They gathered in their thousands at the top of the Shankill Road with banners and drums to send a message to the far side of the Irish Sea, where a treacherous prime minister played his charade in a kingdom no longer fully theirs.
Some waved union jack flags, others had union jack masks, one had a union jack balaclava, and they tramped behind marching bands with drums, flutes and cymbals, a percussive shockwave in the Belfast dusk.
Across the sea, across the border, Boris Johnson was hosting Joe Biden in Cornwall and talking up Britain’s post-Brexit wonderland, but in this corner of Northern Ireland the Queen’s most loyal subjects, her face peering from tattoos, murals and portraits, were shouting “No”.
No to the Northern Ireland protocol that was the price of Johnson’s deal with the EU. No to trade barriers with the rest of the UK that they fear will tilt them towards a united Ireland. No, as they saw it, to being ignored, belittled, patronised, betrayed.
The procession last week – peaceful but without authorisation and in violation of pandemic rules – may herald a long, combustible summer in Northern Ireland. “The fight is against those who would seek to undermine our British sovereignty and deny the British citizens of Northern Ireland their fundamental birthright through the use of political treachery,” a masked, anonymous orator told the crowd – 3,000 strong according to police, and one of the biggest protests so far – after it marched and assembled outside a leisure centre.
“Our British sovereignty and status within the United Kingdom is in its greatest danger since the state of Northern Ireland was created 100 years ago.” What the IRA failed to do with bombs and bullets, an Irish pan-nationalist front that encompassed Washington and Brussels sought to accomplish with trickery, he said. “We can no longer stand idly by and accept this political assault on our democracy, by a group of foreign powers, driven by an anti-British agenda, and encouraged by elements within the establishment in the Republic of Ireland.”
At a signal a man in a wheelchair lit a huge banner – purloined from Sinn Féin – that exhorted a united Ireland. Cheers erupted as flames whooshed across the fabric.
The man given the honour of immolating Irish unity said his name was Joe – surname withheld – and that he was 63, had served 18 years in prison during the Troubles, was terminally ill with cancer, and felt violence could return in his lifetime. “If that’s the way it has to be, then that’s how it’ll be.”
John Major and Tony Blair, among others, had warned before the 2016 Brexit referendum that departing the EU would destabilise Northern Ireland and here, with smoke pluming into a darkening sky, the genie was out of the bottle.
For loyalists, a week of tense talks between British and EU negotiators, a “sausage war” beyond Swiftian satire, turmoil in the Democratic Unionist party and a US president quoting a poem about Irish republicanism all fed a sense of existential threat.
That Johnson and Biden affirmed the sanctity of the 1998 Good Friday agreement and that Northern Ireland commanded attention amid the G7 summit’s grand themes of safeguarding democracy and the planet’s climate did not reassure the marchers, because they believe the game is rigged.
Rather than safeguard the Good Friday agreement – by averting a hard border on the island of Ireland - they say the protocol shreds its principles of consent and sovereignty.
“People of our generation didn’t go to jail and fill the graveyards to see Sinn Féin rule the country and our sovereignty shredded,” said a spokesman for the Unionist and Loyalist Unified Coalition (ULUC), one of several groups that have proliferated online in recent months. “We don’t want to feel less part of the UK.”
They blame the Irish Sea border on Johnson – a prime minister so duplicitous, they believe, that he still denies there is a border – and see it as a victory for an old foe who comes in many guises: the IRA, Sinn Féin, the Dublin government, which they said used the spectre of republican violence to avert a border between the north and south of Ireland, a ploy adopted by the European Commission to move the border to the Irish Sea.
This unholy alliance now includes a misty-eyed Irish-American president. “The world is changed, changed utterly,” Biden told US troops after touching down at an RAF base in Sussex. “A terrible beauty has been born.” He was referencing WB Yeats in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, but loyalists inferred additional meaning from the fact the poem, Easter, 1916, is about a revolt against British rule in Ireland.
On the Shankill, freshly printed posters showed the president with Gerry Adams, the former Sinn Féin leader, and declared: “Joe Biden is an enemy of Ulster.”
That the Democrat in the White House was a republican made the battle against the protocol all the graver, said one middle-aged man. “I’m here to defend my faith, my religion and my Britishness.”
The biggest banners, the length of billboards, said: “Protect the Northern Ireland peace process: trigger article 16,” a reference to an emergency cord in the protocol.
That these working-class men and women now march behind such arcana shows the political toxicity of regulatory checks on some products travelling between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Amid deafening drumming it is easy to forget that in a recent poll 47% of respondents wanted to keep the protocol versus 42% wanting to dump it. Most people in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU and wish politicians would iron out difficulties in the protocol and make it work.
Rosemary Jenkinson, an award-winning Belfast writer who has written a play about loyalist bonfires, Billy Boy, said the protocol worsened a “parlous psychological state” within loyalism. “There is a feeling of being unmoored and adrift. The tethers with the UK feel more frayed. It’s a conflation of things.”
A census this year is expected to confirm that Catholics outnumber Protestants for the first time since Northern Ireland’s creation in 1921, a bitter centenary landmark for unionists and loyalists. Many claim Sinn Féin’s political heft has tilted policing against them – which the police vehemently reject – and that this will worsen as Sinn Féin, emboldened by Scottish nationalism, pushes for a referendum on Irish unity.
“It’s like a republican threat is hugely respected and noticed but a loyalist threat isn’t,” said Jenkinson. “It’s like they don’t exist.”
A rogues’ gallery of protocol culprits on billboards and banners features Johnson, Biden, the Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney and the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič.
Notable absences are Arlene Foster, the outgoing DUP leader and first minister, and Edwin Poots, the new DUP leader. It is not for want of contempt.
Loyalists scorn Foster for being duped into the protocol and they dismiss Poots as talk but no action. The recent DUP soap opera – an internal putsch against Foster followed by walkouts, resignations and a reshuffled ministerial team at the Stormont executive, including a newly designated first minister, Paul Givan – is shrugged off as a sideshow.
The DUP, after all, gave Johnson a standing ovation when he made hollow promises at the party conference in 2018. In January it briefly tried to peddle the protocol as a great economic opportunity before making a screeching U-turn.
Now it claims to lead the resistance but permits regulatory checks on goods from Britain and still cooperates with the Irish government – Poots recently met the taoiseach, Micheál Martin, in Dublin. Next week the party may grant Irish language concessions to Sinn Féin. To do otherwise risks collapsing Stormont and triggering an early election which, polls say, would annihilate the DUP.
Loyalists and unionists pound the pavements every summer to commemorate ancient victories but this marching season, coming in the wake of riots over Easter, feels like a tinderbox.
“The question is how long will the protests remain peaceful because the impression given by governments over the years is that violence pays,” said Davy Jones, who was an Orange Order spokesman during protests at the County Armagh village of Drumcree in the 1990s, when police blocked Orangemen marching past Catholic homes.
Protests also failed to overturn the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement and Belfast city council’s 2012 decision to fly the union jack less frequently, yet former IRA members with blood on their hands now sit in Stormont, said Jones. “That’s an awful bad message to give out because eventually it is bound to lead to the violence that we don’t want.”
A young man at a nearby bonfire site – it will be lit on 9 July to celebrate William of Orange’s victory at the battle of the Boyne – said peaceful protests would accomplish nothing. “If that means violence, then there will be violence.”
This could all be bluster. The marches, though growing in number and size, are still tiny compared with previous eras. Paramilitary representatives have said they do not plan a return to “war”. A compromise between London and Brussels could ease trade frictions and perhaps lull the tiger.
Yet there was a striking consistency among loyalists in Belfast and Portadown, a stronghold near Drumcree. “The protocol has killed the Good Friday agreement stone dead,” said one of three representatives of the Unionist and Loyalist Unified Coalition, interviewed at a loyalist hall.
Tweaking the protocol would not suffice, he said. “We’re being driven economically into a united Ireland.” Conversations in such halls led to the 1994 loyalist ceasefires but recent conversations in those same halls had a darker hue, he said. “We’re hearing concerns about violence. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to stop.” Asked about potential targets, he cited trade infrastructure between north and south such as roads and warehouses. “It could be disrupted.”
Boris Johnson covered Drumcree protests in 1996 and 1999 as a journalist with the Daily Telegraph. He assailed Sinn Féin and its republicans allies but did not sympathise with the other side.
“You don’t take the pith out of the Orange,” he wrote, before doing so with references to “ginger-haired Orangemen”, “bowler-hatted bashi-bazouks” and “assorted flat-visaged thugs in jeans and tattoos who roll shiftily around and represent the loyalist paramilitaries”.
These dispatches of amused exasperation, of an Englishman trying to make sense of exotic grievance, did make a prophecy of sorts. If government policy appears to reward republicans at the expense of loyalists, watch out, wrote the future prime minister. “In those circumstances, in which IRA murder will be seen as extorting constitutional change to the status of Ulster, the loyalists will strike.”