it remains unknown to what extent loyalist paramilitary groups were involved in the display.
The source of the graffiti threats also remains unknown, and the PSNI have said they do not believe paramiltaries were involved. The messages included the warning that all border workers are “targets” alongside a crosshairs symbol, as well as criticism of the Protocol, Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement.
A number of graffiti messages have also been directed against offices of the Alliance Party in an apparently political move to blame the moderate unionists for the Brexit outcome.
The DUP Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots blamed an “upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour” for his “significant” decision last night to withdraw departmental workers who were carrying out agrifood health checks at the two ports.
He later announced that he was stepping down from his post for health reasons, but added that that his decision had the support of the DUP leader Arlene Foster.
TUV leader Jim Allister, who like most unionist hardliners fervently supported Brexit, has described the outcome of Brexit as a betrayal and the result of a republican plot.
He warned of the “evil genius” of the protocol: “disrupting our supply chains from GB will force ever-increasing supply chain dependence on the Republic, and, thereby, the all-island economy becomes a reality,” he said.
In a further attempt to heighten the row, the DUP said tonight it would not participate in any north/south political engagement on issues related to the Protocol.
It said it would strive for a “united unionist” push to scrap the arrangements, build support for an anti-protocol position at Westminster and launch a petition with the goal of forcing a debate on the issue.
Explaining his party’s stance, the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson provoked bemusement tonight when he said it was “not acceptable” to have a “border right down the middle of a country”.
“We want Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market restored,” he said.
“I think that’s fairly basic and simple. I wish someone could show me any other example in the world where you have this kind of border right down the middle of a country, an internal border within a country that separates one part of the country from the other. And that simply is not acceptable.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that any threats must be lifted immediately and she condemned the DUP’s agenda to wreck the Protocol.
“The position adopted by the DUP is reckless and is not driven by the best interests of the people of the north. I urge them to pull back,” she said.
“Now is the time for calm leadership and solutions to deal with the disruption which has arisen as a result of Brexit.”
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Shock as PSNI attacks Lower Ormeau commemoration
A small and quiet wreath-laying by relatives of innocent civilians killed in the Ormeau Road bookmakers atrocity was attacked today by the PSNI, who arrested one of the survivors of the 1992 mass shooting. There have been calls for PSNI Chief Simon Byrne to resign in the wake of the incident, the latest in a series of acts of violent harassment against law-abiding republican gatherings such as wakes and funerals.
Today’s action against those remembering a notorious atrocity provoked disbelief and anger among nationalists.
It stands in contrast with the PSNI’s acquiescence and facilitation of a ‘show of strength’ on Tuesday by a masked UVF terror mob, who were engaged in intimidation in east Belfast at the time.
In a ten-minute video taken by one of the relatives today, the PSNI jostled and barged those present to disrupt the commemoration as family members laid flowers. They assaulted one woman and jostled others before arresting Mark Sykes at the spot where he was shot seven times by a UDA death squad.
Mark Thompson of Relatives for Justice, said the “disgraceful” assault took place amid an ongoing battle by the PSNI to prevent the publication of the Police Ombudsman’s report into the atrocity and to protect the RUC (now PSNI) handlers and agents involved in the atrocity.
“The PSNI vindictively decided to disrupt, insult and create unprecedented and callous hurt,” he said.
“The very same institution – the PSNI – that has prevented and thwarted effective investigation into these killings decided to intervene in a safe and distanced commemoration. This is beyond outrageous and there must be immediate accountability.
“This was not a public or community event. There was only a handful of relatives and survivors who sought to leave flowers at the spot where their loved ones had been gunned down with state collusion.”
On Thursday, the PSNI were also filmed as they stopped the funeral cortege of Turf Lodge woman, 85-year-old woman Rita McKernan, as it made its way through West Belfast.
One PSNI man grabbed a mourner with both hands around the neck before pushing him a number of yards and forcing him against a PSNI vehicle.
Mrs McKernan’s son Patrick, said the harassment continued throughout their grief. He said the PSNI “never left the house” during the wake following her passing on Monday, and were also present as Mrs McKernan was buried.
“There were four or five cop cars in the cemetery as well,” he said. “It was just pure harassment.”
Sinn Féin’s Policing spokesperson Gerry Kelly said has was “shocked and appalled” at the tactics used against the Ormeau families today. He called for the man arrested to be released immediately and the PSNI to apologise for “adding insult to injury” to those who have waited almost 30 years for truth and justice.
“It beggars belief that police have acted in such a heavy handed way with victims of loyalist violence in a week where the PSNI didn’t as much as take a name or stop a single member of an East Belfast UVF criminal gang of more than 50 men whose intent was to violently intimidate people out of their homes,” he said.
Lawyer Niall Murphy pointed out that because of Covid restrictions, the annual commemoration had been restricted to the five families who maintained a dignified silence and left flowers down.
“The police attended, for what reason I will never know, approached victims and survivors of an atrocity, and commenced to harass, push and assault man, woman and child.
He denied a PSNI claim that the arrested victim had engaged in disorderly behaviour.
“The only disorderly behaviour that happened on the Ormeau Road today was by the police who had no right to be there and who have wreaked havoc on community relations both in the Ormeau Road and in the wider community,” he said.
The IRSP said it shared the outrage of the people of the Lower Ormeau at the actions of the police.
“Recent living memory recalls that this same force literally besieged the Lower Ormeau and its people for decades, to facilitate both the murderous onslaught of state sponsored UFF and UVF terror gangs and the further endless spectacles of bigoted Orange order processions.
“In recent years the RUC/PSNI, directed as they are by MI5 (British military intelligence) have used coercion, lies and subterfuge in order to cover up their own central role in the UFF slaughter of the innocents in the Lower Ormeau.
“Today they turned their mind to the old intimidation tactics akin of the 1980s and 1990s, when people were beaten, arrested and forced from their own streets for stating the obvious and opposing bigotry.
“It has always been very clear to the IRSP that the PSNI embodies the physical structures and political program of the old RUC. Their first and foremost role is to exist as the front line of British occupation in Ireland and in this role they will quite simply never change and we make no apology in condemning those Nationalist politicians who attempted to sell this force to the very people they are sworn to oppress.