Lack of progress on the march

Despite a surge in the number of parades and marching bands, loyalists perceive their culture to be under siege from a growing Catholic population and relentless change

Act of loyalty: bonfire on the Shankill Road. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty

Act of loyalty: bonfire on the Shankill Road. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty


John Hume once expressed the hope that someday the Twelfth of July could be enjoyed by both communities as Northern Ireland’s Mardi Gras. While the costumes are more sedate, the Twelfth certainly has colour, pageantry, music and madness.

But we’re a long way off such a carnival because this week, after the Orange parades and celebrations, it will seem that all roads lead to north Belfast and a probable riot.

What north Belfast is facing seems symptomatic of the state of loyalism at the moment. The Rev Dr Gary Mason says there are differences in perception over the annual stand-off near the Ardoyne shops. He believes loyalists view nationalist opposition to the Orange Order lodges and marching bands returning home along the 300 metre stretch that passes the shops on the Crumlin Road as an exercise in “humiliation”, and nationalists see the Orangemen’s demand to have that march as an exercise in “triumphalism”.

How to find a meeting of minds is the great and, as yet, unsolvable challenge.

“Loyalists tell you that republicans are engaging in a cultural war of ‘de-Britification’,” says Mason, a Methodist Minister who, while running the East Belfast Mission, has learned much about the loyalist psyche and its grievances.

It’s a loyalist complaint that is frequently voiced. Still, the notion of Orangemen and loyalists as victims of a widespread republican cultural conspiracy seems odd, considering that Dr Paul Nolan of Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) said earlier this week that loyalist culture has “never been stronger”. He based that assertion on his study which found that the number of parades in Northern Ireland more than doubled between 2005,when there were 2,120 marches, and 2013 when they were 4,637. Two thirds of these were loyalist parades.

Moreover, as Dr Nolan also reported, there are now more marching bands, again most of them loyalist, than ever before with 660 bands currently registered.

That hardly points to a culture under siege. Mason won’t say whether he agrees with the negative loyalist analysis but instead says, “That’s their perception. That’s how they feel and how they feel has to be heard and dealt with.”

“It all goes back to the flag,” he adds.

Prof Peter Shirlow from QUB’s school of law, an expert on loyalism, agrees with Mason that the December 2012 Belfast City Council decision to limit the days the British union flag flies over Belfast City Hall, spooked loyalists. Demographic changes that suggest the majority in Northern Ireland will be from a Catholic background in a generation or so has also been unsettling for the community.

Additionally, while there are senior members of both the UVF and the UDA involved in positive community projects, there are also more sinister figures within these organisations who are bringing their community down through drugs and prostitution, racketeering, intimidation, punishment shootings and beatings, feuding and turf wars.

The old, big engineering jobs that maintained loyalist areas are long gone and the complaint now is of joblessness and serious educational under-achievement. Moreover, as Mason says, middle-class unionists have disengaged from the working-class roots many of them came from, effectively abandoning loyalism.

Coping with change

“There are elements within loyalism who simply cannot cope with change: the rise of Sinn Féin, de-industrialisation, demographic shifts, etc,” says Shirlow. “They simply cannot make sense of the way Northern Ireland has changed and feel excluded from where it is going and feel that they have no place within it. It’s a mixture of fact, exaggeration and fiction.”

But when other sociological, economic and paramilitary factors are at play why do loyalists fixate on a “republican cultural war”? In answer, Mason speaks of the “theological need for certainty” at the heart ofProtestant and loyalist ideology: “The four key words they wanted to hear throughout the peace process were, ‘The union is safe’. They thought they had that with the Good Friday Agreement. But republicans, of course, still have their united Ireland project.”

Mason believes loyalism must come to terms with the opposing dynamic of the Belfast Agreement which allows unionists to be unionists and nationalists to be nationalists, but within a peaceful constitutional framework where the status of Northern Ireland can only change with the agreement of a majority of the people of the North.

“I think loyalism and unionism need to realise that republicanism and Sinn Féin are not going to change,” he says. “The question is how do you live with that opposition and have the confidence to say, ‘I hear your view. However, I believe there is a better way and that is for this part of the island to remain part of the United Kingdom.’ ”

Don’t whine, compete, seems to be Mason’s message although he doesn’t put it like that.

And, as Mason also points out, loyalism, if it could relax more and had more self-belief, should be able to see that most recent studies point to most nationalists being at ease with the status quo. Mason feels that loyalism needs to have its ears open to hear what he hears regularly from nationalists: “The Good Friday Agreement allows nationalists in Northern Ireland to be comfortable with their Irishness, or Northern Irishness. Some say things to me like, ‘I would like to see a united Ireland but I am not sure I want to pay €50 every time I see my GP.’ ”

But an antagonistic and embittered loyalism abetted by hardline unionists paradoxically could strengthen what it fears, creating a responding antagonistic and aggressive nationalism coaxed on by Sinn Féin. It needs to act smart and that’s a big problem with loyalism. Often it doesn’t. It can appear sectarian, racist, aggressive, violent and lacking in strategic wit – a Ku Klux Klan flag appearing this week in loyalist east Belfast did not help its cause.

It badly misses the leadership of the late David Ervine, who provided loyalism with an articulate voice and offered direction, organisation and cohesion, all of which are now lacking.

Common ground

Yet, as both Shirlow and Mason point out, there are many positive things happening, not least Irish language classes taking place in some loyalist areas. Moreover, during periods of tension, loyalists and republicans generally work across the interfaces to keep things as peaceful as possible. Senior republicans and loyalists meet privately to try to find common ground, to see if problems can be resolved before they escalate into crises. Compromises have been reached when it comes to parading but, so far, north Belfast is proving too much of a challenge.

Mason feels that too few know about these behind-the-scenes encounters: “The big question is, how do we get the conversations of forgiveness, of people saying sorry, of reconciliation, of new beginnings that many times take places privately, how do we get those into the public space to build confidence?”

Shirlow adds that a sense of perspective is also required. He says the city council flag decision gave the negative elements within loyalism and unionism an issue to grab on to. “But this was no Anglo-Irish Agreement. It brought 2,500 people out onto the streets and of course caused violence but this has been a relatively tame episode. If the flag had come down in 1985, people would have died. That’s morbid but I think correct.”

Shirlow is correct when he says we are a long way from 1985 when 100,000 unionists and loyalists demonstrated outside Belfast City Hall against the Anglo-Irish accord. But the annual tensions are high again, now that the Parades Commission has ruled that, just as last year, the return parade on the evening of the Twelfth must be halted close to the top of Woodvale Road, about 400 metres from the Ardoyne shops.

That situation has been exacerbated by the DUP and the UUP withdrawing from talks this week on the very issues that cause these community tensions – parades, flags and the past – notwithstanding that the two unionist parties appealed for a calm and peaceful “graduated response” to the decision.

Mason believes that part of the problem is that the Stormont politicians can’t do this on their own – outside assistance is required: “There is a feeling that the British and the Irish governments, and the US administration, took their foot off the accelerator too quickly. There now needs to be re-engagement from them,” he says.

The old pre-Twelfth of July sense of dread is descending on Belfast and Northern Ireland and getting through the next couple of weeks without major mishap is now the challenge. Loyalist Mardi Gras is the last thing on people’s minds at the moment.