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Loyalists not itching for new war and to suggest otherwise is dangerous

Internal UDA feuding, such as that which claimed the life of George Gilmore, is an aberration. Loyalist violence is no longer an existential threat to the peace process, writes Henry McDonald

Between the UDA-UVF feud of the summer and autumn of 2000 and the siege of the Holy Cross girls' primary school after that faction-fighting, a former loyalist activist despaired over the behaviour, thinking and strategy of the pro-Union terror gangs.

"Have they any more feet left to shoot off?" he said when observing how loyalist paramilitaries in the early 2000s were disgracing themselves in the eyes of the world over feuding, drug dealing, general criminality and the blatant sectarian intimidation of young children.

One interesting and relatively unreported development over the last decade or so since then has been how it appears that most working class loyalists seem to be learning from these past mistakes. While certain areas of Northern Ireland remain blighted by loyalist crime lords and their nefarious activities, there are far greater examples of how other loyalists have been playing a more positive role in helping out their own communities.

Lisburn and the Old Warren estate in particular comes to mind here in terms of ex-UDA activists running projects aimed at integrating foreign immigrants (mostly Polish and other Eastern European families) into the local community through education and employment initiatives. The Old Warren experiment has been studied by many other community organisations from across Northern Ireland, even those which include their former republican enemies.

Ironically, it almost lost its funding last year, but as a result of a publicity campaign to highlight their good work, the project managed to gain financial support from the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. It would be a deeper, even bitterer irony if such a project was put at risk again due to the inability of the parties at Stormont to re-establish power-sharing.

It must be equally depressing for those behind such projects within the working class loyalist community to witness the events in east Antrim, where factions of the UDA are tearing each other apart in what appears to the rest of the population as a bewildering, meaningless, internal power struggle.

One man, George Gilmore, is dead and two others are facing murder charges in connection with his killing last week.

There have been vicious assaults in bars, homes attacked, families driven from houses and so on. The current conflict in towns like Carrickfergus has echoes of the type of intra-loyalist violence that ripped to pieces areas like the Shankill Road in the first decade of this century, which left even the heartlands of working class unionism shattered and disillusioned. The re-emergence of loyalist factional fighting and its association with crime has also raised questions as to the validity of ceasefires and commitments to pursuing politics through solely peaceful means.

Some commentators have even leapt to the conclusion that this internal power struggle is but the precursor for a general return to violence by loyalist paramilitaries.

Such a view, however, is nonsensical and is one based on a misunderstanding of the origins of loyalist paramilitary armed campaigns. Despite the claims of some, there are very few, if any, loyalists itching to bring the guns out again in order to attack the wider nationalist/republican community.

Even despite the Sinn Fein electoral advances in this month's Assembly election, you detect little sense within loyalism of any sense of existential panic about the state of Northern Ireland.

Undoubtedly, many working class loyalists registered their disillusionment with established unionist parties, most notably the DUP, due to the RHI scandal by not turning up to polling stations on March 2. This resulted of course in unionists shipping seats to nationalism, and primarily their old adversaries in Sinn Fein.

Yet, even with Sinn Fein demands for a border poll being amplified louder than before and the hysterical reaction of some sections of the southern Irish media to both Brexit and the Assembly election outcome (The Irish Times surprisingly being the worst offenders in terms of over-exaggerating their implications regarding a united Ireland), there is little chatter out there among loyalists that the Union is suddenly once more in mortal danger.

Yes, there will be concern about the potential 'loss' of Scotland to the Union if Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP were to win a second independence referendum. Conversely, the thinking-wing of Ulster loyalism still takes comfort in consistent opinion polls that continually find a pro-Union majority in Northern Ireland.

Those same loyalists are equally more conscious of the need for unionism in general not to alienate, by overt, traditionalist sectarian politics of the past, those sections of the Catholic population in the north of Ireland, including those who are cultural nationalists while quietly preferring to remain in the UK.

They are far more aware of the necessity not to annoy or insult those liberal middle class Catholics/nationalists by way of evangelical Bible-bashing reactionary posturing than the DUP is.

And even if there was to be a border poll (which the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister have both ruled out) this would hardly be a cause in thinking-loyalism's minds to bring whatever guns they have back out again.

Aside from the total immorality of these murder campaigns in the past, how would reverting to naked sectarian slaughter help win over the 'quiet' pro-Union Catholics to the cause of remaining within the UK?

Given, the disparate, decentralised, federal nature of loyalist terror groups' turf war disputes like the present squalid one in east Antrim will flare up from time to time with unacceptable loss of life and nothing but pain and misery for those who have to live among these feuding warlords.

But the notion that these same organisations are poised to go back to 'war' on a grander scale is grossly exaggerated. From the Omagh massacre onwards to the Massereene shootings, as well as ongoing violent dissident republican activity, the loyalist terror groups have avoided until now falling into the trap of retaliatory violence.

Of course, these organisations do not deserve any thanks for not killing people any more; they should never have done so in the first place.

Nonetheless, the notion that they are spoiling to get back into a wider inter-communal fight is not only false, but also dangerous in its inaccuracy.

Henry McDonald is co-author of UVF: The Endgame, and UDA: Inside The Heart Of Loyalist Terror.

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