Violence, disruption and intimidation have been common features of the on-going loyalist flag protests in Belfast. For most people, the movement that sprang up in December has its roots in a sectarian ideology and represents a deep crisis in unionism. Coming at a time when it is particularly relevant, a new book written by Pittsburgh University professor Tony Novosel has begun to challenge many commonly held preconceptions about Ulster loyalism.
Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, published earlier this year, charts the development of working-class loyalist politics in the 1970s. Novosel’s book contends that, rather than fulfilling the stereotype of “neo-Nazis and bodybuilders”, a significant group of Loyalist prisoners in Long Kesh began to formulate their own political programme, independent of middle and upper-class unionism. At the centre of this were UVF leaders Gusty Spence and Billy Mitchell. “The basic idea of the book is that the stereotype of loyalists being nothing more than neo-Nazis does not hold up,” said Novosel. “Sure, like all stereotypes there’s some truth in it, but it doesn’t hold. The book looks at this question. The book argues that there was a progressive political strand within Loyalism. This point tends to throw people off, I find.”
Novosel first visited the north at the height of the conflict in 1973. He admits he knew very little about the causes of the war, but set about to study it. Since then, he has visited Ireland more than 50 times and began researching his new book in 2006. Before carrying out his research, Novosel admits going into the project with a negative view of loyalism. “I thought of loyalism as nothing more than fascism,” he said. “To outsiders like me, they were Neanderthals. We thought of them as being similar to the Afrikaners in South Africa. This is very much a common opinion. For instance, I remember at the beginning of the project, a friend of mine asked me what I was researching. I replied ‘loyalist political thinking’. His immediate response back was, ‘do they think?’. That’s the general attitude that’s out there. However, when I started speaking to the people involved, I saw a very different picture. It’s something that’s difficult to take in at first.”
In researching the book, Novosel conducted extensive interviews with leading Loyalists such as David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson and Hugh Smyth, as well as combing through documents produced by the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando. Clearly written and free of academic jargon, Novosel’s book is an intriguing study of a subject area that has previously been largely neglected by historians of Ireland’s recent conflict. Indeed, the lack of information available about loyalism initially prompted Novosel’s interest in the topic. “I was fascinated by loyalism precisely because I knew so little about it,” he said.
At the outset of the book, Novosel condemns the hundreds of atrocities committed by loyalist paramilitaries, but presents the “progressive” wing of loyalism in a largely positive light. “Understanding does not mean condoning,” the author keenly points out. The second chapter of the book details how mainstream unionist parties “manipulated” loyalist groups for their own aims, accusing elements within the Official Unionist Party of conspiring to resurrect the UVF in 1966. He also reveals a number of remarkably progressive documents formulated by the UVF in the mid-1970s, which advocated power sharing between unionists and nationalists – a position mainstream unionists would have rejected outright at the time.
Novosel even goes as far as claiming that there were “socialist” and “social democratic” currents within loyalism. However, considering the majority of the UVF’s victims were Catholic civilians, as well as the group’s flirtation with fascist organisations such as Combat 18 and the National Front, it’s possible to argue that Novosel is guilty of reading at face value the claims of Billy Hutchinson and others with deeply reactionary past records. Despite these uncomfortable facts, along with its uncritical support for the British army and empire, Novosel insists that there is “no contradiction” between loyalism and progressive politics. “Going back even before the Battle of the Somme, there had always been that military tradition among working class Protestants,” he said. “They were prepared to defend the empire on the same basis that Old Labour supporters in Britain were prepared to do the same. They felt that the social gains were greater in Britain than in Ireland and wanted that to remain within that state. There was a feeling that the welfare state and everything that came with it would disappear in a United Ireland. Many loyalists saw themselves very much as Old Labourites. It’s not hard to reconcile that with socialist values, in my view.”
The arguments in Novosel’s book are well developed and present a thought-provoking view on a complex and a very much under-studied subject. Although it can be viewed at times as overly sympathetic to an ideology which uncritically supports monarchy, empire and imperialism, Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity is a valuable piece of research on an interesting – and important – aspect of recent Irish history.
Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, by Tony Novosel. Published by Pluto Press (2013)