Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups have told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson they are temporarily withdrawing support for the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement due to concerns over the United Kingdom’s Brexit deal with the European Union.
While the groups pledged “peaceful and democratic” opposition to the deal, such a stark warning increases the pressure on Johnson, his Irish counterpart Micheal Martin and the EU over Brexit.
The 1998 peace accord, also known as the Belfast Agreement, ended three decades of violence between mostly Catholic nationalists fighting for a united Ireland and mostly Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the UK.
The loyalist paramilitaries including the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando said they were concerned about the disruption to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK due to the Brexit deal.
“The loyalist groupings are herewith withdrawing their support for the Belfast Agreement,” they said in a March 3 letter to Johnson from Loyalist Communities Council chairman David Campbell, seen by Reuters news agency.
A similar letter has been sent to the Irish leader and copies were sent to the European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic.
The paramilitary groups said they were determined that unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol – part of the 2020 Brexit agreement – was peaceful but added a warning.
“Please do not underestimate the strength of feeling on this issue right across the unionist family,” the letter said.
“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,” it said.
The paramilitary groups said they would not return to the deal until their rights were restored and the Northern Ireland Protocol was amended to ensure unfettered trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
But, they said, their core disagreement was more fundamental: that the EU, the UK and the Republic of Ireland had in the Northern Ireland Protocol breached their commitments to the 1998 peace deal and the two communities.
The UK-EU Brexit agreement establishes tariff- and quota-free exchange of goods but sets up veterinary and customs checks and other obstacles to the previously seamless commerce between the pair. Contentiously, it also imposes new checks on some trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Preserving the delicate peace in Northern Ireland without allowing the UK a back door into the EU’s markets through the 310-mile (500 km) UK-Irish land border was one of the most difficult issues of the Brexit divorce talks.
An open Irish border has helped underpin the peace process built on the Good Friday accord, which ended decades of violence involving Irish republicans, UK loyalists and UK armed forces, in which more than 3,600 people died.
The loyalist groups abandoned their armed struggle in 1998 and residual violence since the accord has largely been carried out by dissident nationalist groups who opposed the peace deal.
But the new checks have unsettled the political balance in the region, which has had problems importing a range of goods from the rest of the UK since it broke away from the EU’s single market and customs union on January 1, 2021.
Northern Ireland authorities temporarily halted veterinary checks and withdrew border staff from ports last month after threatening graffiti appeared referring to port workers as targets.
Northern Ireland businesses have meanwhile warned they are struggling to cope with the new red tape.
To ease the burden, the UK announced on Wednesday that it was unilaterally extending until October a temporary “grace period” waiving checks on agri-food goods entering Northern Ireland. It had been due to end on March 31.
The EU promised legal action in response to the move, which Brussels said violated the terms of the Brexit divorce deal.
The Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, said the UK was behaving inappropriately.
“For the second time in the course of a few months, the British government has threatened to breach international law,” Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told Virgin Media television, referring to a similar unilateral move last year that London eventually dropped.
“This is not the appropriate behaviour of a respectable country, quite frankly.”
In an apparent bid to cool the mounting tensions, Johnson on Thursday said the latest problems surrounding Brexit and Northern Ireland could be solved with “goodwill” and “common sense”.
He also told reporters he had not seen which Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups had said they were temporarily withdrawing support for the 1998 peace agreement due to concerns over the Brexit deal.