Has loyalism moved beyond itself?

There are general and easy readings of Ulster loyalism for which many method actors, as if casting for The Sopranos, write the script that tabloid journalism adores. The appearance of the tattooed sectarian – or, as Fintan O’Toole would have it, ‘an idiocy that comes with a fragmented culture’ - is as obvious as Ireland’s financial plight – although the latter was due to another form of thuggery that employed greater charm.

But is the conventional reading accurate, or do we require a more subtle interpretation of Ulster loyalism? Undoubtedly, the riots in East Belfast in June 2011 reflect a mobilisation of frustration, alienation and social dislocation that falls too easily into the old trap of expressing grievance through sectarian violence – although loyalists are not entirely unique in that. The past of loyalist violence was grim and entailed in the main attacks upon nationalist civilians. Republicans consequently cast loyalists as mere pawns of British securocrats who operated as a functional arm of state-led suppression and terror. Thus loyalism was denied all moral value and intent. In class terms, there is no doubt that certain sections of unionism egged loyalists on but their denial of having done so and their public rejection of loyalist violence did force some loyalist thinkers into pursuing alternative viewpoints and perspectives. As early as 1977, Gusty Spence, the UVF Officer in Command in Long Kesh, summed up a shift in loyalist discourse:

We in Northern Ireland are plagued with super-Loyalists…If one does not agree with their bigoted and fascist views then one is a ‘taig-lover’, or a ‘communist’…Unfortunately, we have too many of these people in our own ranks. No fascist or bigot can expect sympathy or understanding in the UVF compounds…The sooner we realise that our trust has been abused, and the so-called political leadership we followed was simply a figment the sooner we will attempt to fend for ourselves politically and to commence articulation in that direction.

While some within loyalism remained committed to sectarian violence, others converted to the political course suggested by Spence. In the 1980s, in particular, loyalist violence was to fall dramatically as both the UDA and UVF aimed for some form of political consciousness-raising. The political turn within sections of loyalism was reflected when the UDA produced and endorsed important policy documents such as Beyond the Religious Divide in 1979 and Common Sense eight years later. The more thoughtful within the loyalist community aimed to challenge their powerlessness in class terms, to develop an alternative unionist discourse and to reject demands for a nakedly sectarian agenda. Part of that consciousness-raising was linked to imprisoned loyalists feeling abandoned; the realisation that pan-unionism was a myth in class terms, and an appreciation of the suffering in social, cultural and physical terms that was also endured by the Catholic working class. Over time, some within loyalism came to the view that the nationalist community deserved equal rights and that political justice and progress demanded power-sharing. These loyalists placed themselves at odds both with republicans who rejected such overtures as merely entailing the ‘reform’ of a state that was by definition beyond reform and with unionist leaders who preferred the old order of majority rule.

It is peculiar to note now that for all their sectarian baggage, loyalists suggested many years in advance a political settlement that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Belfast Agreement. Somewhat ironically, the loyalist vision of a rehabilitated state was rejected at the time by all those political actors and agents who now administer Northern Ireland via a similar architecture of governance. This is not to romanticise transformative loyalist discourse, but what the opinions and documents produced by progressive loyalists highlighted was that the pathologisation of loyalism was limited and limiting, and that the dismissal of ideas being forwarded by loyalist think tanks by the electorate, republicanism and unionism possibly undermined the potential for a peace process rather earlier.

After the ceasefires of 1994, more politically conscious loyalists drove the peace process, assimilated dissent, and asserted the rights of minorities. The Progressive Unionist Party, with its links to the UVF, advocated gay and lesbian rights and adopted a pro-choice position on abortion. In addition to this, loyalists re-imaged murals and began disassembling the culture of militarism, asserted the rights of ethnic minorities, and in some areas set up projects with recent immigrants. Loyalists have supported trade union campaigns and worked with Republicans on anti-poverty projects. The UVF has recently put 1400 members through a ‘training for conflict transformation’ project. In spite of all this, the more progressive elements of loyalism have been dismissed by all sections of civic and political life with the claim that they remain attached to the loyalist gangster, drug-dealer, pimp and avowed sectarian.

Loyalist consciousness-raising ultimately faces a number of hurdles. Firstly, significant sections of the protestant community, across all classes, remain sectarian. Secondly, there has been a hidden state hand acting to frustrate loyalist transition – why the likes of Mad Dog Adair and Billy Wright were allowed to get away with so much is a standard question among loyalists aiming for peace. Thirdly, the media, among others, often prefer loyalism to be recognised as the ruins on the shore of despair following the collapse of unionist hegemony. Fourthly, progressive loyalism is too socially aware and critical and consequently is regarded in certain quarters as a threat to be eliminated. But most of all the denial of positive loyalist transition is a goal-seeking agenda that is both internal and external to loyalism. Thinking loyalism is simply too awkward to fit into the sectarian discourses prevalent in Ireland - North and South. These notions are basically fixated with the notion that Prods are all bigots or that thinking Prods are traitors to the unionist cause. Thinking Prods are thus problematic as they challenge both Irish republican and unionist discourses. Finally, those loyalists involved in transition are dragged backwards by the actions of those seen recently on the streets of Northern Ireland. The people who care about the prodigal son of loyalism are usually loyalists and there are few other potential guardians. The peace process has not created unity, radicalism or an alternative form of identity. Ireland remains as an island of small mindedness or apathy and this leads to slippage as witnessed lately in the streets of East Belfast.

Those who call for the end of loyalism have in the main failed to come to the aid of those seeking to facilitate this transition. The demonisation of loyalism may enable some political figures and commentators to feel good about themselves, but it serves little practical or progressive purpose. Ireland remains as a myopic island that has insufficient political ideas on how to deal with crisis in its many forms. Fragmented and deficient loyalism is only one among many emblems of an island riddled with social dysfunction, poverty and class alienation. Moreover, it is based upon reading from a script of indignation reflective of a failure to understand the complex lives lived out in places like Cherry Orchard, Shantallow or the Shankill. As we enter the decade of centenaries - the Ulster Covenant, the Somme and the 1916 Rising - one can only wonder what nationalism in whatever form has delivered that can reduce the capacity of sectarianism and political dupery. Ultimately, some loyalists are now beyond themselves and have moved on whilst others remain committed to pointless and needless violence.

Image top: viewport.