The next loyalist death lands at Downing Street’s door
Unionist violence will no longer be compartmentalised following a DUP-Tory deal
Arlene Foster and her deputy, Nigel Dodds, arrive at 10 Downing Street for talks on a deal to prop up a Tory minority administration. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA
The Democratic Unionist Party has been stung by questions in Britain this week, about its relationship with the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association.
There were similar questions in Northern Ireland before last Thursday’s UK general election. The Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group for the main loyalist organisations, endorsed several DUP candidates a week after a horrific UDA-linked murder in Bangor, where a man was shot dead outside a busy shopping centre in front of his three-year-old son.
Two days after the murder the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, met the UDA leader Jackie McDonald while canvassing in south Belfast.
The DUP explained all this away in a manner most people in Northern Ireland would have wearily understood, if hardly welcomed. DUP candidates rejected the endorsement, Foster condemned the murder and all paramilitarism – listing loyalist groups specifically – and McDonald added the critical point.
“I’d say there are six or seven UDAs, and no one can answer or speak for anyone but themselves,” he told the Irish News.
“There are people trying to move things along, and we know that we need to let go of the past. Unfortunately, there are some people stuck in the past who will never move on.”
We are still hoping to cajole and pay loyalism off, and everyone knows it
The Bangor murder is part of a feud within one of these UDAs – there was another fatal shooting in March.
The UDA, like the Ulster Volunteer Force, has fractured into local gangs, many of which are still engaged with the official “transition” processes.
Stormont’s main process is the Social Investment Fund, set up by the DUP and Sinn Féin to pour money into loyalist and republican areas.
From October last year, four months before devolution collapsed, a scandal embroiled the fund over a UDA figure, Dee Stitt, who runs Charter NI, an east-Belfast-based community enterprise.
But it was Stitt’s alleged activities and belligerent comments rather than his UDA connections that were the issue. The DUP and Sinn Féin did not disagree over funding Charter NI itself. Further strategies to tackle paramilitarism, with carrot and stick, are ready to roll out via Stormont’s 2015 Fresh Start agreement.
In short, we are still hoping to cajole and pay loyalism off, and everyone knows it, although few want to put it positively in those terms.
There is an unspoken recognition that the DUP must have a role in this, as the main party of unionism and, in particular, the loyalist end of the electorate.
A serious problem during the early years of the peace process was that the DUP did not have close enough links to paramilitaries. It may have exploited loyalists, but it had neither the influence nor the inclination to bring them in from the cold.
The decades since have involved stumbling towards DUP leadership of loyalism by default, with the tacit support of other parties and the authorities. It may be two-faced, and too late, but it is no great mystery to anyone.
So imagine the novelty of finding this a UK-wide story. Something we are used to looking at askance is suddenly in the national spotlight, stripped of all nuance yet replete with detail that even Northern Ireland normally finds arcane.
A photograph of Foster with Stitt made the London papers, as did her meeting with McDonald, as did the Bangor murder.
A contrast was made with Jeremy Corbyn’s links to Sinn Féin, but only to claim that Corbyn made peace while the DUP has not – an almost precise reversal of fact.
Remarkable compartmentalisation was also displayed. Tony Blair’s former chief of staff Jonathan Powell said a Conservative alliance with the DUP will threaten the peace process. Two years ago he set up the Loyalist Communities Council.
The barely-acknowledged bribery of barely-cohesive gangs is a difficult policy vehicle to turn around
Ian Paisley once described his own approach to loyalism as “knowing and not knowing”. That attitude remains, although the goal is more benign, which is how the UDA can kill and be funded at the same time.
Such cynical ambiguity will not be possible while the UK media strives to link it, rightly or wrongly, to a fragile British government.
Republican conspiracy theory suggests loyalists will be arrested or otherwise removed from circulation en masse, as the securocrats who are presumed to protect them shift to sparing the establishment’s blushes.
Unionist conspiracy theory suggests loyalist violence could get worse, as treacherous spooks seize a chance to betray the union.
Realistically, the PSNI will feel a little more pressure to bring the latest feud under control rather than letting the rest of society write it off as internal housekeeping.
But what is most likely to change is nothing much, as the barely acknowledged bribery of barely cohesive gangs is a difficult policy vehicle to turn around.
The reputation and perhaps even the fate of the British government now lie in unpredictable loyalist hands.
One witness to the Bangor murder described how, “as a man lay fighting for his life, people were walking by blissfully unaware of what happened, carrying tins of paint and wallpaper under their arms”.
That kind of compartmentalisation is over. The next loyalist death lands at Number 10’s door.