Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Loyalism needs some leadership from its leaders

Loyalists say the City Hall is a 'cold house'. But their reasons lie less with removing Royal portraits and more with their own egos, argues Brian Rowan

The real story from Belfast City Hall last week was not about 'cold house' politics, but cold feet politics. It was about invitations accepted, then declined. It was about loyalism having too many leaders, but no leadership.

The UDA still has men with military titles, stripes and rank, but very few of them are willing or able to step outside the safety of their own pack.

It is why loyalists get left behind in the peace process.

Jackie McDonald (below) is different. But, in his world, being different is viewed with suspicion.

Last Friday he was meant to attend a two-part City Hall event. A portrait of the republican icon James Connolly was unveiled in the office of Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile.

And, then, there was a panel discussion, which McDonald was meant to participate in, with three others, including Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin.

The invitation came from the Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (Siptu), of which McDonald is a member.

It would have been a chance for them to be seen and heard; to have their say on issues important to their community. But McDonald was forced to withdraw. It was not his decision not to attend, but a decision made by others; other brigadiers in the UDA.

McDonald has equal rank, but cannot make his own decisions. This is the flaw within this organisation and within loyalism: the pace is often set by the slowest runners.

There were excuses given: O Donnghaile had removed royal portraits from his parlour; McDonald was getting too close to one-time senior IRA leader Sean Murray.

Then there are those who haven't forgiven him for shaking hands with Martin McGuinness at a festival event in west Belfast a couple of years ago.

Those loyalists who objected to McDonald attending the City Hall event need to put themselves in the shoes of others; they need to think what it was like for McGuinness to shake McDonald's hand.

They need to think how easy it would be for O Donnghaile, or Ni Chuilin, to find reasons not to be in the same rooms as loyalists.

The Lord Mayor lives in the Short Strand, a community targeted in an orchestrated UVF attack just a few months ago.

O Donnghail, McGuinness and Ni Chuilin will know many members of Sinn Fein targeted by loyalists in the past.

Peacemaking is not easy. It is about talking to those who once were your enemy - not hiding within your own pack.

Another loyalist who is different, who is prepared to take risks, is William 'Plum' Smith, the former Red Hand Commando prisoner who chaired the 1994 ceasefire news conference.

There was a possibility that he would step into the City Hall event; not to attend the unveiling of the Connolly portrait, but to be part of the panel discussion.

But it didn't happen. This was a missed opportunity for loyalists - another invitation declined; another event at which they were not heard.

There are questions to be answered - not by McDonald or Smith, but by others. Why this far into the peace process are the UDA and the UVF still pulling the strings? Why is this tolerated by unionist politicians and by the NIO?

Why is there not the same focus on the UDA inner council and UVF command staff as there was on the IRA army council?

It is because this is a process of double standards.

And it means that McDonald and other loyalists are being held back.

When you scratch the surface of this, you find it has little to do with royal portraits, or handshakes, or building working relationships with republicans.

It is about something else much closer to the loyalist home; about their own power-plays and egos and jealousy.

When it comes to those at the very top of the UDA, it is about McDonald being seen as boss; as the man who matters most within that organisation.

And it is about those who have the same title and rank of 'brigadier' not liking that.

There is an easy solution. Some of the others could step out into the bright lights of the peace process.

But they won't, because they don't want that type of scrutiny.

So they hold everything else back. That's why McDonald was not at the City Hall: not because he didn't want to be there, but because others decided he shouldn't be there.

And, now, there is a moment of choice.

The UDA has too many leaders and it still functions within a paramilitary structure.

It is out of date and out of step with the peace process

McDonald and the others must decide. Do they want to be part of that? Or part of what is changing? Do they want to run with the slowest? Or keep pace with the peace process?

There is only one real choice. McDonald was right to accept the City Hall invitation and those who forced him to change his mind were wrong.

And unionist politicians and the NIO need to give some thought to this.

Their challenge is to help those who want to help the loyalist community.

It is time to move beyond the UDA and the UVF.

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