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)

Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast

After three months of intimidation, sectarian hatred and disruption, the protests surrounding the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall appear to be slowly ebbing. Before the council vote in December to fly the flag on designated days only – in line with England, Scotland and Wales – few would have thought the discontent would have lasted as long, particularly when there are more pressing issues at hand. Those taking part in the protests have been treated with a mixture of fear and ridicule. In the distinctly insular society of Northern Ireland, many believe the situations we face represent a departure from the real world.

In the run up to the flag vote, the DUP and UUP distributed thousands of leaflets around east Belfast attacking the Alliance Party for supporting the Sinn Féin/SDLP measure. It was a sinister ploy by the main unionist parties to oust Alliance MP Naomi Long from the East Belfast Westminster seat, which she took from Peter Robinson at the 2010 general election. Historically, when crises arose, bourgeois unionism whipped up sectarian tensions in order to deflect criticism from the failures of their misrule and incompetence. This was cynically played out again in December. Previously, the DUP and UUP raised no concerns about the union flag being flown on only designated days in Lisburn, Craigavon and, indeed, Stormont itself. It proved useful in diverting attention from the DUP’s dismantling of the Housing Executive.

The mainstream unionist parties quickly lost control of the “movement” which sprang up around the flag issue to more radical and, at times, fascistic elements. Residents in Short Strand have borne the brunt of loyalist intimidation and violence, with illegal parades being facilitated by the PSNI on a weekly basis. Yet, there is nothing overly uniquely “Northern Irish” about these protests. A quick glance at news and election results from around Europe show an alarming increase in support for the far-right, with disadvantaged and alienated people seeking simple solutions to complicated problems. The rise of the Greek Golden Dawn party is perhaps the most disturbing. Notable, too, is the popularity of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the True Finns and the National Front in France.

The Belfast flag protests are symptomatic of the shift to the right of small, yet not insignificant, sections of the working class across Europe. The far right are able to provide easy answers to people looking for them and can dangerously redirect their anger towards the wrong targets, whether they are immigrants, native Muslims or, in the Irish case, the “other side”. It highlights the dangers which lurk in the background if the political conversation continues to be dominated by the right. Failure by the left and trade unions to provide a radical alternative to austerity and corporate domination of public affairs leave open the possibility of people’s anger being harnessed by more reactionary forces.

The response to naked sectarianism on Belfast’s streets by the four main parties has been, at the very best best, unimaginative. Backin’ Belfast, a £600,000 publicly funded advertising campaign, was set up to reverse the losses made by businesses in the city as a result of the protests. Little has been done to challenge the anti-democratic, fascistic nature of the protests. Even less has been done to challenge the sectarian nature which lays the basis of the northern state. Instead, people have been encouraged to do their drinking, dining and shopping in Belfast. The alternative to sectarian hatred, apparently, is mass consumerism.

The public faces of Backin’ Belfast have been pub owners and retailers, such as Michael Deane and Colin Neill,who have lamented the loss of trade suffered by city centre bars and shops. They want an end to the protests, not because of the sectarianism on display at the demonstrations, but because they want to get back to ‘business as usual’. The fact that the pub and retail trades in Belfast are notorious for their gross exploitation of young workers goes largely unnoticed. Perhaps people would be able to afford to eat in Deane’s restaurant and shop in River Island at the weekend if bosses in these sectors paid their staff a living wage. Student blogger Aisling Gallager articulated this point excellently when she wrote:

“I am not #BackinBelfast- I can’t afford to. Neither can most students. Whilst students were not the main focus of this article, I’ll stick to what I know best- students are struggling to get by as it is, and with £9k fees for GB students in Queen’s University, halls that are more expensive than the basic loan, and a severe lack of part-time jobs (and those employed taken advantage of horrendously by their employers), students shouldn’t be shamed into spending more money than they can afford.”

The peace process should be about more than facilitating the needs of business owners; it should be about creating a better society, free from both bigotry and exploitation. It won’t be easy, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But what’s absolutely certain is that tacky PR gimmicks such as Backin’ Belfast will not overcome the sectarianism which exists in the north.

This article was published in the Morning Star

The announcement by Greek Prime Minister George Panpandreou to hold a referendum on whether or not to accept the Troika’s latest “bailout” has been met with the predictable fury of Europe’s leaders. Such are their democratic credentials, the very thought of the Greek people having a say on the austerity being inflicted upon them sparked outrage. Under intense pressure, Papandreou balked and called off the proposed referendum.

Everyone needs to keep a close eye on the events unfolding in Greece. What happens there will affect us all. The very existence of the European Union is on the line; if the Euro collapses, the EU is likely to go down with it. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. The ethnic cauldron that makes up much of Europe could very well boil over, the results of which most do not care to think about. The prospect of war in the continent is a very real one. Don’t just take my word for it; German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a stark warning in the Bundestag last month when she said: “No one should think that a further half century of peace and prosperity is assured. If the euro fails, Europe will fail.”

Distracted by X-Factor and other hollow gimmicks, much of the population seem oblivious, and contently so, to the enormous events unfolding around them. Capitalism is now in its biggest crisis since the 1930s, with even the “top” bourgeois economists at a loss as to what to do to next. In all likelihood, capitalism is heading towards a period of prolonged and deep recession. Many are even plausibly predicting another depression. If this materialises, the ramifications on working people will obviously be enormous.

The sense of urgency among Europe’s leaders to save the EU project stems from the continent’s collective memory of fascism. They know the EU is the cement that has maintained peace in most of Europe since 1945. Its collapse will create a political vacuum in many countries, which the far-right will doubtless take advantage of. Across Europe, a tide of extreme nationalism is gaining ground. Muslims have replaced Jews as the targets of “acceptable” racism in today’s society. Fascist-friendly comics, such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express, spout their racist, reactionary vitriol without any real controversy. Their headlines attack Muslims on a daily basis, accusing them of being “terrorists”, “benefit scroungers” and “imposing their values”. Such disinformation in mainstream discourse provides fertile ground for the spread of fascism. This can already be seen across much of Europe. In 2009, the BNP polled 1 million votes in the European Parliament elections. The increasing popularity of the odious English Defence League since then is another case in point. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party has made considerable gains in Holland. Latest opinion polls show that 16.9% of Finns support the True Finns Party. 15.2% of the electorate in Denmark have expressed sympathy with the Danish People’s Party.

Such alarming statistics should come as little surprise. In deep crises, people will naturally look to areas outside the mainstream for solutions. Fascists provide extremely impressionable people with “easy” answers. Many people, unfortunately, find it easier to blame their problems on immigrants and minorities, rather than study the economic, social and political issues which dominate their lives.

One important point to bear in mind is that fascism is good for big business. Do not fall under the illusion that capitalism is compatible with democracy and human rights. Capitalism is there to make profit. What happens to the environment, societies, families and individuals is simply immaterial in the dark race for profit. If fascist states provide profitable outlets for big business, you can rest assured that they will take these opportunities.

Without a viable left alternative, the rise of fascism in many parts of Europe is a distinct possibility. Earlier this week, the Irish Independent reported that a significant number of people in Athens have been brandishing the portraits of some of the country’s top generals. In a nation which got rid of a military junta just 30 years ago, this is an extremely worrying development. Despite the inspirational resistance to austerity shown by the Greek working class over the past number of years, fascism can still creep in through the back door.

Since 2008, the capitalist class have been using the crisis as an opportunity. They have taken advantage of people’s shock and have begun the process of slashing wages, conditions and, of course, jobs. They are attacking all the gains made by the labour movement over the past 60 years. That being the case, this should be seen by socialists also as an opportunity. The time is ripe for the airing of new ideas and alternatives to a system organised for the pursuit of profit, as opposed to social need. To stop fascism before it grows, progressives and socialists need to provide a clear programme detailing what we stand for. We should discuss and debate this thoroughly, as it is the only way to clarify our ideas and strive towards what we hope to achieve.

The opening of opportunities for the building of a better and more humane society come once in a generation. Let’s not miss this one.