Belfast Telegraph

Loyalist rioters are yet another generation failed by unionist leaders

'The world they see is a world full of real or imagined enemies'

By Alex Kane

The disillusioned loyalist youths behind this week's rioting are not a new phenomenon; they are the product of serial neglect and manipulation dating back to the foundation of the State.

On July 9 I talked to a well-known community worker in east Belfast about the Chobham Street bonfire: "Listen, Alex, we've talked to the kids - and that's all they are - building the fire and they aren't going to make it smaller. They're not listening to me, or the locals, or unionist politicians, or councillors, or anyone. They wouldn't even know who Gavin Robinson is. They don't trust any of us."

Later that day I talked to a teacher who has been working in east and north Belfast for almost 30 years: "I'm actually very worried about what's happening on the ground. What we're seeing is the emergence of a hard core of disillusioned kids who have been untouched by the peace and political process.

"They view community workers and local politicians as old men who are out of touch with their lives and experiences. There's no one giving them hope. They're just being fed on a diet of despair on the ground, because they don't listen to news, read papers or take part in cross-community activities."

The views of that community worker and teacher reflect what is being said by politicians:

"Unfortunately, there are young people out there who are saying that the only way forward is through violence. That is what the Parades Commission are driving people to," said the PUP's Billy Hutchinson.

"There is a feeling on the ground that the continual targeting of loyalists as criminals and gangsters is wrong and does nothing to boost working relationships," said monthly magazine The Loyalist.

"My community has been left behind. No one is listening to them," said Jim Wilson.

"The week after the flag came down over City Hall, myself and a colleague met Peter Robinson and explained that he needed to listen to the angry voices within loyalism, because there was a tsunami coming his way. This brought about the Unionist Forum, which could have - and should have - brought the whole PUL (Protestant/unionist/loyalist) family together. It wasn't to last, however," said UDA leader Jackie McDonald.

On Tuesday an unnamed loyalist paramilitary group released a photograph of three masked men posing with four guns. This is part of the accompanying statement: "After Monday night's brutal assault upon the PUL community and the random firing of baton rounds aimed to seriously injure our people, we are left with no other option but to announce the PSNI and Parades Commission are legitimate targets. We do not want to take this course of action, but our people have suffered enough over the last few years and we, as disengaged and disgruntled loyalists, feel like the time has come for us to take action. No surrender."

Yet what we saw on Monday evening was the PSNI dodging a barrage of bottles, bricks, masonry and bolts from a crowd - many of them in their late teens and early-20s - who had come prepared for a riot. There was nothing spontaneous about it. They saw the police as their enemy. And they also saw the media as their enemy.

Why is this? Why do so many people from the loyalist community, including their own spokespeople and elected representatives, believe that they are on the losing side of what they always describe as "the so-called peace process"?

Or why - and this is maybe the more important question - has mainstream unionism failed to convince them of the merits of the Assembly, while pointing out the dividends of the peace process?

Another question worth asking is why the political parties claiming to represent the loyalist community have failed to make a significant electoral breakthrough? At the 1998 Assembly election the PUP and the Ulster Democratic Party (who had both been involved in negotiating the Agreement) won 29,285 votes between them - just 3.7% - allowing the PUP to take two seats.

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Since then the UDP has folded and the PUP now has no MLAs. At last year's local government elections the party won just four out of 462 seats (2% of the vote).

It will argue that its vote and seat numbers were up on previous elections, yet the fact remains that it seems further away from a credible breakthrough now than it was in 1998.

It seems odd, doesn't it, that so few people in the loyalist community are prepared to vote for an unambiguously "loyalist" party. Voting and on-the-ground anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a disconnect between the loyalist working classes and the DUP/UUP unionist mainstream.

Yet the same evidence suggests that they prefer to vote for those two parties - with some opting for the TUV/Ukip - or stay at home rather than vote for the PUP.

All of which brings us back to what the teacher I mentioned earlier described as "the emergence of a hard core of disillusioned kids who have been untouched by the peace and political process". Can they be reached by a political party; or will they be reached and attracted by a new paramilitary group? The disillusion they are being fed is coming from parents, grandparents and friends on the streets. They are not being rescued by the education system and the whole concept of interface reconciliation, or cross-community engagement, is anathema to them. The world they see is a world full of real or imagined enemies.

Uncle Jack, one of Harper Lee's characters, asks a question: "What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinion? He doesn't give. He stays rigid. Doesn't even try to listen. Just lashes out." And that's where we are with growing numbers of young, disillusioned people within loyalism.

It's worth pointing out that this has very little to do with them hating Catholics - because they would rarely if ever see a Catholic, or republican, let alone talk to one. No, their disillusion and disaffection goes much deeper than that. They hate their own world and their own circumstances, too. The tragedy in all of this is that this generation is in danger of being failed and manipulated in exactly the same way that their parents and grandparents were failed - and failed by mainstream unionism.

The appalling socio/economic/educational/employment realities of their lives aren't a product of the Good Friday Agreement. They are the product of serial failure and neglect since 1921.

The nature of history is that because lessons aren't learned we make the same mistakes, albeit in a bloodier and more brutal fashion.

Those young loyalist thugs will keep on doing what they're doing - in greater numbers, too - until party political unionism/loyalism demonstrates to them that there are other ways of changing their lives and circumstances for the better.

One thing is certain: condemning them and then pretending that they're nothing to do with you (until you want their votes) is the worst possible way of approaching the problem.

Read more:

Get real and love Northern Ireland for what it is, warts and all 

Days after they were deployed here, May rules out using water cannon in Britain 

Officer's ear nearly severed in a night of frenzied violence in Ardoyne 

New loyalist terror group issues death threat to PSNI and Parades Commission as 'legitimate targets' 

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