ULSTER’S men of violence don’t give a damn about highfalutin fancy language – about words like ‘backstop’ and ‘protocol’. They don’t care what heads of state say. They pay no heed to the Tory party, middle England, Brussels, or Washington.

For the past few days, eyes were fixed on Cornwall and the G7, on the chaotic diplomacy between Britain, Europe and America over the issue of Northern Ireland and the border.

Wrong location. Wrong cast of characters. We should be looking at what’s happening in Belfast – because very soon events there could run terrifyingly out of control.

The men of violence have itchy trigger fingers. Ulster’s season of killing isn’t long over. Peace only came in 1998. It’s been fragile as eggshell ever since.

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There’s masked men on the streets of Northern Ireland now. Not the masks you wear, the ones to keep you safe from Covid. But the masks that are put on when someone wants to put a bullet in another’s head.

Last Thursday, there were men in balaclavas parading down the loyalist Shankill Road protesting against the ‘Northern Ireland Protocols’. Fancy language again for the border that now sits in the Irish Sea as a consequence of Brexit.

The protestors' enemies are Boris Johnson and the Tory government who they see as betraying them; President Joe Biden seen as an Irish Republican sympathiser; the DUP who they blame for colluding in their betrayal; the EU; and of course Dublin. In the minds of Ulster’s loyalists, their backs are to the wall. Anyone who understands Irish history knows what happens when Ulster loyalists feel their backs are against the wall.

There’s much talk of coming violence. Summer has just started. The marching season looms. Many have died over the years in the north in the heat of July when the blood is up – and the blood is up now among loyalists.

Anti-protocol protests have been hijacked by loyalist paramilitaries. One masked man said before a crowd in Belfast: “Our British sovereignty and status within the United Kingdom is in its greatest danger since the state of Northern Ireland was created 100 years ago.” These are frightening, ominous words.

A wheelchair-bound man set light to a ‘United Ireland’ Sinn Fein banner. He’s Joe Coggle, 63, who served 18 years in the Maze prison for plotting murder during the Troubles. He believes violence may return. “If that’s the way it has to be, then that’s how it’ll be,” he said.

The Unionist and Loyalist Unified Coalition says: “People of our generation didn’t go to jail and fill the graveyards to see Sinn Fein rule the country and our sovereignty shredded.”

Davy Jones, who was a significant player as a spokesman for the Orange Order during the notorious Drumcree protests, said: “The question is how long will the protests remain peaceful because the impression given by governments over the years is that violence pays.”

Instead of focusing on the terrifying deterioration of peace in Northern Ireland, the UK as ever looks in the wrong direction. The media fixated on the tiff between Johnson and Emmanuel Macron. The French President was accused of saying Ulster wasn’t part of the UK. Foreign Secretary, and former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Rabb – who once disgracefully admitted not fully reading the Good Friday Agreement – declared Macron “offensive”.

Macron insisted he never questioned “the integrity of British territory”. Johnson made a big deal out of Northern Ireland being part of “one great indivisible United Kingdom”.

This is the same Johnson who today claims that none of the threats to peace in Ireland, through Brexit, were previously “laid out”. He’s either stupid or a liar – or both. We’d years of warnings that England’s Brexit fantasy would put peace in Ulster on a sacrificial altar – now it’s happening.

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To add to instability in the north of Ireland, the country faces a leadership crisis – not that there ever was much leadership at Stormont. The departure of Arlene Foster as First Minister has split the DUP. There’s ugly, sectarian disputes over Irish language legislation. Just when it’s needed most, leadership in Ulster is at its weakest. Lurking in everyone’s mind in the north is the prospect of a future border poll and what horror might be unleashed.

It’s hard to see a good way out of this. The options seems bleak: if Johnson does as he’s threatened to do, and suspends the protocols, he risks not only a trade war with Europe, but the implementation of a hard border across Ireland. That would bring the IRA’s men of violence to the fore. If Johnson, however, abides by the EU’s rules, then the threat of loyalist violence simply grows stronger with every passing day.

There’s a foreboding sense of checkmate. Nobody is helping. Northern Ireland feels alone in what it is now facing. The EU, France, America, Britain and Ireland all are focused on the minutiae and rules of diplomacy. Right now, it doesn’t matter that truth may lie with the EU – that Johnson’s a charlatan who cut a deal and now won’t stick to it. What matters is that no more mothers cry over coffins; that no more people end up with bullets in their brains.

READ MORE: We must not risk a Brexit which could unleash Northern Ireland bloodbath

Ulster has a savage capacity for violence. I’m from there. I lived through the Troubles, I reported on the terror. We kill our neighbours. That’s what we do when politics goes wrong, and politics is going very wrong, very quickly today in the north of Ireland.

It feels like there’s no solution – no escape hatch now as history catches up once more with the people of Northern Ireland. I fear for my country. It cannot endure again what it went through so recently. It will break the country, it will break the people. It would break me – I could not bear to once more report on the slide into anarchy and murder in my homeland.

At the very least Johnson must convene a summit in Belfast of all the main players: Ireland, Britain, Europe, loyalists, republicans. With Biden distrusted by loyalists, bring in some other external party as an honest broker – the UN even, for pity sake. Act now before Ulster starts to bleed again.

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