The withdrawal of loyalist paramilitary support for Northern Ireland’s historic peace agreement does not signal an intent to return to violence, a DUP MP has insisted.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, whose party leadership recently met an umbrella group representing the outlawed paramilitary groups, said there was no evidence the groups planned to resist the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol by violent means.
His comments come after the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) umbrella group wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson telling him the main loyalist paramilitary groups were withdrawing support for the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
The paramilitaries said they were temporarily withdrawing their backing of the Belfast/Good Friday accord amid mounting concerns about the arrangements governing Irish Sea trade post-Brexit.
The LCC leadership stressed that unionist opposition to the protocol should remain “peaceful and democratic”.
However, the letter warned that the protocol undermines the “basis on which the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) agreed their 1994 ceasefire and subsequent support for the Belfast Agreement”.
Sir Jeffrey said the letter to Mr Johnson was unequivocal that opposition to the protocol had to remain peaceful.
He told BBC Radio Ulster that his party colleagues came away from their meeting with the LCC with “no sense that loyalist paramilitaries were going to revert to violence in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol”.
“I think that is reflected in this statement,” he added.
“Of course we are very clear that choosing the path of violence is not the way to go in any circumstances.”
The 1998 agreement that loyalist paramilitaries endorsed 23 years ago ended decades of violence and established devolved powersharing at Stormont.
UK ministers are facing a backlash from unionists who fear the post-Brexit protocol threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
The DUP and other unionist parties are pushing for the protocol to be ditched, claiming it has driven an economic wedge between the region and Great Britain, which undermines the union.
In the letter, which was first reported by the Irish News, the paramilitary groups said their stance in respect of the Belfast Agreement would continue until the protocol was amended to ensure “unfettered access for goods, services, and citizens throughout the United Kingdom”.
It added: “If you or the EU is not prepared to honour the entirety of the agreement then you will be responsible for the permanent destruction of the agreement.”
The development came as the UK Government took unilateral action on Wednesday to extend a grace period that has been limiting the volume of red tape associated with moving agri-food goods from GB into Northern Ireland.
The EU criticised the Government move to extend the exemption period, which was due to run out at the end of the month, until October, claiming it risked breaching the terms of the protocol.
The European Commission is considering legal action against the UK.
On Thursday, Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney said the EU is negotiating with a partner it “simply cannot trust”.
Mr Coveney described the UK’s Government’s unilateral decision as “very frustrating”.
“This is not the first time this has happened, that they (the EU) are negotiating with a partner that they simply cannot trust,” he told RTE.
Goods arriving into Northern Ireland from GB have been subjected to added processes and checks since the Brexit transition period ended on December 31.
That bureaucracy is set to intensify significantly when the grace period ends, as from that point supermarkets and other retailers will require EU export health certificates for agri-food products brought in from GB.
The letter to the Prime Minister was written by David Campbell, chairman of the LCC. Mr Campbell has penned a similar letter to Irish premier Micheal Martin.
The LCC represents the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando, which were responsible for many deaths during 30 years of conflict.
The main loyalist and republican armed groups signed up to principles such as commitment to non-violence during discussions which led to the signing of the Belfast Agreement in exchange for early release of prisoners.
The letter says: “We are concerned about the disruption to trade and commerce between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom that is occurring, but our core objection is much more fundamental.”
It said during the Brexit negotiations the Government and the EU said it was paramount to protect the Belfast Agreement and its built-in safeguards for the two main communities in Northern Ireland.
The letter said the operation of the protocol “repeatedly breaches those objectives”.
Mr Campbell insisted the LCC leadership is determined that opposition to the protocol should be “peaceful and democratic”.
“However, please do not underestimate the strength of feeling on this issue right across the unionist family,” he adds.
“The only time I can remember such unanimity of opposition was following the imposition of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.
“Accordingly, I have been instructed to advise you that the loyalist groupings are herewith withdrawing their support for the Belfast Agreement until our rights under the agreement are restored and the protocol is amended to ensure unfettered access for goods, services, and citizens throughout the United Kingdom.
“If you or the EU is not prepared to honour the entirety of the agreement then you will be responsible for the permanent destruction of the agreement.”
The protocol is designed to prevent the imposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland following EU trade rules.
It has caused disruption to some goods travelling from the rest of the UK as suppliers have struggled to overcome extra red tape.
Police have noted growing discontent in unionist communities.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable Simon Byrne previously warned of a “febrile” atmosphere and urged people to step back from the brink of violence.
Inspection staff at ports were temporarily withdrawn from duties earlier this year in response to sinister graffiti, but they later resumed their work after police insisted there was no credible threat against them.
Last week, Stormont’s DUP Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons stopped preparatory work on building permanent Irish Sea trade checks at the ports.
That move, the legality of which has been disputed by executive colleagues, did not impact ongoing checks, as those are happening at temporary port facilities.