How loyalism became a dirty word
This week’s protests in Belfast were a sign of a troubled community’s growing sense of disenfranchisement
Angry, frustrated and with a growing sense of disenfranchisement, the troubled loyalist community is struggling to find a place in the new Northern Ireland. On Monday night that rage was translated into violence on the streets of Belfast, after the city council voted to end the long-standing policy of permanently flying the Union flag above city hall.
A 1,000-strong loyalist protest against the removal of the flag degenerated into a riot. Fifteen PSNI officers, a press photographer and two council employees were hurt.
Although Sinn Féin and SDLP councillors have been seeking the removal of the Union flag for years, much of the loyalist ire was targeted at the Alliance Party, which holds the balance of power on the council.
It was their compromise motion – to fly the flag on certain designated days throughout the year, in keeping with the policy at Stormont – that the council adopted.
In the run-up to the controversial vote, the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party distributed 40,000 leaflets in Belfast, accusing the Alliance of “backing the Sinn Féin/SDLP position that the flag should be ripped down on all but a few days”, and urging people to make their views known to the party. The Alliance said it was inundated with “nasty and abusive” messages.
After the vote a young Alliance councillor fled her home in east Belfast after loyalist threats against her. Later in the week two Alliance Party offices and the home of a couple who are Alliance councillors were attacked.
Why has the issue of the flag flying over City Hall produced such an extreme reaction? Jim Wilson, a leading loyalist and community worker from east Belfast, says: “People say to me, ‘It’s only a flag,’ but they need to comprehend what it really means. We have suffered for years at the hands of the Provisional IRA. The intention was to take away our Britishness. They couldn’t do it militarily, so now they’re trying to do it another way. It’s a war of attrition.”
Wilson says that if it was the first concession that unionists or loyalists were asked to make, it would be a different matter. “But it’s not. You have to look at what we have given: the RUC and the UDR disbanded, all the emblems gone, we’ve been hit with inquiry after inquiry. They have pushed us too far. I say to republicans, ‘Try to remember how you felt as a community before you went to war. Now you’re denying my community the very things you fought for.’ Gerry Adams talks about offering a hand of friendship, but he’s got the other hand behind his back and it’s got a very different agenda.”
Jim Wilson acknowledges that loyalists are not blameless. So does John Kyle, a well-known east Belfast GP and one of only two Progressive Unionist Party councillors in Belfast. After loyalist rioting in north Belfast in September Kyle tweeted: “This is self-harm on a communal scale. It does not advance the loyalist cause one inch, not an inch.”
But he, too, speaks of a real sense of grievance: “There is a feeling that we have lost out, drawn the short straw. There is genuine anger, and that can become contagious. Economically and socially, the politicians haven’t done a decent job for working-class people. Those with the least have received the least.”
Kyle says there are few employment opportunities, especially for younger men.
“There is a culture of worklessness, which perpetuates the expectation that there will be no work in the future. Middle-class young people go off to university in Glasgow or Dublin, and it gives them a sense of confidence. Kids from working-class communities don’t have that.”
There is a sense, too, that middle-class unionists view loyalists critically, and with distaste, and that politicians are selectively attuned to the wishes of the better-off.
“This is a big part of the problem,” says Kyle. “The DUP know that, electorally, it’s no good for them to be seen to be too closely linked with loyalism. And that again makes people feel marginalised.”
Lacking substantial political leadership of their own, many working-class loyalists feel disconnected from the mainstream unionist parties and are deeply mistrustful of the so-called peace process. Peter Shirlow, professor of conflict transformation at Queen’s University Belfast, says the loyalist community is incredibly fragmented.
“There’s a kind of fatalism within the Protestant working class, a pattern of nonparticipation, social detachment and general hostility. They’re asking, ‘Where is this peace process, in terms of dividends?’ The world is a confusing place for them.”
The removal of the Union flag from Belfast’s main civic building is a particularly bitter blow for loyalists.
There is no doubt that loyalism suffers from a poor reputation. Shirlow sums up the stereotype as “muscles, tattoos and sectarianism”, part of a “perpetual mantra of wrongdoing and flawed behaviour”.
Billy Hutchinson, current leader of the PUP, recently wrote an impassioned protest against this perceived injustice: “I said many years ago that the term Loyalist was becoming a pejorative one; that Unionist representatives who fell foul of the law quickly found themselves defined as Loyalist representatives; that Unionist parades led to Loyalist violence. That belief is more acute today.”
Hutchinson believes that working-class Protestants have been made “scapegoats for the wrongs of the past”. It’s true that loyalist bands, in particular, often get a bad press, sometimes deservedly. One, Young Conway Volunteers, caused outrage on July 12th, when it was filmed marching in a circle outside a Catholic church in Belfast, playing The Famine Song, an anti-Catholic song judged racist by a court in Scotland.
John Kyle admits that sometimes the criticism is the bands’ own fault. “But bands do provide young men with something to belong to,” he says. “There’s discipline and camaraderie; the girls come out to watch them. It gives them something constructive in their lives.”
There is clearly an ongoing problem with criminal behaviour in the loyalist community. Yet Peter Shirlow believes it is important to distinguish between two loyalisms: “one that is regressive and the other which aims to emancipate itself from its own destabilising past”.
In the latter category are those who have worked behind the scenes to foster peace and reconciliation and to ease tensions with republicans. Jim Wilson is one. His sense of hurt is unmistakeable.
“We work hard, but we don’t get the credit. There is huge frustration: we know we are doing the right thing, but we’re still being lambasted as thugs or gangsters. I turned 60 last week, and I said to my wife, I’ve had enough of it. But if we step back, who’s going to step in?”
Wilson says working-class Protestants feel the world and its dog are against them. And he has a warning for those who seek to exclude, demean or condemn his community. “We have a fragile peace here. This is a really serious situation . . . People need to be careful. They are pushing loyalists beyond the pale.”