Loyalism and the long hot centenary summer

Rosemary Jenkinson, author of Billy Boy, says loyalists need to learn rhetoric, not riots

Looking to a better future: Rosemary Jenkinson at a mural in east Belfast

Looking to a better future: Rosemary Jenkinson at a mural in east Belfast

 

As loyalist communities celebrate the Northern Irish centenary, they will be keen to project positivity in spite of the April riots. Some commentators believe unionist/loyalist anger at British perfidy over the NI Protocol might precipitate the break-up of the UK, but it has to be remembered that in 1912 the UVF were fully prepared to fight the British over Home Rule. It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but loyalists are so British they’d fight the British to stay British.

Right now, the objects of loyalist ire aren’t so much British but Irish politicians. In March, Leo Varadkar’s home address was emblazoned on a wall on the Lower Newtownards Road, though it was swiftly whitewashed. Varadkar’s warning of a “real risk of a return to violence” in the event of a hard border, coupled with his previous promise to nationalists, “You will never again be left behind by an Irish government”, has turned him into a hate figure for loyalists. They are even angrier with Simon Coveney who they feel dismissed their concerns about the protocol and destroyed the good relations originally forged under Bertie Ahern.

At the same time, loyalists know a united Ireland is not imminent and a big barrier could be failure to agree on what form it should take. Sinn Féin and various splintered republican organisations would struggle to reach consensus with the Irish Government even without the complication of unionist voices. Nevertheless, unionism, which is in even more turmoil after the ousting of Arlene Foster, will at some point have to confront its fears instead of letting a united Ireland remain some nationalist shibboleth.

Unhappiness within loyalism is certain to erupt into more violence as lockdown shackles are released. Pleas from politicians to teenage rioters not to get a criminal record will fall on deaf ears since they already perceive themselves as outsiders. The young bonfire builders I spoke to as research for my play Billy Boy talked of the sense of leadership and purpose derived from looking after bonfires, but they mentioned that, unlike their republican equivalents, they haven’t been trained in political argument and can’t effectively articulate reasons for wanting to stay British. This inarticulation has been a problem for years, as is the desire for anonymity. Many bonfire builders refuse to go to cross-community centres because, once they leave these safe havens, their names are shouted out in the street by the other side.

Young loyalists need to take up the pen, not the petrol bomb; they need to learn rhetoric, not rioting, but the issue is that there are very few role models to emulate and hardly any are women. It doesn’t help that their leaders are bitter at having taken part in the conflict for no reward unlike ex-IRA men who gained lucrative places in government. Some members of the Loyalist Communities Council feel forced to stay in the shadows which results in a public leadership vacuum. They speak collectively, unwilling as individuals to face the press for fear of being instantly demonized as working-class sectarian scum.

Last week, I spoke to a loyalist community leader who said that the only question UK and Irish journalists are interested in is, “When are you going to start killing people again?” From his perspective, he accepts the condemnation of criminality in Belfast’s paramilitary-run districts, but equally asks why he’d ever want to join a united Ireland when there is a vicious criminal gangland in Dublin. In his opinion, the failed state is not Northern Ireland, but the Republic, since it needed a £3 billion bailout from the UK. He also predicts “a long hot summer” ahead.

The recent riots notably spread across the interface into the Falls. While one reason for loyalist violence was the purported police favouritism towards nationalists (as at the Bobby Storey funeral), republicans also perceived police favouritism towards loyalists, noting that a water cannon and plastic bullets were deployed on their side of the wall. There seems to be a growing competition between loyalists and republicans as to who is the most oppressed. This isn’t helped by an increasing push for a united Ireland because, if unity ever were to occur, loyalists envisage themselves as an oppressed minority. Imagination is a powerful entity amidst the precariousness of Northern Irish politics.

East Belfast, where I live, stayed calm during the riots but from our streets we could see black swirling smoke from the burning bus in the Shankill, accompanied by the burr of helicopters and siren squeals. Later that night, a succession of scorched police Land Rovers wended their battle-weary way home to their bases.

As the parade and bonfire season ramps up, the water cannon will return. Not that it will have much effect in our rain-soaked country – what we need here is a heat cannon to exhaust the rioters! We also need to take the controversy out of local culture and dispel some misconceptions. A republican friend told me he believed bonfires were constructed to be huge purposely to antagonise nationalists. However, the truth is that, 20 years ago, city councils no longer wanted to clean up after so many small bonfires and advised each loyalist district to build one large bonfire instead.

It’s typical of the vague nature of the centenary that one of its highlights is the launch of a multicoloured centenary rose. There are no centenary stamps and no centenary monument. It wasn’t the most generous act of Sinn Féin to veto a monument of the NI map at Stormont, because if they truly believe that demographic changes make a united Ireland inevitable, such a monument would become no more than a historical curio in time. Their veto, although seemingly insignificant, has helped toss a little more vinaigrette onto loyalist resentment. In Northern Ireland, the tiniest acts are magnified.

“A new normal” is the buzzword of the Covid era, but in Northern Ireland we’re used to being far from normal with our interfaces and peace lines. After this centenary year, it is hard to predict where we will be in relation to normality; there may be trouble ahead or there may be further reconciliation. Perhaps, we can imagine a future Northern Ireland in which Irish street signs coexist with Union Jacks or the Orange Order opens a lodge for all faiths. We are still many miles from that point, but the one thing we can be united in hoping for on all sides is a short cool summer.

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