A group representing the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando has urged loyalists to “desist from any form of violence” after paramilitaries hijacked a bus in Rathcoole and set it on fire last week.
A week before, another bus was petrol-bombed in a loyalist area of Newtownards, while disorder broke out between youths in the nationalist Springfield Road and loyalist Shankill Road areas twice, with PSNI officers attacked with fireworks and missiles.
Some loyalists claim the incidents are all linked to opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
David Campbell, the chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), said the group has “gone to extraordinary lengths this year to bring violence to an end and to maintain community opposition as political and peaceful”.
“They have been met with a solid refusal by the European Commission to meet and to hear first-hand of concerns in loyalist areas, and the past two decades of bridge-building and forging positive relationships with Dublin has been squandered and rendered meaningless by this current Irish Government.”
“Despite the behaviour and misrepresentation from Brussels and Dublin” he urged all loyalists and unionists “to desist from any form of violence and to restrict their opposition to the protocol to peaceful and political activity”.
“The protocol is now so toxic that it needs to be dumped and an inclusive way forward agreed. If this process can only be started through the triggering of Article 16 then it should be done quickly and ideally jointly triggered by the UK Government and the European Commission.”
Mr Campbell said after “months of denial” it is now accepted the Northern Ireland Protocol “changes the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland and that represents a fundamental breach of the Belfast Agreement — an agreement that the Irish Government is supposed to be a co-guarantor of.”
He accused the Irish Government of “fomenting instability and disengagement from Northern Ireland for the past two years”.
There has been much speculation that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could soon trigger Article 16 as ongoing discussions between the EU and UK continue to fail to resolve problems.
Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said EU protestations about triggering Article 16 “ring hollow when one considers Brussels attempted to use the same mechanism to disrupt our vaccine supply”.
“Article 16 is part of the protocol. Its use is entirely legitimate. Given the conditions to trigger it have been met, its failure to be used is the greater concern.”
Mr Donaldson said the failure of Brussels and Dublin to “demonstrate understanding of unionist concerns raises serious questions over their understanding of and commitment to the Belfast Agreement”.
“People can see their commitment is from the lips out. The protocol has altered the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the protocol is opposed by every elected unionist in Northern Ireland, its supporters’ credibility is in tatters. The protocol is now on a daily basis poisoning our delicate political arrangements.”
He said negotiations “cannot become a process to excuse away the real problems of the protocol, nor is it acceptable for those with EU interests to now claim that a legal mechanism within the protocol, namely Article 16, cannot and should never be used”.
“We are now seeing behaviour designed to bully and intimidate the UK not to trigger a legal mechanism
"I would remind those who claim that it is against the spirit of the Belfast Agreement to invoke Article 16, in circumstances where it is done to commence a process of re-establishing Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market, that a border down the Irish Sea is the real and damaging breach of the ’98 Agreement.”
Outspoken loyalist Jamie Bryson claims tension in loyalist communities is “rising rapidly” and points to the issue over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“You see a manifestation of this via militant murals going up, low-level and sporadic incidents and a coming together of unionism and loyalism in a hardening of attitudes.
“The protocol has radicalised a generation of loyalists and even has older loyalists who were champions of the Belfast Agreement now saying enough is enough,” he said.
The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole said some of the most “noxious and anti-democratic actors have been incentivised to orchestrate sporadic violence” in the past year.
“For different reasons, certain unionist politicians and the British Government have dropped hints, tapped their noses or made insinuations about street violence in relation to the protocol. But the polling shows that most people in Northern Ireland simply want the protocol to work. It is a complicated and imperfect compromise only agreed after others were rejected by the DUP or other Brexiteers.
“The fact that the British Government is once again acting against not just the interests but the wishes of most people in NI is deeply destabilising and the DUP must understand how profoundly damaging their actions are.”
While he accepts the frustrations unionists feel over the Protocol are real, “so too are the frustrations of those who voted remain and have had their views totally overridden in the Brexit process”.