In an article last weekend on Nama's sale of its Northern Ireland loan portfolio, this newspaper quoted loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson as a serious source. And rightly so: the 26-year-old former flag protestor has gone from a mere conduit for libel-fearing leakers to an active collator of information – a journalist, in other words. He recently joined the National Union of Journalists, despite a dubious objection from its Belfast chapter.
There are some fascinating lessons to learn from Bryson’s rise – lessons for and about loyalism. This should not be taken too far; he is an unusual case in many ways, nor is he a “loyalist” in the strict sense of belonging to a paramilitary organisation. However, every stage of his career still reads like a little parable of loyalism’s choices and limitations.
Bryson first made headlines in 2009, over a bonfire funding row in his native Bangor. The council had withheld £150 from a “good relations” grant because restrictions on the bonfire’s construction had not been observed. In response, a group calling itself the Intra-Community Cohesion Project sprang into existence and began putting up union flags in Bangor’s town centre and the affluent suburb of Helen’s Bay.
Bryson gave television interviews as the group’s spokesman, his intelligence immediately clear. The flag-flying strategy was hilariously apposite, even without foreknowledge of Bryson’s flag protesting future.
Bangor is more than 80 per cent Protestant, so targeting it with hostile British symbols was about bursting a middle-class unionist bubble. When residents and retailers complained, they essentially proved Bryson’s point that loyalists were being treated as an embarrassment.
The following year, Bryson was a founding member of Community Partnerships Northern Ireland, a short-lived political party. It showed a flawless understanding of how the North actually works by regarding as its opposition not other parties but the officials at Bangor Town Hall, who it picketed over the administration of EU peace funds.
Bryson’s career then seemed to fizzle out. Despite flashes of insight and ingenuity, he had still been engaged in a street politics play for “community funding” – a classic loyalist manoeuvre.
When he reappeared in late 2012 at the head of Belfast’s flag protests, he was seizing a different initiative. Loyalist paramilitaries were caught on the hop by the demonstrations against the removal of Belfast City Hall’s union flag. Most did little more than observe while they tried to figure out what was going on.
This made Bryson a point of contact for unionist politicians seeking their own angle on developments. Within a year he was being briefed by the DUP during all-party talks and some reports even credit him with derailing them. Bryson had played street politics for direct political influence.
An intriguing factor in this dramatic recovery is that it took place amid a setting of intense public ridicule. The flag protests produced a phenomenal backlash on social media, with Bryson and fellow self-proclaimed leader William Frazer the principal targets.
New technology delivered satire and derision of an unprecedented immediacy and scale. It was enormously popular with Catholic and Protestant alike, as the disruption of the protests had frustrated most of the working population.
Bryson, Fraser and loyalist politicians issued wounded complaints about what they termed this “bullying”, citing the Loyalists Against Democracy website in particular. There is evidence that loyalist people more widely have reflected on the contempt in which they are held. Again, too much should not be read into this but evaporating support for the “Camp Twaddell” parade dispute in north Belfast, which was linked to the flag protests, seems in turn strongly linked to relentless humiliation.
Frazer seems unchanged by the experience – he is the control subject in this new media experiment. Bryson is another story. He has written books, registered as a paralegal and become a journalist. It is as if he has been chastened into seeking the very respectability he once exploited in snobby Bangor. Yet he is still focused against the establishment.
By testifying against the DUP over Nama, then exposing Sinn Féin for trying to coach him, he has become a remarkably dangerous peaceful person.
The online satirists may struggle to accept their role in making Bryson the man he is today, as indeed may Bryson himself. But he is earning respect nevertheless. I have heard him despairingly described in one newsroom as now “a force for good”.
Loyalism seems less impressed. Too much of the ridicule has stuck and Bryson has in any case remained too much of a lone actor.
Some academics at Belfast’s universities interpreted mockery of the flag protests as prejudice against the working class. Loyalist representatives have turned to this as a painless lesson on the last few years. But all they can learn from it is chippy reverse-snobbery – and Bryson moved on from that in his teens.