THE NIO has met the UDA, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando for discussions about the NI Protocol. Yes, you read that right, the British government has met illegal loyalist paramilitaries still engaged in murder, extortion and drug-dealing to discuss the finer points of international trade.

Now the more unkind among you may think that’s a bit like the government meeting Joey Essex to discuss quantitative easing, but there’s no call for that kind of talk at a time when cool heads and calmness are called for.

The Belfast Telegraph reported that the meeting was “forthright and hard-hitting,” which probably means that somebody from Dee Street said somebody’s going to get Romper Roomed if the Checkpoint Charlies that have sprung up at Belfast, Larne, Derry and Warrenpoint aren’t removed PDQ. 

The paper also reported that the Uncle Andy delegation warned that there is “anger on the streets” in loyalist areas. The meeting took place via Zoom, not because of the pandemic, but because there was a lock-in at the Flag and Flute the lads didn’t want to miss.

Now Squinter’s all for giving everybody an even break. The DUP’s all for briefing ‘stakeholders’ (Ulster-Scots for ‘Godfathers’). In 2018 the party briefed the UDA/UVF on an imminent deal on an Irish Language Act, which Theresa May and Leo Varadkar were excited enough about to be arriving in Belfast the next day to announce. You may or may not be surprised to learn that the deal was rejected by the parties’ cultural liaison officers.

So it came as no surprise that opposition to the meeting was, ah, muted in unionist circles, with comparisons being made to the talks which preceded the 1994 republican and loyalist ceasefires. After all, the logic went, didn’t the government talk to illegal organisations then? 

Well, yes, to discuss how an end to violence could be arrived at, and it worked out pretty well in the end. What would the NIO be talking to the UDA/UVF today about? Would they be asking them to lower their punitive money-lending rates on the Shankill? Suggesting that they don’t put so much talcum powder in their cocaine? Telling them that shooting grannies in their homes is best done when something else is dominating the news?

None of these things, of course, because we’re told the meeting was the NIO explaining the Protocol to the loyalist hardmen. Quite what the NIO could tell them that they wouldn’t be able to read in the papers is not entirely clear to Squinter. Maybe somebody at the NIO explained it to them through the medium of dance. Perhaps there was a power-point presentation explaining how Sammy and Geordie would have bigger desks and nicer chairs than Fritz and Pierre in the Checkpoint Charlie Portakabin.

We don’t know how the meeting went, but we do know that in the days following it graffiti started to spring up around the city threatening border post staff, which might suggest that Ulster’s finest weren’t too happy with what they heard and saw.

Where’s that caravan?

TRUSTWORTHY? Boris Johnson

TRUSTWORTHY? Boris Johnson

Making sense of that old border blame game

SO it seems this Irish sea border thing is, according to the DUP, the fault – in no particular order – of the Alliance Party, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Moonies, the Alliance Party, Greta Thunberg, the Alliance Party, Marcus Rashford and the Alliance Party.

How they came to this conclusion is not entirely clear to Squinter, so he got on to the blower to the DUP press office for a bit of background on the thinking on this...

– So, it’s fair to say that Brexit hasn’t gone as well as you’d hoped, right?                           – Not at all, we’re delighted to have control of our money, laws and borders back.

– You know that the EU is at the docks in Belfast, Larne, Derry and Warrenpoint in high-vis jackets checking sweg coming in from Britain, don’t you?                                               – Well, we wouldn’t put it as crudely as that.

– And they’re not at Dover or Felixstowe.                                                                               – Not yet.

– And didn’t your Edwin Poots give the order for the border posts here to be built?             – Under pressure he did.

– He stepped over Arlene’s blood-red line, didn’t he?                                                              – He was pushed over it.

– So your line now is that the sea border is the fault of all the main parties except the DUP.                                                                                                                                      – That’s right.

– But the DUP was the only one of the main parties that backed Brexit.                               – Brexit has nothing to do with the Irish sea border.

– Really, what does?                                                                                                             – The NI Protocol that keeps us in the Single Market against the wishes of the majority.

– But a majority of people here voted Remain.                                                                       – The vote that counts is that of the United Kingdom.

– Which you’re now bordered off from.                                                                                    – Against our wishes, yes.

– And wasn’t the Protocol agreed by Boris Johnson and the UK to Get Brexit Done?             – That’s what he says, but he’s serial liar.

– That’s not what you said when you gave him a standing ovation two years ago.                – We didn’t know it then.

– Even though everybody was telling you?                                                                              – We thought they were lying.

– You thought they were lying to you about Boris Johnson being a liar when he’s literally lost jobs for being a liar?                                                                                                            – Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

– Have you heard about a thing called due diligence?                                                            – Due what?

– Never mind. So. We’re agreed that the Protocol came about as a direct result of your decision to jump into bed with the Boris Johnson on Brexit.                                              – We didn’t jump into bed with Boris. There wouldn’t be room in there.

– Good one. – I liked it.                  

– Let’s try it this way. If we had stayed in the EU would there be a sea border?                     – Quite possibly. Those foreigners are capable of anything.

– Would you back Brexit again if you knew how it was going to turn out?                             – Absolutely.

– Why’s that?                                                                                                                           – Money, laws and borders.

– Well, you’re paying 30% more on your ASOS deliveries from the EU, you’ve got French and Germans in high                                                                                                            -vis jackets telling you what’s allowed in and it’s ‘Papers, please” at the barrier. That’s your money, laws and borders doing a blazing Spitfire.                                                        

– We can change all that. – How exactly?                                                                             – The Assembly will be voting on it in four years.  

– But there’s a majority in the Assembly that’s opposed to Brexit.                                          – Right, forgot about that. Okay, then, we’re going to get Boris to invoke article 16 of the Protocol which allows the Tories to unilaterally take safeguard measures if it’s going badly.          

– And what are the Tories going to replace it with?                                                                – Something that we like better, of course.

– And who else is going to have to agree to the new arrangement?                                         – Jim Allister? – No. – Jackie McDonald? – No. – Tell me. – The EU. – Oh. – Yep.

– Well, they should do it anyway because we’re quite certain Boris wouldn’t throw us under the Glider again.                                                                                                              – Certain?

– Well, as certain as you can be with Boris.                                                                             – Exactly.


Behind the Covid-19 row that never was

LAST week British army medics were deployed to hospitals in the north to help out at pressure points. Anyone who doesn’t think that this is a problem knows nothing about the realities on the ground here, or – more likely – holds a single-narrative view of the recent conflict which allows for no critical assessment of the role the British military played in it.

Despite this simple truth, despite the fact that tens of thousands of people across the north take a negative view of the British army’s role, and despite the fact that the number of British army victims pays powerful testimony to the truth about their past here, it was remarkable that the medics were deployed with the agreement of all five parties on the Stormont Executive.

It was a powerful sign that, despite the constant diet of negative coverage and hostile reporting of the political institutions by certain elements of the media, progress has indeed been made and old enmities are capable of being cast aside when the greater good demands it. Sadly, it soon became obvious that not much progress has been made by the same media outlets that daily criticise the Executive for... not making any progress.

Given that there was no nationalist opposition to the deployment within the Executive, it became necessary to find some opposition from outside the Executive. And that opposition was found in the form of the republican super-Catholic Peadar Tóibín, the Aontú leader whose political persona seems to be something akin to Tom Barry meets Archbishop McQuaid. And, disappointingly, it was BBC Radio Six-County Ulster’s lunchtime phone-in show Talkback that got the Drogheda man on to give off about how outraged people in Lenadoon and the Creggan are about the prospect of getting a Covid jab from a reservist medic. Squinter says disappointingly because Talkback’s an excellent show – thoughtful, reasoned, intelligent, normally eschewing the frantic obsession with confrontation and clicks that is the hallmark of another phone-in on the same station.

Peadar was questioned robustly enough, but in the end it didn’t really matter because the desired effect had been achieved: listeners without any in-depth knowledge of Peadar or his party – a big chunk, if not the majority – would have switched off at the end of the show having gained the impression that there’s significant opposition to the deployment of British army medics in the battle against Covid. When there isn’t.

Other unionist media didn’t go that route. They preferred to fall on a statement from the health service union Unison saying it hadn’t been consulted on the move and that it was seeking to know the reasons behind it. Which is what unions do. If there’s not enough staff they want to know about the staffing pressures their people face. If there are going to be people brought in to do the job of health service workers then they want to know why, how many and how it’s going to affect their members.

‘Furious reaction to military medic comment morphs into political brawl’, screamed the News Letter, going on to point out that some people on social media had got rather cross about it. ‘Trade union Unison faces backlash after questioning military intervention at NI hospitals’, was the Belfast Telegraph headline on a story that similarly pointed out that some peope on Twitter had got rather cross.

The reality was rather less exciting than the hype, however, as it so often is. At no stage  – not once – did Unison say it opposed the deployment of the medics. Of course, that would have killed the story dead, so what we got instead was a lot of social media warriors and political loudmouths shouting very loudly about something that didn’t happen and the papers painting that as a blazing row – a blazing manufactured row.

Meanwhile, the Executive and the people in this instance have shown themselves to be some distance in front of the media, which is encouraging. Except there’s no sign that the local fourth estate has the will, much less the ability, to catch up any time soon.