Ulster loyalism is in crisis – but then when in recent years has it not been in crisis? Opinion in working class and rural areas has hardened against the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has given DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson little room to manoeuvre when – and it will be when – the British government under its new more pragmatic leader Rishi Sunak reaches agreement with the EU on reforming that controversial instrument. So we’re heading towards one more climbdown for unionism, even if ways may be found to dress it up so that Donaldson can claim credit for some changes.
Since the May Assembly elections the aggressive rhetoric between Sinn Fein and the DUP, stilled for several years as they sought to share government together, has returned. “We’ve lost our way. We’ve lost sight of the core element of the Good Friday Agreement. That was the duty of partnership, to find an outcome that everyone in Northern Ireland could live with,” says a senior diplomat who was involved in the negotiations leading to that historic accord. “Now we are miles away from the search for accommodation, let alone movement towards a reconciled society – we’re back to the aggressive articulation of single identity narratives. The unionists take a highly partisan, single identity position on the Protocol, as if the other community didn’t exist. Similarly Sinn Fein and Ireland’s Future push forward to a united Ireland as if the unionist community didn’t exist. Ireland’s Future’s message seems to be that the unity train is now leaving the station and if you want to be on it, you can, but if you don’t, it’s leaving anyway. For all their ‘new Ireland’ talk, Sinn Fein and Ireland’s Future have done little or no work with unionism. Their leaders have forgotten about the highly volatile nature of Northern politics and about the virus of political violence. Is it dormant or will it flare again? Nobody knows.”
The most likely source of that violence at the moment is paramilitary loyalism. The loyalist community – and I mean by this largely urban and to a lesser extent rural working class unionists – feel abandoned and betrayed both by the British Government and by their traditional leaders. The visionary Northern business leader, Sir George Quigley – who knew the community well, having overseen the decommissioning of loyalist paramilitary weapons – wrote as long ago as 2009 about “the need to find a place for unarmed loyalism. I believe a signal mistake of the peace process was to leave loyalism largely on the sidelines instead of integrating it into the mainstream of issues requiring resolution. Loyalist leaders who are now seeking to manage a process of transformation need to be supported and absorbed further into the political apparatus of democratic practice in Northern Ireland, not left outside it or treated as incidental to it.” This is what happened on the republican side as the two governments ushered Sinn Fein into the political mainstream in the 10-15 years up to 2007.
There were some good loyalist leaders – although not many – in that period. The tragically early death of David Ervine robbed the community of a charismatic, common sense, left-of-centre champion. As he once quipped: “I don’t want to wake up every morning and ask myself ‘Am I British or Irish? I want to think ‘Am I late for work?’
And there were good loyalist initiatives. The UDA-supported Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI) in 2007-2010 aimed to equip members and supporters of that organisation with the skills to contribute to the end of all paramilitary activity, reduction of crime and an environment where paramilitary violence would not be a viable option. As Gerald Solinas of Farset Community Enterprises, the well-regarded community organisation that administered the CTI, said: “If you asked me would I give one million pounds to the UDA, I would say no, as would most people. But if you asked would you give money to help Northern Ireland’s most socially deprived areas, reduce interface violence, promote education and youth development, then most people would say yes”. Unfortunately the SDLP’s then Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie tried to withdraw all funding from the CTI (a decision that was ultimately overturned by the courts). Solinas said the problem was that “Loyalist communities were already suspicious of the political institutions and this decision just reinforces that Stormont had nothing to offer them. It’s going to take a lot of hard work to reverse that belief.”
Then there was Northern Ireland Alternatives (now Alternatives/Restorative Justice), a community-based restorative justice initiative developed and supported by former UVF and Red Hand Commando members. This has been a big success under its director Debbie Watters. It has been estimated that NIA prevented over 90% of potential paramilitary punishment attacks in recent years (and it should be remembered that in the 25 years up to 1998 around 4,000 people were victims of paramilitary punishment shootings and beatings). NI Alternatives has been involved in a myriad of programmes to support young people involved in anti-social behaviour, crime prevention, cultural awareness and mediation and restorative practices. “Such projects have made a significant contribution to lowering levels of punishment violence in the communities in which they have operated; have contributed to changing attitudes towards violence in such communities; have enhanced the capacity of local communities to take ownership of local justice issues, and to develop the self-confidence for partnership with statutory agencies”, says Professor Peter Shirlow, the sociologist who heads the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University, and is himself from a working class Belfast Protestant background.1
But overall morale in loyalist communities is now low. Unlike Sinn Fein, there was never any prospect of the small parties which emerged out of the paramilitaries – the Progressive Unionist Party out of the UVF and the Ulster Democratic Party out of the UDA – gaining political power. Respectable working class unionists simply don’t vote for people formerly connected to paramilitaries (in the words of one former mid-Ulster UVF man: “Prods are different; they just don’t like the violence thing unless you’re wearing a uniform.”) The involvement of some elements – such as the UVF in East Belfast – in drugs and criminality did not help. So the more progressive and political strands in loyalism never had any real means of moving away from violence into politics. In many cases the older men who ran the paramilitaries in the 1980s and 1990s still lead them, but have nowhere obvious to go.
So they (or their younger counterparts) are reduced to the kind of sabre-rattling gestures that saw Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney forced to abandon a meeting in north Belfast last March because of a hoax UVF bomb alert, and reports last month – dismissed by the PSNI – that there were plans to attack Dublin following some politicians (notably Mary Lou McDonald) talking up possible joint authority if the Northern institutions were not restored. David Campbell, chair of the paramilitaries’ umbrella body, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), said that joint authority would mean the 1994 loyalist ceasefires “could in no way be further guaranteed.”
The politicians often don’t help in these situations. In 2015 the formation of the Loyalist Communities Council was a well-meaning initiative backed by Tony Blair’s former advisor Jonathan Powell to ensure that the paramilitaries were not left behind politically. But they have no electoral mandate and under the chairmanship of Campbell (an unlikely spokesman as a prosperous County Antrim farmer and David Trimble’s former chief of staff) they have become unreflecting and reactionary. When Brexit Minister David Frost and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis met the LCC last year and reported back on their meeting to the Northern Ireland Committee at Westminster, they gave them – and the loyalist paramilitaries behind them – credibility they did not deserve. [A comparable démarche on the other side – giving unwanted credibility to republican paramilitaries – was then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar showing EU leaders at a 2018 meeting in Brussels an Irish Times report on the killing of nine people in an IRA bomb on the border in 1972 in order to warn them of resumed violence if a hard Irish border was the outcome of Brexit. Even some of his own aides thought that was wrong.]
These ‘Faustian pacts’ between politicians and paramilitaries are a feature of Northern Irish politics and Irish history. Loyalist paramilitary leaders say the DUP don’t want them to go away since the threat they pose is a useful bargaining tool, and regular meetings between politicians like Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley junior with the LCC seem to bear this out.
Successive Northern Ireland Executives have been promising to end paramilitarism “once and for all” ever since the 2015 Fresh Start agreement. They developed a three track approach combining policing, tackling disadvantage in deprived loyalist and republican areas and engagement with the paramilitary groups themselves to bring about their disbandment. Unfortunately the second and third of these tracks have been largely ineffective, with engagement with the groups particularly lacking traction (partly because of NI civil servants reluctance to ‘operationalise’ it). The 2022 report of the Independent Reporting Commission, set up by the two governments to report on progress towards ending paramilitarism and the NI Executive’s efforts to achieve this, warned that “paramilitarism remains a clear and present danger in and for Northern Ireland.” It urged “the redoubling of efforts in the coming year” and “a process of engagement with paramilitary groups themselves with a view to group transition and disbandment”; also the appointment of a reputable “independent person” to speak to the paramilitaries.
The great majority of people involved in loyalist paramilitaries during the Troubles have now left the stage or have morphed into criminal gangs. The PSNI estimate that there are still around 17,000 people – most of them young men – available for the UDA and UVF’s commemorations and ‘shows of strength’. However police sources stress that such a figure is relatively meaningless, since few if any are involved in paramilitary activity and members of these ‘supporters clubs’ usually find it difficult, once recruited, to “buy their way out” (if they fail to pay their annual subscription, they may be beaten up). These young people, often poorly educated and with little hope of satisfying and well-paid jobs, have been told repeatedly by their political and community leaders to focus on their defensive ‘single identity’ as Protestants and unionists. They have little to do with, and little concept of the need for a shared society with, their Catholic nationalist fellow-citizens.
One knowledgeable observer summed up the loyalist dilemma as follows: “Their British unionist identity is the totality of their lives; they are frightened of the loss of Protestant identity in a future united Ireland; they are terrified of the triumphalism of Sinn Fein; they don’t trust the UK government; and so they focus on the psychology of nostalgia, for example honouring the dead of the First World War.”
At some point in the future, if the politicians get things wrong, these unfortunate young loyalists may form a kind of reserve army for use in unionism’s last stand against Irish unity. But for the moment – as one Belfast Sinn Feiner put it – “This is a great time to be a republican, but not such a great time to be a loyalist.”
At a Shared Island conference in Dublin earlier this week, I listened to that astute commentator Professor Duncan Morrow of the University of Ulster (and former head of the NI Community Relations Council) talking about loyalists feeling “abandoned” and “extremely left behind.” That is one reason why the Irish government’s non-threatening Shared Island concept was so important, he went on, because after the seemingly perpetual crisis of Northern Ireland over the past 50 years, what we need now is to work towards “perpetual reconciliation… A hundred years of partition will have a hundred years of consequences.” (I will come back to the Shared Island initiative in my next blog).
1 The End of Ulster Loyalism?, pp.140-147