Susan McKay: Loyalists marching on from century to century

The boyos in Portadown talk of bombing Dublin, Billy Wright and a glorious past

A loyalist march to protest over the Northern Ireland protocol, in Portadown on Saturday. Photograph: Paulo Nunes dos Santos/The New York Times

A loyalist march to protest over the Northern Ireland protocol, in Portadown on Saturday. Photograph: Paulo Nunes dos Santos/The New York Times

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The new DUP leader, Edwin Poots, said in his inaugural address that “history shows, when unionism’s back is against the wall, it comes out fighting”. He was speaking metaphorically.

It takes a certain level of thranness to adapt a balaclava so that your mouth and nose are both on display. But the boyos that stomped grimly through Portadown on Saturday last with paramilitary flags in hand would take no lectures on the aerosol transmission of a deadly virus from anyone, would take no lectures from anyone on anything. These men just march on, from century to century. These are the Bleary boys, described by a local squire in 1795 as “stout fellows, somewhat lawless” – but, in the matter of loyalty, not to be outdone. The message is always the same: the unionist people have been betrayed. Every man must stand against this outrage.

This particular 21st-century demonstration had been promoted by its organisers as the biggest protest yet in a series that have been taking place in loyalist heartlands in the last months, since Brexit – though that root cause of the Northern Ireland protocol is never mentioned. They had predicted a crowd of 4,000 or more. At most 800 showed up, and that included families.

The helicopter was overhead. I walked up the street on which loyalists kicked young Robert Hamill to death in 1997, and the first person I recognised was someone who had been questioned about the murder of another of the local Catholics who died during those awful summers of Orangemen demanding the right to walk the queen’s highway via their local Catholic area. Ian Paisley snr had declared that “the same battle has to be fought today as in the 18th century”. I saw a woman I remembered, a friend of the late paramilitary leader Billy Wright. She shooed me away. There was a placard outside an off-licence offering two bottles of Buckfast for £12. Among the Ulster flags and union jack flags on the main street, I saw one Israeli one.

Last stand

The speeches had started, beside the statue of Col Edward Saunderson, who, as an Armagh MP, declared in 1893: “Home rule may pass this house but it will never pass the bridge at Portadown.” At Drumcree I had heard men say, “If we’re bate at Portadown, we’re bate.” It was easy to find a socially distanced space in the crowd because when people saw my notebook they moved away. A young woman was speaking. She said “the Border should be on the frontier”. When she said “We are a law-abiding people” and asked “Why should we get criminal records?” the men behind me got angry. “Agh, here we go,” one of them said. “We’ve heard all this before,” said another. A third man shouted, “Give us an alternative!” It began to rain and a man hunched on a bench pulled his flag over his head like a cape. It had a painting of the Ulster Division that fought at the 1916 Battle of the Somme on it.

Moore Holmes, a Belfast teacher who was one of the leading lights in the so-called anti-betrayal act rallies that failed to drum up unionist unity in the run-up to the Westminster election of 2019, said he had been six years old when the Belfast Agreement was signed. “Since 1998 it is hard to find a unionist who thinks it has delivered for our community,” he said. There were cheers. One of the men behind me shouted, “It’s dead.” The final speaker said that people were mobilising all over Ulster. “Who are these people? The same who shut the gates of Derry...” That was 1689. “Who signed the Ulster Covenant.” That was 1912. “Be prepared at short notice to be called upon to defend Ulster against the protocol,” he concluded.

‘Money for guns’

One of the men behind me tapped me on the shoulder. “We are prepared to give you an exclusive interview,” he said. And so, as the bands marched off with flutes and drums, playing the old tunes, I heard how there was “a new breed of young loyalists”, that “men with big cars” were pledging money for guns, that they “wouldn’t rule out an attack on Dublin” and that “Billy Wright’s vision” was the right one. How republican demands were insatiable and “we have nothing more to give”. The Irish language act would “trample loyalists into the ground”. The man wrapped in the Ulster Division flag came over and was introduced as an ex-prisoner. “Us loyalists has been too law-abiding,” he told me. Another man said “the Jackal’s lieutenant” had told him, “this is worth dying for”. The Jackal was sectarian killer and police informer Robin Jackson.

The Stoneyford-based former Orangeman Mark Harbinson, a serial predicter of Armageddon, came over and greeted me genially. Since I saw him last, he has served time for the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl. Walking back to the car I passed through a thicket of anti-abortion protesters with their obscene posters of mutilated foetuses. A preacher set up a PA system and began to warn loudly that we were all going to hell.

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