Abandoning DUP might be step too far for most in Tiger’s Bay

Unlike republicans, loyalists don’t vote in numbers for parties allied with paramilitaries

Voters in Northern Ireland discuss the upcoming Assembly election

 

Alec McGurgan has seen plenty of changes during six decades living in Tiger’s Bay. The narrow warren of terraced north Belfast streets he played on as a child have long since been demolished, replaced by suburban two-up, two-downs. The shipyards are closed. But for McGurgan, the biggest difference is a positive one: his grandchildren know little of the mayhem he experienced growing up.

“I was shot when I was 17,” McGurgan says, pointing to his leg. The bullet was a stray, caught at the bottom of the gentle escarpment atop which Tiger’s Bay sits, not far from the interface with the nationalist New Lodge. At the time, the Shankill Butchers were on the prowl. Retaliations were frequent.

“You don’t want to go back to those days of people getting shot going across the street,” says McGurgan.

His wife, Elaine, nods in agreement. “I remember the bullets hitting the walls and people getting shot around you. Nobody wants that again.”

Tiger’s Bay has often struggled to shake off such dark associations. Countless news packages have interwoven the colourful, gable-end murals listing local loyalist dead with wistful shots of the giant yellow Harland and Wolff cranes a mile or so on the horizon.

The end of the Troubles did not stop the depopulation, unemployment and internecine warfare. A long-running local Ulster Defence Association feud has still to heal fully.

Fresh streets

Economic hope, however, is mixed with a palpable sense of cultural fear. Many loyalists believe their identity is under threat. Which, perhaps, explains why despite widespread disillusionment with the Democratic Unionist Party, many feel they have little choice but to support Arlene Foster’s party.

“We always vote DUP. You vote DUP, your father votes DUP. But a lot of people are just fed up now,” says Alec McGurgan. He is planning to vote Ulster Unionist in the wake of the renewable heat incentive (RHI) debacle, but his neighbour Alison Clark will be sticking with the DUP.

“The DUP has always supported us,” says Clark, who works in the local community centre. “We are getting new homes. People are very happy about that.”

The DUP holds half of the North Belfast’s six Assembly seats. Based on May’s polling, even the reduction to five-seat constituencies should not harm the dominant unionist party. Certainly DUP MLA Nelson McCausland, who has represented Tiger’s Bay in various guises since 1989, is quietly confident of being returned again.

The reception on the doorsteps is “as good as it was last year”, says McCausland. “The issues that people are bringing up on the doorsteps are practical issues, schools, housing . . . ”

Botched scheme

“Only a small number of people have even raised RHI, and mostly they are angry at Sinn Féin for collapsing the government.”

Tiger’s Bay was among six neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland earmarked for regeneration as part of an initiative introduced by McCausland in 2013 during a spell as housing minister. “I am pleased to see that unionist communities in north Belfast are starting to get the same treatment as nationalist communities,” he says.

In truth, the Troubles rarely discriminated among the patchwork streets of north Belfast, where identity shifts from green to orange and back again within a matter of footsteps. Around a sixth of the 3,500 people killed during the conflict died in north Belfast, and the violence has left a legacy of substance abuse, mental illness and alienation that crosses the interface.

But politically there remains a stark difference between republican and loyalist communities in north Belfast, and across Northern Ireland: only one side votes in significant numbers for a party that once had a paramilitary wing.

The republican murals in New Lodge are matched by boxes filled with Sinn Féin ballots at election time, even allowing for some grassroots anger at Michelle O’Neill’s party. But in Tiger’s Bay, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) flags translate directly into DUP votes.

Political loyalism’s failure is striking. The Belfast Agreement’s capacious 108 MLAs was designed, in part, to ensure loyalist representation in Stormont, but largely failed. The Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), the voice of the Ulster Volunteer Force, lost its last MLA in 2011. The UDA’s political wing collapsed in 2001, and has never really been replaced.

Loyalist stereotypes

Julie-Anne Corr Johnston

One reason loyalist parties have struggled is the differing societal roles of paramilitaries either side of the peace line. Where former IRA volunteers are frequently seen as heroes, loyalists often occupy a more ambivalent position.

“The use of violence within loyalism resonated differently within their community than it did within some sections of republicanism and their communities,” says Lisa Faulkner-Byrne, an academic who has worked with former loyalist political prisoners.

“Violence within the loyalist community was seen very much as a response to attacks on their community from republicans.”

Even the definition of loyalism itself is contested. “There has never been a specific working class political party that has managed to bridge the divisions within loyalism. As a result a significant number of loyalists vote DUP, even though they don’t identify with the party and what it stands for,” she says.

The DUP, too, has proved adept at co-opting the “community activists” that are so often the gatekeepers to loyalist neighbourhoods. Erstwhile DUP assembly speaker Robin Newton was an adviser to Charter NI, an UDA-linked organisation awarded £1.7 million in government funding last year.

Former UDA prisoner Sam “Chalky” White stood unsuccessfully for the DUP in East Belfast in the 2014 council elections. Frank McCoubrey looks down from lampposts on the Shankill Road.

McCoubrey is now a DUP candidate but in 2004 he was part of a loyalist delegation led by UDA leader Jackie McDonald that met Bertie Ahern.

At the same time, many loyalist communities are still waiting for the peace dividend. “People in Tiger’s Bay feel they are still suffering,” says Dean McCullough, a fresh-faced 22-year-old community worker who chairs Tigers Bay & Mountcollyer Partners and Communities Together, a group set up in the wake of the latest loyalist feud.

Massive disillusionment

Like many of his peers, McCullough left school young. (Protestant boys in Belfast have some of the lowest levels of educational attainment.) One of eight children, McCullough’s father worked in Harland and Wolff before being laid off. The sense of working-class alienation was a leitmotif of Ulster loyalism long before Brexit.

McCullough is not, however, disillusioned with the DUP, despite the recent revelations about RHI and the party’s admission that it spent over £425,000 on the Brexit campaign. “I vote for the DUP because I agree with their stance on the union,” says McCullough, as he sips tea from a union flag mug.

“Also they have taken a strong stance against Sinn Féin in government. That goes down well in communities like Tiger’s Bay.”

Not everyone agrees. Michael Reardon “normally” votes DUP – but RHI has changed his perception. “Where everyone would have voted automatically for the DUP, now they aren’t so sure,” says the 45-year-old father-of-two.

There is no obvious destination for an anti-DUP protest vote. The Ulster Unionists polled barely 5 per cent in May. The SDLP’s Nicola Mallon holds the last seat in North Belfast.

Anger

Both the DUP and Sinn Féin have sought to frame the election around the constitutional question, says Mallon. “This ‘us vs them’, ‘orange vs green’ is pushed by both sides because it is mutually beneficial. It totally turns off the centre ground. It taints politics and people switch off.”

Back in Tiger’s Bay, Katy Radford from the Institute for Conflict Research has been working with local groups to raise awareness of the area’s social and cultural history. Cavehill’s imposing slopes inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. “This is something that children in the local Currie primary school are already aware of and proud of,” she says.

Tiger’s Bay has seen a lot of “community upheaval and intra- as well as inter-community tensions over the last years,” says Radford.

There is hope, now. The loyalist feuding is over. New families are moving into the area, not all from Protestant backgrounds. But abandoning the DUP might still be a change too far for many in Tiger’s Bay.

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