Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace agreement is under threat and a “Pandora’s box” of protest and political crisis will be opened unless the European Union agrees to significant changes in the Brexit deal, a senior loyalist warned on Friday.
The 1998 accord, known as the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, ended three decades of violence between mostly Catholic nationalists fighting for a united Ireland and mostly Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom.
David Campbell, chairman of the Loyalist Communities Council, which represents the views of loyalist paramilitaries, said he was calling for dialogue with the EU and Ireland to change the Northern Irish Protocol that he said had breached fundamental principles of the 1998 deal.
“We’re saying there is a window of opportunity for constructive dialogue to see if we can actually get a workable solution, and I’ve no doubt we could get a workable solution, but it does require Brussels and Dublin to return to honouring the core guarantees of the [Belfast] Agreement,” Mr. Campbell told Reuters.
“If it doesn’t happen, then they are opening a Pandora’s box which leads to significant protest, to the bringing down of the Northern Ireland executive and then into a significant political crisis,” Mr. Campbell said.
Loyalist paramilitary groups told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month that they were temporarily withdrawing support for the peace agreement due to concerns over the Brexit deal.
The EU and Ireland say there is no reason to change the Brexit divorce deal which was signed by Mr. Johnson and is now an international treaty, though unionists say the negotiations failed to take account of their community.
“Loyalists are extremely angry right across the community,” Mr. Campbell said, adding that the community was more angry than at any other time since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which gave Dublin a consultative role in the governance of Northern Ireland.
“It’s an anger that transcends class and age groups – 80-year-olds are just as vexed as teenagers are – so it has succeeded in uniting all the disparate unionist groups and parties,” he said.
Unionists say the Brexit deal is unfair as it prevents a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland but effectively cuts Northern Ireland off from the rest of the United Kingdom by creating a so-called “Irish Sea border,” effectively leaving Northern Ireland as part of the European Single Market in a limited way for goods and trade.
Mr. Campbell said that, as such, the Brexit deal was one-sided and breached the principles of the 1998 deal.
“The peace agreement is certainly under threat,” Mr. Campbell said, adding that the devolved power-sharing government of Northern Ireland, which requires the support of politicians representing both communities to function, was likely to collapse.
Northern Ireland’s devolved government and assembly have suffered periodic breakdowns during previous crises since 1998.
“Unless there are changes, I can’t see the Northern Ireland executive being sustained beyond the ending of the current pandemic,” he said, adding that there would be significant protests over coming months and going into the summer.
So is Northern Ireland on the brink of violence?
“I was one of the unionist negotiators in the talks and for 20-odd years we have worked constructively together and you now potentially face the undoing of that,” he said.
“The current leaderships of the loyalist organisations are under extreme pressure from, let’s just say, the young Turks who perhaps see an opportunity to go to war on their terms.”
The main loyalist paramilitary groups were not formally parties to the 1998 deal, but endorsed it at the time and decommissioned their weapons in the years that followed.
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