The hijacking of two buses in Northern Ireland, along with signs of wider discontent among loyalists over the Northern Ireland protocol, highlight the need for political leaders to ensure that warnings about the destabilising effects of current tensions do not become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On Sunday night, four men boarded a bus near the loyalist Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey and forced the driver and passengers off before setting it on fire. The previous Monday, two armed men took control of a bus in Newtownards before setting it alight.
Unionists and loyalists are correct in feeling betrayed by the British government
The main loyalist paramilitary groups have denied involvement in the incidents, but the attacks are being widely linked to wider loyalist anger over the protocol. On Monday Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson announced that there was "no basis for unionist support" for the Belfast Agreement, which he was involved in negotiating in the late 1990s. Hutchinson, who has said there must be no return to violence, claimed the protocol threatened Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom and showed that the principle of consent had been abandoned.
Unionists and loyalists are correct in feeling betrayed by the British government, which sought a hard Brexit at all costs despite ample warning (though sadly not from the largest unionist party, the DUP) that that was not in Northern Ireland’s best interests. But complaining that Northern Ireland did not consent to the protocol is a weak argument when that protocol is designed to mitigate the damage of a decision – Brexit – which the majority in Northern Ireland actually opposed. To his credit, Hutchinson himself was aware of the potential destabilising effects of Brexit and voted Remain as a result.
Unionist hostility to the protocol is not fundamentally about what it is or what it does but with what it is presumed to represent, which is a step in the creeping political integration of the North and the Republic. That’s a stretch. Opposing the protocol is a legitimate political position, but there is also an onus on elected leaders to ensure that the rhetoric remains rooted in reality.