How loyalism became a dirty word
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.”