Loyalists trying to avoid history’s traditional route

A Union flag behind fencing at Belfast City Hall during protests over the flying of the emblem.

A Union flag behind fencing at Belfast City Hall during protests over the flying of the emblem.

THE Detail’s Steven McCaffery attended two debates on Northern Ireland’s future this week – one involving politicians at Stormont, the other featuring loyalists at a resource centre for the unemployed.

YOU probably already know how one of these meetings went.

When the First Minister Peter Robinson addressed the Assembly on his plans for a shared future, it soon deteriorated into a bitter row replete with biblical-sounding insults.

The second event was held behind closed doors but saw a discussion on loyalism that was not afraid to be warts and all. Whatever about Stormont, there were no “whited sepulchres” in the function room of the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre.

The problem with the two debates, however, was that while the Assembly quarrel ended with the publication of a blueprint on the way forward, the arguably more constructive discussion on loyalism ended with uncertainty about where to go from here.

The organisers – the Political Studies Association and the Fellowship of Messines cross-community peace project – have at least started a debate.

But 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement, it feels very late in the day for loyalism to still be finding its way.

Outsiders might have expected to have heard the perhaps predictable criticisms of republicanism and mainstream unionism, but they may have been surprised by the self-critical descriptions of Orangeism as at times being `supremacist’, the most extreme flag protestors characterised by one speaker as `fascist’, and to hear sympathy for not just Protestant but also Catholic communities hit by poverty and educational under-achievement.

The resource centre’s room was filled with a rectangular arrangement of tables, with around 40 participants discussing events under the privacy of Chatham House rules.

There were community workers, trade unionists, loyalist politicians, ex-prisoners, a republican known now for campaigning on social issues, researchers and a number of academics specialising in the study of loyalism and Protestantism.

The event, by the way, wasn’t as dry as it might sound – there were even some laughs, particularly when a debate on uniting Protestant and Catholic workers was interrupted by a mobile phone ringtone playing the old Soviet national anthem.

But if representatives of the mainstream political parties were present, they may not have found the day-long discussion a comfortable experience.

The city centre event began with a myth-busting history lesson, recalling much of what unites Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, but which did not reflect well on today’s `political elites’.

“It appears to me that history has kind of played a three-card-trick on people here,” said Joe Bowers, chairman of the Fellowship of Messines, who helped open the event.

“What has happened to us? Why are we not all united celebrating this progressive history? Why are we left with this in-your-face, `youse ‘uns and them ‘uns’ type of politics?

“All of this is encapsulated with what we are faced with today.”

The recent crisis over the restrictions placed on flying the Union flag at Belfast City Hall which, as reported here convulsed unionism, was never far from the debate.

A speaker asked why NHS cuts had not brought more people onto the street, or sparked common cause between communities.

“The National Health Service – is that not the most important part of our British history? Is it not more important than the Union flag?

“Why are we not mobilising people around the defence of the National Health Service with the same type of determination? It is much more threatened than the Union flag.”

Focusing on the question of whether the `Protestant working class had lost out on the peace process’, some asked what the Protestant working class was?

Others recalled the withering of industries that had once been a way of life for the Protestant community in Belfast – a loss that had ended the sense of shared experience with industrial heartlands in Britain.

Uncertainties about the future were also fuelled by urban planning decisions which were seen to have led to population movements and the decline of traditional loyalist communities such as the Shankill.

This led to references to educational under-achievement in loyalist districts and a complaint that mainstream unionists had promised to champion the issue, only to continue to support academic selection despite evidence of its negative impact.

Speakers also cited the impact of political changes brought about by a peace process described as being “designed for republicans”, with the loyalist experience of life under the power-sharing government also said to be eroding identity.

“But how,” asked another contributor, “do you respond to an identity crisis?”

The current disconnect with mainstream unionist parties was traced back to the Troubles.

Former UVF and PUP figure Gusty Spence was quoted as being encouraged towards violence by unionist political rhetoric, but was among those who from inside prison came to the belief that: “We’re in here and they’re out there, still mixing it.”

While that disaffection remains up to the present day, there was some limited hope expressed that the Unionist Forum, formed by Peter Robinson to allow discussions between all strands of unionism and loyalism, could yet bear fruit.

There were also claims, however, that Sinn Féin is engaged in a `cultural war’, bent on eroding British emblems.

There was no detailed explanation of what this meant, though nationalists have claimed it is they who struggle to see their identity reflected in public life.

And there was little mention of parades, though this is obviously a key battle ground, as was previously examined in The Detail here.

A contributor at the event later said that republicans had `lost the war’, but wanted to appear to be making gains on issues such as restricting the flying of the Union flag.

This was then linked to the familiar analysis that the Good Friday Agreement was a `victory for unionists, if only they’d realise it’.

It was a phrase that had currency in the years immediately after the 1998 peace deal, but which today, when set against the background of ongoing political change, seems to fall short of explaining the present, or framing future possibilities.

A question as to how unionism might cope with any future political change in Northern Ireland was misconstrued as a prediction that major constitutional reform was imminent.

The subsequent observation that the 1998 Agreement guaranteed Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, until a majority desired otherwise, was an accurate one.

But perhaps it underestimates the potential for loyalist disquiet over the inevitable process of continuing internal reform within Northern Ireland that is still flowing from the Good Friday Agreement.

There are further factors that could promote change, including Sinn Féin’s leading role in government at Stormont, the party’s growth in the Irish Republic (as previously reported here), plus factors such as demographic shifts placing Protestant and Catholic communities on an equal footing (as reported here).

A speaker asked if perhaps the real issue currently concerning unionists was not in fact the border, but rather the process of reform in Northern Ireland that was delivering greater political and cultural equality for nationalists.

And this prompted the suggestion that sections of unionism are undergoing an inevitable period of adjustment, which will eventually settle and stabilise.

Two others recalled growing up unaware of Irish history, including the history of Northern Ireland, neither of which was taught in the state schools they attended.

A separate contributor said discussions on how loyalists might begin to show a greater acceptance of Irish culture and identity could perhaps be developed in the Unionist Forum.

He added: “There is a supremacist attitude within Orangeism that states that we’re better, that `we’re the people’.

“And that, I think, is one of the characters that needs to be seriously addressed by ourselves.

“We are all equal.”

He added: “The flags issue raised serious concerns for me because of how it was focused around something that, let’s face it, most of us wouldn’t have even noticed, ie the flag flying over the city hall.

“I think the rallying around that flag … the conduct of it was wrong.

“It came across as supremacist, it came across as fascist … moderates [were] pushed aside.

“The `flagsters’, for want of a description or a word to call them, certainly within the wider unionist family became, quite frankly, viewed as fascists and supremacists in that their association was with members of the British National Party.”

His comments on “supremacist” views in Orangeism were echoed by others from a unionist background, though there was also agreement around the table that sectarianism was equally a problem within both the Catholic and Protestant communities, with “Protestants no more sectarian than Catholics”.

The speaker also acknowledged there were varying views within loyalism on the flag demonstrations, with others at the event known to have publicly defended the right to protest.

But he was critical of mainstream unionists he said had reacted to flag protestors with an attitude of “ignore those people, and let’s move on”.

“How does an audience like this change the political thinking in modern day Ulster Unionism and the Democratic Unionist Party, when we’re all outside of that?”

The same speaker also underlined the impact of IRA violence in the area of Belfast he had grown-up in, where he said hundreds were killed during the decades of conflict.

“The fear of republicanism is very, very real. It’s a pumping heart, certainly in that working class community that I grew-up in.”

The former loyalist paramilitaries present underlined their commitment to the peace process, but cited concerns over continuing violence by dissident republicans.

On the wider political front, it is generally held that nationalists feel more comfortable with the changes that have flowed from the peace process, but the new census figures also showed Catholics remain more likely than Protestants to be unemployed.

This reality was not lost in the loyalist discussion, where a regular theme was the clear acceptance that there were both Protestant and Catholic communities trapped in poverty, who had never enjoyed the economic benefits of the peace process.

One delegate said: “I think that the challenge that has arisen from the flags protest is, how do we tap in to that disaffection that is out there that was being suppressed by political elites saying everything was wonderful?

“And anyone that asked `why are things not changing?’, they were always criticised as being dissidents or anti-peace, or being loyalist fascists.

“I think a lot of the energy that has emerged out of the flag protests can begin to help us hold events like this and begin to question how do we move the peace process on?

“How do we begin to address those issues around the marginalised, the disadvantaged, and the poor who have not experienced the benefits of the peace process?”

As the debate drew to a close, it was noted that while they had been prepared to challenge others, and to challenge themselves, the same kind of frank discussions had to be held in wider society, where problems were too often politely ignored.

The loyalist intimidation and violence surrounding the flag crisis frightened and unnerved many people, but some of those at the discussion said that they had predicted unrest was in the pipeline and wanted to work now to deal with the underlying issues. This included dealing with the legacy of the Troubles by building a reconciliation process.

The debate recalled how Belfast’s past is littered with failed attempts to put the fight against poverty above sectarian rivalries.

No one was glossing over the challenges facing the divided city, but there also seemed to be a willingness to try to avoid history’s traditional route.