Paisley's Walk on the Wild Side
For a minute it looked like there might be a run on the Trustee Savings Bank. Dozens of anxious looking people crowding around the branch of the bank that sits across the road from the Harland and Wolff building down at the shipyards on Queen's Island. Well over a hundred people, stamping their feet against the cold. The press was back in Belfast for the Loyalist Day of Action, many of them for the first time since Bobby Sands died. The Europa Hotel was booked out.
“The media . . .“, Jim Kilfedder MP would say in a few minutes — and the cry would go up from the shipyard workers, “Vultures! Vultures!” — have come to see the frustration of loyalists”.
At this stage in the day the frustration was more evident than any anger, much less action, against government policies or republicanism. When the four thousand manual workers walked out of Harland and Wolff at 1pm less than a quarter of them stayed for the meeting outside the gates. Those who stayed stood quietly, applauded politely, didn't shout much, no placards or banners.
At the beginning of the meeting there were more journalists present than workers and some workers urged others to spread out a bit to block the road. By the end of the meeting the crowd had grown, but there was still one journalist for about every seven workers.
Sober-suited, poker-faced Harold McCusker, Official Unionist MP for Armagh, looked down from the back of the lorry at the anoraks and donkey jackets and said, “Brothers and sisters!”
He wanted to make one thing clear. He wasn't here as a party politician trying to score political points. He then went on to score a political point against Ian Paisley. Whatever the misguided policies of the government, it is the elected government and we can't change those policies by insulting the government — that does more harm to our cause than our enemies.
McCusker was followed by Jim Kilfedder, Progressive Unionist MP, who said that what annoyed him most was disunity and confusion amongst unionists. “One political party embarked on a Day of Action without consulting other parties or organisations or your own shop stewards”.
Both McCusker (“We are met in dark and dangerous days”) and Kilfedder (“We have taken enough and we will take no more”) made the requisite points against the IRA and Margaret Thatcher, but that was not what the meeting was about. Ian Paisley's Day of Action bandwagon was away and rolling and the main job of other loyalist leaders that day was to simultaneously gee-up the horses while trying to get a grip on the reins held firmly in the hands of the Reverend.
The meeting was over in twenty minutes.
Half an hour later Ian Paisley was calling for a minute's silence in front of Belfast City Hall. “That we might remember those who have fallen in the battle to keep Ulster free from republican tyranny.” He mentioned the British army, the UDR, the RUC, the RUC Reserve — and “all other loyalists who have fallen”, firmly tucking the security forces where he believes they belong — under the banner of loyalism.
The code word for the day was “security”. Protestants were being murdered by the IRA simply because they are Protestants, was the point that every speaker made. On the face of it the claim is hysterical and not based on reality. The IRA campaign is directed at members of the security forces, the fact that they are predominantly Protestant is not the motivation.
However, implicit in one speech after another is the loyalist belief and understanding that to be a member of one arm or another of the security forces is merely an extension of Ulster Protestantism, the duty of what Paisley called “the cream of Ulster Protestants”. To attack the structure and forces of the state is to attack Ulster Protestantism itself. When the state structure is under armed attack all loyalists, who see the state and Ulster Protestantism as synonymous. can legitimately claim that Protestantism it self is the victim of a murder campaign.
The IRA, nationalist politicians, the British Government, and the Government in the South, who see the situation in terms of economics and politics, pull their triggers and switches — but loyalism is wired into a circuit all its own. Loyalists who recognise the balance of forces and try to adapt their cause to accommodate those forces attempt to square the circle and pay the price.
“I believe the time has come”, said Ian Paisley outside City Hall, “when all the lundies, yellowbellies and all the cowards must leave our ranks — and we shall fight to the death!” McCusker, Kilfedder and the rest were getting their answer.
Paisley's meeting at 1pm took little more than twenty-five minutes. But he wasn't finished. He pushed his way through the audience and led the crowd through the security gates at Donegall St. His schedule had been to go to Castlereagh and head a motorcade from there. Instead, he was taking a little walk on the wild side — marching his people out to Stormont.
At the edge of the crowd a small woman rattled a co1le box and chanted, “Civil rights for Protestants!” The hallowed songs of many a protest movement sounded eerie on the lips of loy “Paisley is our leader, we shall not be moved!”
Across High Street, where the crowd roared when someone in an office gave Paisley a two-finger gesture. At the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Bridge Paisley raised his right hand like John Wayne bringing the cavalry to a halt and consulted with an RUC officer. Should he take his people on straight or across the bridge?
“Do you think we might have some trouble from the other crowd?”, asked an elderly man, while the RUC officer used his radio to check the best route. “Nah”, said Paisley, “the IRA are cowards — they won't be hitting any one today”.
Across the Bridge, around by the Sydenham By-pass, and by the time the crowd passed the tiny Catholic en clave of Short Strand there were RUC men standing at the corners of the mean little streets, pointing rifles to wards any potential Catholic trouble.
Some of the marchers called out greetings to RUC men they recognised. One of them asked if “that's alright for Saturday?” Don't know yet, was the reply, might be busy.
T he hints had been broad. “I'll give you a tip — don't miss Newtownards tonight!”, Paisley had told the crowd. “I'll say no more!” He said more. “In Newtownards tonight we will show the world that Ulster is on the march. I invite you to be there tonight. I invite all the men here. An opportunity will be given to every able-bodied person to join the third force.”
At twenty minutes to nine that night the crowd of loyalists in Conway Square in Newtownards were told to be quiet, absolute silence. Ten minutes passed and conversation began to well up in the crowd. The platform party tried to hold interest by leading the crowd in hymn singing.
The crowd had been told that they would first hear something, then see something. This, combined with the earlier hints, created an atmosphere in which the sound of shots, or at least the appearance of rifles, was widely expected. RUC men who had been in the Square left and moved halfway down South Street.
At two minutes past nine — just as the BBC and RTE news programmes had started, and with a camera broad casting live from an upper window — Amazing Grace was interrupted by the sound of The Sash My Father Wore, and the third force marched in.
The usual numbers game was played. The platform claimed between thirty and forty thousand people had awaited the appearance of the third force. The RUC said twenty thousand. A more accurate count of the crowd would put it at around seven or eight thousand. Paisley claimed that the third force itself numbered twenty thousand. Others said five thousand or even one thousand. There were a lot of them.
The speeches were emotional, with few solid political demands. The demand that loyalism be left alone to continue on its idiosyncratic way is not easy to formulate in the modern world. “Take the handcuffs off the security forces!”, was the height of it.
Paisley said that if the third force was not recruited into the structure of the state it would operate anyway. Three points, which were the only solid political demands spelled out that day, give an indication of the role Paisley's third force sees for itself: bring back hanging; shoot IRA men on sight; a curfew on republican areas.
As the loyalists left Newtownards, sections of the third force marched in formation down dark streets. The demonstration was over, there was no audience to impress and what they were doing was merely walking back to their buses. But they marched with all the intensity of soldiers off to the crusades. •