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Loyalist pledge on criminality significant step forward for Northern Ireland

Rev Harold Good, Jim Wilson, retired Archbishop Alan Harper, Jackie McDonald and Rev Norman Hamilton at Press conference at Linen Hall Library
Rev Harold Good, Jim Wilson, retired Archbishop Alan Harper, Jackie McDonald and Rev Norman Hamilton at Press conference at Linen Hall Library
PUP members Winston Irvine, Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston and Billy Hutchinson attend the Press conference at the Linen Hall Library

By Graham Spence and Rev Chris Hudson

The loyalist declaration of transformation released yesterday by the Red Hand Commando, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, supported by the presence of three high-ranking religious figures and facilitated with the help of others, is a significant step forward and should be welcomed.

As the first such collective statement by those organisations since the ceasefire of 1994 it is evidence of an emerging common purpose and leadership that, if supported, could well have positive repercussions for loyalist communities and Northern Ireland more generally.

It would have been easier for the three organisations to say nothing rather than risk internal friction and potential instability from those resistant to transformative goals but, as with good leadership, the organisations have finally chosen to confront that risk for the good of their communities and to address the urgent need for building confidence and aspiration amongst their people.

For the media and wider public the point most likely to attract interest in the declaration will be the emphatic rejection of, and distancing from, those engaged in criminal activity.

The declaration is categorical that those who use the intimidating reputation of the paramilitary image to exert destructive influences on others for individual gain will be excluded.

Understandably, at such a formative stage the mechanics of exclusion remain unclear but the likelihood is that the success of exclusion will also rest on closer co-operation with the police since they, and not the organisational leaders, will have to determine whether actions are criminal or not and act accordingly.

Dwindling confidence in the PSNI amongst many loyalists, which only serves the interests of criminals and deepens communal despair in the process, makes the commitment on exclusion all the more remarkable and signifies a definitive break from confused and blurred lines about how the organisations might address illegal activity internally.

But dealing with criminality, important though that is, must be seen in the context of wider social and political factors that help or hinder transformation. It is only one aspect of a more complex picture.

What lies at the heart of the declaration is the need to imagine a loyalist Northern Ireland differently, and to do this education and new horizons are essential. This does not only mean education in the sense of children gaining good qualifications at school, essential though that is, but education in the broader cultural sense, where identity and belonging can be imagined more creatively, and so differently.

The biggest challenge for those wanting to bring about this shift is in encouraging loyalists not to see change in terms of weakening or eroding identity, but rather to see resistance to change as making that weakening and erosion inevitable over the long-term.

What makes such a transformation even harder to contemplate, let alone achieve, is overturning the long-held unionist tendency to see all change as dangerous or where change points towards the dilution or ridicule of that which one values and cherishes. As much as this might be a response to the nature of the conflict, it is also a mark of low confidence.

A new loyalism that seeks to overcome this predicament will require accepting and encouraging the possibilities of movement and, because of that, viewing identity in moving terms as well.

The preference for standing still has been a long-standing problem for unionism and it is ironic that the more progressive position now being taken on the need for transformation is coming from loyalism itself.

Notably, the unionist-loyalist divide comes into view here. Though recent debates infer that civic unionism must be heard alongside and in comparable terms with arguments for civic nationalism, such categorisations, although undefined, are just one aspect of a conversation that, if not carefully handled, are more likely to reinforce the politics of polarisation that continues to impose itself on the public mind.

Moreover, as the term suggests, there is little acknowledgement of a case for civic loyalism in this conceptualisation.

One of the things that loyalism might now do to address the separation and superiority-inferiority stereotype that persists between unionism and loyalism in the process (a division, which, by the way, is primarily based on class) is to begin exploring and articulating a more expansive and inclusive form of discourse within which both unionism and loyalism can be accommodated.

That new context we might call civic Britishness. Considered with imagination and care, a wider appreciation for British values presents a wider reference point for thinking about Ulster identity that can help move the inward-looking world view of unionism and loyalism outwards, building a more comprehensive and inclusive understanding of what being British means as a result.

The pluralism of a Britishness that enables convictions about being Welsh, Scottish and English to exist alongside religious, educational and cultural diversity stands in contrast to the more single-identity emphasis of Irish civic nationalism and, as such, offers fertile ground for understanding how integral inclusivity and diversity is to British identity.

There is a pressing need for both loyalists and unionists to see beyond their own immediate horizons and to connect with others to build external networks and courses of action. A more open and confident sense of Britishness would help facilitate this evolution.

Seeing unionist and loyalist identity in a more fluid context of Britishness would also encourage both towards a more creative understanding of self and society that would make Northern Ireland increasingly attractive to outsiders, many of whom remain perplexed by the traditions and expressions of unionist and loyalist rituals and the simplistic portrayals of identity that result.

Education is central to this new outlook since it means understanding identity in relation to new contexts and possibilities. The importance of education is not just in the battle over history and the struggle to be right, but in the desire to understand nuance and accept the value of difference.

For the outsider Northern Ireland looks like a place where different sides need enemies more than friends since this keeps certainty about who one is and who one is not firmly in place and there is security in that. The declaration released yesterday challenges that perception, however, and it acknowledges the significance of the outside perception.

Those responsible for yesterday's declaration have dared to imagine differently by recognising not just the importance of internal leadership but external influence to help drive and consolidate that leadership. They note how they have been berated for their past actions but resist doing nothing positive because of that past. And this is not some empty appeal for redemption. It is a plan for action regardless of what condemnations might be forthcoming.

The transformational path will need to address many challenges ahead. No doubt in the days and weeks that follow there will be efforts by some to discredit the declaration and make it look insincere. No doubt the leaders of the three organisations are anticipating this too.

But the sense now amongst the key people in the three organisations is that it is important to take the long view and to not get derailed by those who have nothing to offer loyalism or Northern Ireland.

There will be those who will expect to know the outcomes of the proposed transformation process straight away and who are impatient with the fact that loyalist paramilitary organisations still exist some 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement. Such people will want to know how the drama ends before it unfolds. This may be understandable but it cannot help Northern Ireland progress. It is a dead-end.

What is needed now is for others to help this new initiative to flourish. The stories about criminality will inevitably continue and the media will remain fascinated with that criminality.

But the declaration is much more than this since its ethos infers that although action against crime is important and the best way of addressing criminality is in relation to a wide-ranging process of transformation that reduces the opportunity for criminals to operate.

And this is more likely when the advantages of a transformation process that have become broadly supported become threatened by a few selfish individuals. In that instance communities are more likely to respond against those individuals by reporting them to the police.

But do not underestimate the risks involved for those who have taken the decision to try and facilitate such a transformation. The tendency will be to continue to depict the individuals behind the declaration as leaders of protection rackets and wanting to preserve reputations in a place where they are no longer wanted.

Again, this reaction may be understandable but is short-sighted. It would be easy for leaders to wash their hands of responsibility and allow angry young people to replace them, but the consequences would be disastrous for all, with serious increases in violence and crime highly likely as individuals vie for power and control.

The best course of action is to begin transforming the communities those young people are part of now and support moves to build education and aspiration in order to manage and overcome fears and anxieties about the future. Not wait and then react in the predictable fashion.

This declaration, no doubt, was months in the preparation and carefully drafted to appeal to a range of audiences, although essentially its appeal is towards loyalist communities.

It is the first serious, forward-looking, collective statement from the three organisations for 24 years. This is important and there is nothing to be gained by not encouraging or supporting its ambition and intent.

Graham Spencer is reader in social and political conflict at the University of Portsmouth. Rev Chris Hudson is minister at All Souls Church, Belfast.

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