Loyalists in Northern Ireland view Brexit’s Irish Sea trade border as a manifestation of attacks on their British identity, MPs have been told.
Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader Billy Hutchinson told a Westminster committee the only way to resolve issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol was through political means.
However, he warned that loyalist leaders had a “very difficult” job convincing some people within their community that protests should remain peaceful, claiming the reason the trade border was not placed on the Irish land border was due to the threat of republican violence.
The PUP has a long-established link with the loyalist paramilitary organisation the Ulster Volunteer Force.
Belfast city councillor Mr Hutchinson told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the European Single Market represented the biggest threat to his British identity.
“People are angry, people misunderstood how Brexit was going to play out and people didn’t realise that Brexit would have a bigger impact in Northern Ireland than it would have in the rest of the UK,” he said.
“So the Protocol is a manifestation of people attacking their Britishness or taking something away.”
The committee is undertaking an inquiry into the Protocol.
Under the terms of the arrangements, which were agreed by the EU and UK to avoid a hardening of the sensitive land border, Northern Ireland remains in the Single Market for goods and applies EU customs rules at its ports.
This has necessitated a range of new checks and restrictions on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Many loyalists are angered by the Protocol and that discontent was cited as a contributory factor in scenes of rioting that erupted in some parts of Northern Ireland in April. There are concerns disorder could spark again during the summer’s loyal order parading season.
Mr Hutchinson told MPs on Wednesday: “I have been very clear about this since Brexit, from my point of view, I say that this is a political problem.
“It’s a trade deal with the EU and it has to be treated as such, it’s a political problem, and can only be resolved by political solutions.”
He said that in Northern Ireland’s past, violence had broken out when there was a political vacuum.
“I don’t think we’ve reached there yet,” he insisted.
The PUP leader said the only threat of violence during the Brexit negotiations had emanated from republicans.