What is smart, young Joel Keys doing with loyalist paramilitaries?

Behind the Loyalist Communities Council’s new public face are former paramilitaries

Fire fed by petrol burns as youths clash at the peace gate at the Springfield Road/Lanark Way interface in Belfast in April. File photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Fire fed by petrol burns as youths clash at the peace gate at the Springfield Road/Lanark Way interface in Belfast in April. File photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

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On Monday, Joel Keys, a 19-year-old part-time supermarket worker from Belfast, joined the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) which includes proscribed paramilitary organisations.

On Wednesday he was sent out, dressed as if for a funeral in a black suit, white shirt and tie, to warn the British government that if it did not accede to his organisation’s demands people might resort to violence. He was speaking about the Northern Ireland protocol and the resulting border in the Irish Sea.

Addressing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC), he said that sometimes violence was “the only tool you have left”. He was not calling for violence. He was “just saying I wouldn’t rule it on or off the table”.

Riots were exciting for teenagers, Keys said, something to do. Unionist politics had nothing to offer the young

The chairman of the NIAC, Simon Hoare, was visibly shaken, and later spoke of being “chilled and appalled”, not least because of Keys’s youth. People reacted on social media with fury and disgust. Many described him as a young thug.

When I met him first in 2019, he was a schoolboy about to do his A levels. I interviewed him for my forthcoming book, Northern Protestants – On Shifting Ground and found him smart, politically engaged and with, in many ways, a refreshingly open mind. But he was a boy on a knife edge. His intelligence had clearly been spotted by people who felt they had a use for him.

He spoke about conversations with men about whose background he was wary. He had already posted a few belligerent tweets in one of which he absurdly claimed the SDLP’s Claire Hanna had won her Westminster seat in South Belfast because she was supported by “a terrorist organisation”.

Joel Keys (19) addressing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday. Image: parliamentlive.tv
Joel Keys (19) addressing the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday. Image: parliamentlive.tv

“Today we have been shown that when you try to handle things by the ballot you get nothing,” he wrote. “Time to fight back.” He had campaigned for Emma Little-Pengelly, the DUP’s candidate in that constituency, but said he was more of an Ulster Unionist, except on Brexit, which he supported. He was in favour of same-sex marriage. He had no problem with the an Irish language Act. If there was a Border poll and a majority voted for Irish unity, he, as a democrat, would accept that.

Rally

He had taken part in the “anti Betrayal Act” rally in the Ulster Hall. He portrayed Robert Quigg, a UVF man who joined the British army, fought at the Somme and got a Victoria Cross. Quigg died for democracy, he had said. Everyone had a duty to vote, and if the UK was under threat, every Ulsterman had a duty to save it.

Like the Drumcree protests of the 1990s, these rallies were an attempt to unite the so-called Protestant unionist loyalist (PUL) family, including politicians, Orangemen and paramilitaries.

Keys was by no means a supporter of loyalist paramilitarism. Indeed, he said parents needed to get their children to focus on schoolwork so that they did not drift into paramilitarism, crime or drugs. When I called him earlier this year, he told me he had done well and got a place in a London university. Because of the pandemic, he deferred the course, and now he was having second thoughts about it. He felt he might be needed in Belfast.

I met him again during the week of the loyalist riots in April. He had been arrested but was released and no charges were brought against him. He told me he had gone on to the Sandy Row only to take care of a 13-year-old boy who had got caught up in the rioting because he was bored. Riots were exciting for teenagers, Keys said, something to do. Unionist politics had nothing to offer the young.

So now he has joined the LCC, and is suddenly famous, for reasons that are unlikely to enhance his reputation or help his career. He is young and politically inexperienced – but those who saw fit to put him forward as a spokesman are not. Those from a paramilitary background are largely older men, men who “fought” in the Troubles.

Some of them signed up for the expression of “abject and true remorse” that came with the loyalist ceasefires of 1994. Some backed the peace process. One of them described the LCC as a kind of “old comrades association” for men who had been caught up in a conflict “that we got engaged in as young lads”.

Absurd

The LCC and its paramilitaries do not represent the loyalist community, and it is absurd that they have been entertained by among others the Archbishop of Canterbury, the secretary of state, Lord Frost, the North’s First Minister, the Republic’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and the NIAC.

They claim that they are “seething” over the protocol and that this reflects the mood of the people. The DUP once rebuffed the LCC – now it is relying upon this story of loyalist rage to distract from its own responsibility for the disaster that is Brexit, including the protocol, and from its inner disarray.

The former paramilitaries know they are perceived to be bitter and banjaxed – they need a new generation of young lads who look fit for fighting. Should it come to that. Most victims of loyalist paramilitaries in the past were Catholic civilians. Who will they fight now? Who will arm them? What will victory look like? The LCC does not say.

I texted Keys but he texted back that he had been instructed to direct the media to the LCC. I asked for a number and it was a while before he replied. He’d sent it to the wrong number, he wrote, and finished with a crying laughing emoji. The LCC did not respond.

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