Hardline N.Ireland unionists angry at powersharing 'surrender deal'

Grassroots pro-UK loyalists in Northern Ireland say a deal to restore the region's assembly does not go far enough (Peter MURPHY)
Grassroots pro-UK loyalists in Northern Ireland say a deal to restore the region's assembly does not go far enough (Peter MURPHY)

Some grassroots loyalists in a unionist area of Northern Ireland have been left dismayed by this week's deal struck between the main pro-UK party and the British government, venting their anger at a recent gathering.

After a two-year boycott by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the agreement it has reached on the UK region's post-Brexit trade arrangements means a devolved power-sharing government can restart Saturday.

But mentions of the DUP and its leader Jeffrey Donaldson drew jeers in the chilly Orange Hall in Moygashel, 50 miles (80 kilometres) west of Belfast, near the border with EU member Ireland.

Keynote speakers railed against what they described as the "surrender deal".

They argued it prises Northern Ireland away from mainland Great Britain -- England, Scotland, and Wales -- by maintaining a so-called Irish Sea border that restricts trade.

Many of those in the hall wore badges reading "No Sea Border!".

"Ladies and gentlemen, the Irish Sea Border remains firmly in place," said Jamie Bryson, a prominent loyalist blogger and activist.

Bryson, 34, and Jim Allister, a veteran firebrand unionist politician, both insisted that the deal means Northern Ireland will still be treated as EU territory in trade terms.

"Great Britain, the other part of our kingdom of which we are supposed to be an integral part, is now decreed to be a foreign country under the EU customs code," said Allister.

- French farmers -

On the wall above the stage hung a framed painting of the victory of Protestant King William III of Orange over the deposed Catholic King James II in 1690 -- a celebrated date for unionists.

Allister reserved special ire for First Minister-designate Michelle O'Neill, who on Saturday will become the first ever pro-Irish unity nationalist leader of Northern Ireland in a historic milestone.

But Allister, a lawyer who resigned from the DUP to set up his own party in 2007, slammed his former party and moderate unionists for "forsaking their principles" by allowing O'Neill to take up the post.

O'Neill is vice-president of pro-Irish unity party Sinn Fein, which used to be the political wing of the paramilitary IRA. She has repeatedly said she will be "first minister for all".

But to cheers from the crowd, Allister roared: "She will never be my first minister!"

After asking the audience to stand up if they reject the DUP deal, Bryson said: "There is our message to Jeffrey Donaldson -- grassroots principled unionism says no to the surrender deal!"

One member of the audience, urging street protests, said: "I believe the day for talking, putting up posters, and collecting signatures, is over.

"The French farmers have the right idea!" he said to applause.

- 'No surrender' -

Bryson told the audience that the DUP had been invited but had not come to defend their case.

The rally wound up with a full-throated rendition of the British national anthem.

"Donaldson is pretending black is white," Bryson told AFP after the rally.

"He's saying that he has removed the Irish Sea border, but he hasn't done anything.

"If there has to be a border somewhere it should be on the international frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, that's a fundamental principle," he added.

He was more ambivalent on the calls for radical action from the floor.

"It's up to each person to decide what they want to do in the defence of their country at this vital hour," he said.

"I will leave that up to every individual to interpret that as they will."

Mark McKendry, holding a Northern Ireland flag underneath photographs of Orangemen (hardline Protestant loyalists), told AFP he knew what action was needed.

"We will be asking all grassroots loyalists and unionists who with a clear conscience cannot support this surrender deal to get together," said McKendry, a member of Allister's party the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice).

"We will be holding rallies and meetings, we will be asking people to mobilise, as our forefathers did," said the 51-year-old activist.

"We will not be lying back but taking action, we will be fighting this surrender deal.

"I will not bow down to Sinn Fein/IRA, now or ever. No surrender!" shouted Mark Gracey, a 29-year-old farmer who travelled 70 miles to attend the meeting.