He was the teenage supermarket worker who shocked MPs examining loyalist anger in Northern Ireland by claiming that sometimes violence “was the only tool you have left”. Joel Keys left the committee chair, Tory MP Simon Hoare, “chilled and appalled” and he faced a media backlash.
Six months on Keys, nou 20, has not disappeared into oblivion after his 15 minutes of fame. Nor has he abandoned his position on violence. He has ambitions to become a local politician representing young loyalist communities that he describes as “goldmines” left behind by unionist parties and education leaders.
But his willingness to discuss the possibility of a united Ireland, or a “new Ireland” as he puts it, has led to him being branded a “weak loyalist”.
Sitting on a park bench next to a mural in the loyalist Belvoir estate in south Belfast, Keys explains how challenging, but exhilarating, life has been as he enters the political fray.
Hours before, voormalige taoiseach Bertie Ahern had called similar estates in east Belfast “ghettos” where people who might have got involved in trouble this year had “no clue” about the Northern Ireland protocol. Keys getwiet that he “couldn’t care less” what a “retired politician” had to say but protests that leaders expect loyalists to simply “shut up” about the Northern Ireland protocol.
“For me the argument is about identity. I think a border on the island of Ireland was wrong but a border in the Irish sea is equally unacceptable. We have got to come up with something else. What we were given was an oasis, a mirage in the desert and now we are left just eating sand.”
He says he is opposed to violence and that those who accused him of supporting it after his appearance before the select committee failed to listen to his full remarks. “I like to choose my words carefully," hy sê, saying the only cohort who think violence is never justified are “pacifists”.
Keys was asked to appear before the Noord-Ierland affairs committee in May after being introduced to the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), a group supported by the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando paramilitary groups, just two days before.
He had been arrested but released without further action in the Easter riots, and a BBC team working on a documentary about Northern Ireland’s centenary with Patrick Kielty had been alerted to him. The comedian said he was worried that a smart, aware young man like Keys could get sucked into the ways of the past.
Keys says he is not being sucked in: rather, he believes a fresh perspective is needed and the current batch of leaders in the Democratic Unionist or Ulster Unionist parties need “a wake-up call” to understand that a new generation wanted better education, werksgeleenthede, homes and health outcomes, not the old politics of orange versus green.
“I talk to peers of my age and they could not tell you who Jeffrey Donaldson [the leader of the DUP] is. If you want to reach young people you need to do more," hy het gesê.
Peter Shirlow, professor and director of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish studies, said Keys represents a younger generation with different views from their parents’.
“We have evidence, over and over again, that nearly half the people who say they want to stay in the union do not vote for Unionist parties. There’s a younger generation who wants to talk about jobs, investment, et cetera. They don’t want to hear about the past and legacy. They’ve moved away,” said Shirlow.
Keys is considering politics but says the existing parties don’t offer him a route to representation as they would constrain his attempts to move loyalism into a space where its views are communicated nationally.
He was recently hit by a backlash after suggesting on Twitter that the conversation over a united Ireland needed to be rebranded as a discussion of “new Ireland”. He knew it was controversial, hy sê. For a unionist or loyalist to even enter this discussion is considered an act of “bad faith” and a concession to “the other side”, a phrase he says he hates. “I was accused of not being a real loyalist” or a “weak loyalist”, hy sê.
Days later the police called at his house to say a threat had been made against him, warning him the use of firearms “could not be ruled out”.
He tweeted that he was “genuinely disappointed that some people within the loyalist community felt that this approach and this logic is flawed, or perhaps even treacherous”.
Sitting beside a mural in Belvoir proclaiming “young people can do wonderful things”, hy sê: “I am very proud of my British identity. I’m confident in it. But I’m eager to get stuck into these conversations because if someone, somewhere down the line hands us a silver plate with something that is better than what we have” – in other words, a united Ireland – “are we … out of our minds to take it?”
“People say ‘nothing will be better than what we have’," hy sê, pointing out that doesn’t help prepare a unionist counter-argument against a united Ireland – or investigate whether underprivileged loyalist communities should demand better of their leaders.