In times of heightened tensions in Belfast, those frustrations find their first outlet on the city’s gable walls. So it has been over the Northern Ireland protocol, with slogans such as “No to the Irish Sea border” a common sight in loyalist areas.
Though many have been painted over, as the temperature has risen more sinister messages have emerged.
A “hangman” death threat to journalists, spray-painted on a hoarding in Belfast city centre last week, was linked to loyalists. Graffiti threatening war over the protocol and signed by the Protestant Action Force (PAF) – a cover name previously used by the UVF and UDA – appeared in nearby Newtownards before Christmas.
“I am very, very worried about the direction that we’re going in . . . I’m seeing a lot of young people who really want a piece of the action,” Shankill community worker and loyalist activist Stacey Graham said.
Many loyalists and unionists are opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol – the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which avoided a hard Border on the island of Ireland by placing an economic border in the Irish Sea – because they argue it is damaging the North’s economy and has undermined its constitutional position as part of the UK.
Last week, words were translated into action with the attack on a peace event organised by the John and Pat Hume Foundation where Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was speaking.
Huge anti-protocol banners featuring his face and that of other Irish Government Ministers, as well as political leaders from the EU, United States and Britain, were first erected last year by loyalists angry about the protocol.
As Coveney began his speech on “building common ground” on Friday, a terrified electrician appeared in the car park.
His van had been hijacked in the nearby Shankill area and he was ordered at gunpoint to drive what he believed was a live bomb – it turned out to be a hoax – to a car park outside the Houben Centre in north Belfast.
While political condemnation of the UVF-linked attack was widespread, speakers at an anti-protocol rally in Ballymoney, Co Antrim hours later failed even to mention the incident, with loyalist activist Jamie Bryson instead describing Coveney as a “meddling aggressor”.
Insisting it was “perfectly legitimate” for loyalists to engage in “peaceful protest”, Bryson also told the crowd that “British citizens are held hostage under the jackboot of the EU and hostile Irish Government”.
In the days since Friday’s incident, Graham is among those who have expressed fears of an escalation in paramilitary violence.
While she is clear she does not condone Friday’s attack, she says she was not surprised given what she is witnessing on the ground in the area where she works.
I think people were giving politicians and government a chance to come up with a solution to the protocol, and they didn’t
Surrounded by interfaces in one of the city’s most socially deprived areas – there are 82 derelict waste sites within the Shankill alone – there has been a surge in arranged street fights among Protestant and Catholic teenagers, according to Graham, who is involved in outreach street work.
“I have went on record since last year when violence erupted on Lanark Way and the Shankill – I was out on the street at the time urging people to come away from the interface – to tell people to show their opposition to the protocol through peaceful and democratic means,” she says.
“Even then, the tensions were high and I am surprised what happened on Friday didn’t happen sooner. I think people were giving politicians and government a chance to come up with a solution to the protocol, and they didn’t.
“I’m a 32-year-old, I didn’t experience the worst of the conflict but I’m old enough to remember some horrific parts of it.
“But I’m seeing a lot of young people who really want a piece of the action. They’re saying the old-timers need to move aside. They see the protocol as a real threat to our constitutional position and the politicians are doing nothing about it.”
With the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement approaching, Graham says she believes loyalists would opt for an “absolute no” if the agreement was being voted on today.
“People put their neck on the line at the time to bring communities with them on this and now it’s been almost thrown back in their face over how they’ve been treated with the protocol.”
This was echoed by the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader and former UVF prisoner Billy Hutchinson, who wrote in the Unionist Voice website, edited by Bryson, there was “no chance” loyalists would have supported the Belfast Agreement had they “known in 1998 that the principle of consent was merely symbolic”.
“Had we known what we know now, we could not have recommended to our community – or importantly, for the sake of peace, the paramilitary leadership – support for the Belfast Agreement,” he wrote.
Amid hardening attitudes and with Assembly elections only a month away – and uncertainty over whether Stormont will return – ex-British prime minister Tony Blair’s former chief-of-staff and leading negotiator in the North during the peace process Jonathan Powell said it would be a “mistake” to “shun loyalists” and called for more “reaching out” to “try to offer them a political path”.
Powell also said the onus was on the North’s politicians to take on a “leadership role” to “calm things down instead of stirring it up”.
“When I was in government I met with the loyalists both in the UDA and the UVF in the hope that the government could push it in this [political] direction.
We’ll be into May and June before you know it and there’ll be a lot of kids out on the streets – this is exactly wrong time to have those fears out there again
“Billy Hutchinson and Bunter Graham were among the brigadiers who turned up . . . Whatever happens, I do think it is a mistake to turn our back on loyalists and shun them. Government should be trying to reach out to them to persuade them to pursue the political route but also being really tough on them when they go down the criminal route.”
In 2015, Powell helped launched the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) representing paramilitary groups including the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando.
The LCC – he has “no contact” with it now – last year wrote to British prime minister Boris Johnson to temporarily withdraw their support for the Belfast Agreement due to protocol concerns.
Last month, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson was rounded on by nationalist politicians over a meeting he held with the LCC just days before party colleague Paul Givan’s resignation as first minister – which collapsed the Executive – with accusations the council’s “loyalist gang” members were “still involved in criminality”.
Despite the threat of a violent loyalist campaign erupting pre-marching season, Powell said it was his personal belief it “won’t take us back to the Troubles”.
He expressed concerns, however, about the timing.
“We’ll be in to May and June before you know it and there’ll be a lot of kids out on the streets – this is exactly wrong time to have those fears out there again.
“But I don’t think the threats of violence will be like the Troubles, which was basically a civil war.
“This is going to be street violence which we really don’t want in interface areas.
“So it would be best if politicians in NI took a leadership role and tried to calm it down instead of stirring it up.
“What matters is what they say at these rallies. I’ve seen Jeffrey Donaldson in particular calling for calm and disassociating himself from violence. I’d like to see all politicians, both loyalist and unionist, do that.
“I don’t think anyone should exaggerate the threat of violence or ‘war’ here – it is not the Troubles.”