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Loyalism

haassThroughout its existence, the Irish peace process has been defined by seemingly endless negotiations aimed at resolving outstanding issues stemming from our recent 30-year conflict. In December  we witnessed another month-long apparent talking shop when US diplomats  Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, notable for her involvement in and support for the criminal invasion of Iraq, were summoned to Belfast by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson to broker a deal on flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the past. The widespread illusion that the US government – one of the most violent and aggressive on earth – can play a progressive role the Irish peace process is one that is continuously promoted by a passive local media and a generally incompetent and unimaginative political class.

Following the negotiations, Richard Haass outlined a number of modest proposals, including a code of conduct for parades and “limited immunity” for ex-combatants, all of which were promptly rejected by the unionist parties. The lack of agreement was greeted with a mixture of derision, disappointment and frustration. But having occurred after twelve months of unionist disarray, which began in December 2012 with the intimidating Belfast flag protests, followed by serious sectarian violence in North Belfast during the summer months, it should have come as little surprise that the Haass talks ultimately failed to deliver as expected.

2013 was a year in which unionist intransigence led to unionist crisis. Having stoked up a climate of hatred and encouraged throngs of angry working-class people onto the streets following the decision of Belfast City Council to fly the Union flag on the same number of days as it is flown in Britain, the middle-class DUP and UUP quickly distanced themselves from the inevitable violence which followed – a common feature throughout the history of the six county state.  

Subjectively, unionism has changed little in 50 years. Infatuation with empire, social conservatism, homophobia and sectarian supremacy reflect the reactionary nature of unionism’s main representatives, the DUP and UUP. The Progressive Unionist Party, misguidedly lauded by many on the left, fares little better under any serious examination of its politics. PUP leader Billy Hutchinson was present at a loyalist demonstration against the ICTU’s anti-G8 protest in Belfast last June. His associates heckled trade union speakers with sectarian chants and flaunted Israeli flags. Accusing the ICTU demonstration of being “anti-British”, Hutchinson displayed the bizarre paranoia inherent in the peculiar ideology of Ulster Loyalism.

Objectively, however, unionism has transformed dramatically in recent years. In the past, ‘Big House’ unionism – consisting of industrialists and leading politicians – managed to cultivate an alliance with working class Protestants to form an opposition to Irish nationalism and republicanism, as well as “rotten Prods” deemed to be too left-wing. Secure manufacturing jobs and slight economic advantages over their Catholic counterparts ensured the loyalty of many working-class Protestants to the sectarian Orange state and their wealthier co-religionists.  This cross-class alliance has proven more difficult to maintain under neo-liberalism, as the previously secure well-paid manufacturing jobs in Loyalist areas have now been replaced by precarious employment or, in many cases, none at all. Harland and Wolff – once the largest shipyard on in the world, employing thousands of people – is now the facade that is the Titanic Quarter.

In 1992, economist Francis Fukuyama wrote that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the “end of history”. Likewise, the Good Friday Agreement was meant to mark the end of Irish history. Everyone was to “move on”, cast aside their contending national aspirations and forget about Ireland’s bitter past. The economic strategy of successive governments in Dublin which promoted low tax rates and enticed foreign investment at the expense of sustainable indigenous development was to be rolled out in the north. A new, bland “Northern Irish” identity was to be created which attempted to normalise the abnormal, beginning a process of political disengagement on the part of the general public. This was a distinctly neo-liberal peace process.

Fifteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the poison of sectarianism continues to thrive. Hideous “peace walls” – now collectively longer than the Berlin Wall – snake their way through working class districts in Belfast, carving out areas designated for the rival tribes.  Religious segregation is part of everyday life: our children attend different schools, we live in separate housing estates and we play different sports. Dissident republicans, to the irritation of almost everyone, continue to cling to the immoral, dead end strategy of an unwinnable and unjustifiable armed struggle, which can achieve only the imprisonment of its members and yet more senseless deaths.

That the Good Friday Agreement failed to eradicate sectarianism is common knowledge. The unspoken truth, however, is that that Good Friday Agreement was never intended to put an end to sectarianism. The aim was to institutionalise it and make it manageable. Elected representatives are required to declare which religious group they belong to, with each tribe possessing a veto over the other – a mechanism that was wrongly used recently to prevent an inquiry into alleged corruption between the DUP and construction firm Red Sky.  

Despite being more than half a decade into the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, left-right politics have not taken hold in the north.  An impotent Assembly, which is entrusted with the same powers as a local council in England, is unable to fully tackle the insidious effects of capitalist collapse. The most contentious issues of the day do not arise from the fact that the region suffers from growing unemployment and a mass exodus of young people who see no future in an economy offering only lousy wages, debt and precarious work. Flags cause a bigger uproar than a crisis at an A&E. Parades still anger people more than welfare “reform”. The past has not gone away. The past is the present.

Faced as we are with two apparently irreconcilable interpretations of the past, the conflict will continue to be a contentious issue. For mainstream unionism, ‘the Troubles’ was merely a spontaneous outbreak of mindless criminality against a legitimate state. Accepting no responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict, unionist leaders have modelled themselves as defenders of a normal western democracy, methodically denying the systematic discrimination in employment and housing allocation which existed under unionist rule as well as disregarding the attempted suppression of a peaceful civil rights movement.

A recurring theme in recent Irish history has been the unwillingness of both mainstream and extreme unionists to accept a society in which sectarian domination of one group over another is no longer a reality. They have failed to embrace that reality. Amidst fantastic myths of an imaginary “cultural war” being waged against them, many unionists seem unable to realise that the union with Britain is stronger than it has ever been at any time in history. Republicanism and nationalism have changed. They are now incorporated into the northern state. Indeed, most Catholics, many of whom would even consider themselves to be “nationalist”, support the north remaining part of the UK.

Partition is here for the foreseeable future, something neither sections of unionism nor republicanism can admit. There is, however, little to suggest that this strange six county state will ever be anything other than a dysfunctional, sectarian colonial outpost.

This article was published in the Morning Star

northern-irelands-lost-opportunity-the-frustrated-promise-of-political-loyalism

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