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Is Northern Ireland a 'cold house' for loyalists? Robert McCartney QC, Malachi O’Doherty, Dr John Kyle, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Alban Maginness, Philip Orr and Alex Kane respond to Jamie Bryson

Blogger and commentator Jamie Bryson argues that many young loyalists today feel alienated from the state because of a Catholic/nationalist liberal elite in media and legal circles. A cross-section of commentators give their responses to Laurence White

Jamie Bryson
Jamie Bryson

By Laurence White

The question of alleged bias in the mass media is rarely far from the surface of public discourse. In Northern Ireland, the debate typically revolves around allegations that the Press - but more specifically broadcast media - favours nationalist voices over loyalists, or vice versa.

Blogger and commentator Jamie Bryson stimulated that debate this week on his Twitter account, posting a lengthy statement which claimed that "there is a sizeable number of people from the Protestant, unionist and loyalist (PUL) community feeling disenfranchised and excluded from having a stake in society within Northern Ireland".

He went on to claim that the media, as well as "the political class, civic society, the police and judiciary" were all regarded by large sections of working-class loyalism as being "the apparatus of nationalism".

We asked a broad range of commentators if Bryson is right: is Northern Ireland a "cold house" for loyalists?

Robert McCartney QC: Issues he raises should be heard

Two words in Jamie Bryson's Twitter post, claiming that Northern Ireland is becoming a cold house for Protestants, unionist and loyalists, because of an alleged imbalance in media and legal circles, have a particular resonance; namely "loyalist" and "exclusion".

The word "loyalist" has, in political and social terms, an unfortunate and sinister association with paramilitarism.

Most people in the Protestant community identify with the "P" and the "U", but recoil at the concept of loyalist as generally understood.

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The image projected by the PUL is one of political, if not violent, extremism. It represents, as it were, the outer edge of Protestant unionism.

The almost total lack of electoral support for the PUP and the UDP is evidence of that community's rejection, which the ongoing activity of the UVF and the UDA reinforces.

Nigel Farage and Ukip have been punished for their alleged connections with the National Front and people such as Tommy Robinson, causing Farage to reinvent himself with the Brexit Party. Marine Le Pen has had to rework both the name and policies of her father's party in France to shed its fascist past.

Bryson's complaint about the media's fascination with flags and fires is not only a reflection of possible bias, but also of the media's perception of the main occupation of the PUL.

If the PUL wishes to change that view it must, like Farage and Le Pen, work to change that image and promote clearly what Bryson infers the organisation is really about - namely exclusion.

Exclusion in a society is also of major political importance, not just in Northern Ireland, but globally. It is in this context that Bryson and the PUL may have something significant to say.

When a sizeable number of a community feel it is being excluded and its grievances unrecognised, its resentment does not make for social peace. Resentment created by such a perception makes it real if, by them, it is sincerely felt - a point that Bryson is not slow to make.

In both the United States and Europe, the election of Trump and Brexit represented a contest between the principle of elective democracy and the established power, both politically and socially, of a liberal elite whose contempt for a democratic majority they did not trouble to disguise.

Resentment by large sections of that majority at liberal elitism and its use of media control is currently fuelling feelings of exclusion, which is fracturing the established political order in the Western world and the conventions of international diplomacy. It is a situation now feeding a dangerous populism.

One view of Bryson's Twitter account is that it represents a deep resentment against what he sees as a liberal, political and media caucus, which is defending a status quo, not based on democratic principles, but created for the propitiation of terror in order to keep bombs off the British mainland and which, in the process, is suffocating grievances held by those he claims to represent.

I do not share Bryson's specific criticism of the judiciary, or of the manner in which they are appointed, nor of any suggestion of bias, or lack of independence. Neither do I accept his blanket condemnation of the media.

But these and other issues he has raised deserve to be heard, properly considered and not dismissed with a degree of liberal elitist contempt.

Robert McCartney QC is a barrister and the former leader of the UK Unionist Party

Malachi O’Doherty: Let’s hear about his other issues

If loyalists are only asked to speak about loyalist concerns in the media, is that any different from republicans only being asked about republican concerns? I don’t  recall the last time Gerry Kelly reviewed a film or Michelle O’Neill was asked about road-racing. But Jamie Bryson says loyalists have more to say and that they are disadvantaged by a media that prefers to hear from a liberal elite (of which I am, apparently, a part).

And if that is right, then I think we should hear from loyalists about Brexit, same-sex marriage and the current spate of TV  drama, or anything else that they want to talk about.

Is there a loyalist perspective on transgender issues? Or on secularisation? Or on cycle lanes? And in what way would their loyalism be relevant to these things?

That is for them to demonstrate — not for others to have to work out. But if the challenge is to get more loyalist voices speaking on diverse issues, then I am all for that. I have done something in the past to try to make it happen.

A few years ago, I was involved with training projects with former loyalist paramilitaries and found among them a deep suspicion of the media and even a wariness of anyone using language in a clever way, as if that was always to be regarded as suspect. And this in a society in which most people prefer to avoid the exposure of media appearances, anyway.

I think the media is busting to hear from these interesting and neglected loyalists. The first to emerge, really, has been Jamie Bryson himself and I think some in the media love him. But if Bryson wants to be interviewed about transport policy, or modern Irish theatre, it is for him to first declare his interest. I’m all ears.

Malachi O’Doherty is a journalist, author and commentator

Dr John Kyle: They must be part of solution

Jamie Bryson has raised some important points and I agree with many of them. The composition of our institutions and statutory bodies should reflect the communities which they serve,

or, in Bryson’s words, “balance in terms of religious make-up is a precursor to community confidence”. In some important cases, balance is missing. It is not only the nationalist community which is under-represented in the PSNI, very few working-class Protestants have been recruited in the past decade and they are also seriously under-represented.

I also agree that sections of the media indulge in dehumanising stereotypes of loyalists — uneducated, inarticulate thugs who are to blame for many of our continuing social and political problems. This is particularly true of media sources outside Northern Ireland.

The result is that many young loyalists feel disenfranchised and disrespected; to quote Bryson, they have “genuinely held feelings of exclusion”.

We could dismiss this as the usual loyalist whinging, but to do so would be to make a grave mistake. There is a responsibility on publicly-funded institutions to actively address inequality and exclusion.

The fact that Queen’s University Belfast is widely perceived as a nationalist university should provoke the university authorities to ask some searching questions.

How actively have they reached out to loyalist communities to encourage their young people into tertiary education?

How active has the PSNI been in trying to build confidence with the loyalist communities and recruit their young men and women?

Loyalist communities are not homogeneous and, for many, their views are not represented by Jamie Bryson, or in the local media. Why not?

But loyalists must also be part of the solution. Within loyalist communities, we must give our young people greater confidence to engage in civil society and with the media.

We should be less defensive, challenge negativity, celebrate success and not be afraid to explore creative solutions to problems. If our goal is a peaceful, inclusive and economically successful country, then we must take Jamie Bryson’s complaints seriously.

Dr John Kyle is a PUP member of Belfast City Council and a former leader of the party

Ruth Dudley Edwards: Loyalists are their own worst enemy

One of the reasons I came to like Ulster Protestants was precisely because they were stoical straight-talkers, while Sinn Fein, who dominate the nationalist narrative, are brilliant and unscrupulous propagandists who peddle their falsified history, crammed with exaggerated grievances, to anyone who will listen.

I think Jamie Bryson is largely right about bias in the media, but I don’t know what can be done about it.

Adept at being their own worst enemies, Ulster Protestants tend to be hostile to journalists.

When I was covering the parades crisis of the mid-1990s — even though I was writing and broadcasting about republicans’ shameful and cynical role in fomenting violence — the normal Protestant response was to assume I was an enemy, so there was no point in talking to me.

I live in London, where the result of the 2016 referendum came as a terrible shock to the media, who had no more idea of what people thought in Derby than journalists visiting Northern Ireland do about the inhabitants of the Waterside.

So, Brexit voters — like truculent loyalists — are dismissed as stupid and ignorant.

It would help if articulate loyalists could be persuaded to stop behaving like Millwall supporters (“No one likes us, we don’t care”), but it would help too if journalists would get away from the media bubble and go out and find new voices.

Ruth Dudley Edwards is a journalist, author and commentator

Alban Maginness: His arguments lack real evidence

Jamie Bryson has, for some years now, made an occupation out of highlighting loyalist working-class alienation.

He has consistently championed the idea that the loyalist working-class are conspired against by a series of malign influences in our society.

His recent allegation is that the judiciary, at its most senior levels, and the local media are imbalanced in terms of religious background.

A combination of both has, as a result, conspired to make life difficult for the loyalist community.

He presents this dubious argument without any credible evidence. Our judiciary and media are, rightly, jealous of their independence.

Without that crucial independence in thought and mind, neither body would receive the support and respect of both sides of the community.

The allegation about the local Press is simply absurd; their religious backgrounds are demonstrably mixed and they all revel in their stubborn professionalism.

If you were ever in doubt of that, witness the recent ordeal of the Loughinisland journalists, who fearlessly stood up to the ordeal of a misdirected police investigation to assert the uncomfortable truth.

As for the judiciary, there is an independent Judicial Appointments Commission that appoints all judges and guarantees there is openness and fairness in all those appointments. Their overall performance has never been challenged.

There has been no allegations that there is a religious, or political, imbalance in those appointments. And, despite what Bryson has implied, there has never been positive discrimination in the appointment of our judges, as there was with the PSNI.

The best advice for loyalists is to get rid of the monkey of the UVF and the UDA that is still on their backs and to encourage young loyalists to study hard and to become part of the mainstream of society and to abandon the notion that they are hard put-upon.

Alban Maginness is a political commentator and a member of SDLP

Philip Orr: Sowing of distrust is not very helpful

Jamie Bryson’s recent Twitter post once again offers the argument that Northern Ireland has become a “cold house for Protestants”.

He is concerned about recent statistics, which seem to show a local judiciary dominated by lawyers from a Catholic cultural background. Of course, this issue is not likely to be addressed any time soon by positive discrimination at the level of recruitment and appointment.

For a start, as a recent Department of the Economy report indicated, only 30% of students at Northern Ireland’s two universities designate as “Protestant” and of that number it is likely a minority come from the loyalist communities.

The best way to effect the change for which he calls is through a growth in aspiration within PUL communities.

This would manifest as a hunger to take part in shaping Northern Ireland, a pursuit of educational achievement and the acquirement of professional expertise in such areas as the law. In my opinion, many loyalists lack such aspiration.

This is in some measure because of the cruel stereotyping to which Bryson alludes.

This crude treatment over many years has reduced loyalists to bit-players and thugs in movies and in fiction and it surfaces all too often in Ian Knox’s Irish News cartoons, which have depicted loyalists as misshapen oafs. (You’d think that the long memory of how Punch cartoons once portrayed the Irish would have prevented such a thing.)

However, Bryson’s elevation of the all-too-obvious ill-treatment of loyalism into a widespread campaign by a “liberal elite” is not helpful.

The phrase chimes all too readily with the rhetoric of Donald Trump and like-minded politicians across the world, for whom complexity, expertise and the protocol of public discourse are seen as barriers to a politician who is “in touch” with “the people’s will”.

A PUL commentator, such as Bryson, is needed in Northern Ireland, but the work of reinvigorating his community’s culture and politics will not be well-served by sowing instinctive distrust of those who contribute to this society’s public discourse.

It is a distrust that hampers the ability of loyalists to enter the public square, matching all others, word for word.

Philip Orr is a historian

Alex Kane: Community needs more clear voices

I think Jamie Bryson overlooks two key factors. First, working-class unionism/loyalism has always been left behind; albeit for most of the period between 1921 and 1998 it was mainstream unionism which left it behind.

There are very few examples of significant political/electoral/sustained leadership coming from that background and, for both the UUP and later the DUP, working-class unionists/loyalists were generally regarded as electoral fodder, rather than a socio/economic/educational community which needed particular issues prioritised, addressed and resolved.

Second, I don’t think loyalists are “shunned” by the media.

I think it’s more a case of no one being entirely sure what loyalism actually is, let alone what it is saying.

I have spent years talking to people who were involved with the PUP, UDP and UPRG, as well as talking to members of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando.

I have also talked to people involved in on-the-ground community work in specifically loyalist areas.

You don’t hear one voice or one message; you hear dozens of voices with dozens of nuances and dozens of contradictory priorities and concerns.

Generally speaking, the message from party-political unionism is reasonably coherent and promoted by a range of experienced and articulate voices.

That is not true of loyalism — or loyalism in the sense that I think Bryson defines it.

Young people from that community are not being disenfranchised, as a policy, by the media, or anyone else; their voice isn’t being heard, because it is not clear who or what that voice is, or the message it wants to send.

So, yes, maybe a debate is necessary; but it is a debate which must begin within that community.

Let me offer one other piece of advice: stop assuming that everyone is against you. In politics, the most dangerous enemy is the perception you have of your opponents’ supposed strengths versus your own weaknesses.

Work out your problems, create a strategy for addressing them, explain them to your own side first and then select the best voices to promote and articulate your message. That’s when the media takes note.

Getting more people elected helps too.

Alex Kane is a commentator and writer

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