Of the images that came to define the Good Friday Agreement negotiations one symbolises the possibility of a collective unionism.
In it, David Trimble is flanked by representatives from the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party entering Parliament Buildings during the final stages of negotiations. Partly an attempt to neutralise DUP claims that Trimble did not represent unionism beyond his own base, the image nevertheless represented a moment when closer relations between unionism and loyalism no longer seemed unimaginable.
The image was one of shared conviction and not just shared convenience. It stressed how the dominant unionist party of the day, the UUP, and the loyalists, wanted the GFA to happen and, indeed, there is little doubt that without the loyalists it would not have happened.
Now, long faded in the memory, the image stands as a reminder of another missed opportunity and the predictable divisions between unionism and loyalism returned soon after the GFA was finalised.
In the years since loyalism has been consistently reduced to a criminal entity and so depicted as an obstruction to peace, stability and progress. Constant media attention given to illegal activity understandably discourages unionists from engaging with loyalists and strands of coercive paramilitarism continue to make the lives of those who live within areas where it lurks a misery.
Regardless that the numbers who persist in using the badge of paramilitarism to exploit others is small (believed to be less than five per cent of those who continue to retain some association with paramilitary groups) and that acts of great collective kindness and respect have been evident within loyalist communities throughout the Covid pandemic, with thousands of meals delivered and support given to hundreds of elderly and vulnerable people, the stereotype that loyalism is nothing other than bad news remains.
Whose responsibility is it to deal with this problem and is there value in seeking to commit to the development of a new collective unionism that is better suited to ensure the development and continuation of Northern Ireland and the Union?
Of course, the division is the responsibility of both unionism and loyalism but since unionism benefits more from this separation than loyalism it is obvious that loyalists will need to instigate dialogue first. To assist this process we would argue that the labels of ‘loyalist’ and ‘loyalism’ should be dropped, leaving ‘unionist’ and ‘unionism’ as the core markers of national allegiance and collective identity.
Clearly if loyalism no longer exists then there are no longer loyalist problems, only unionist ones. But the shift towards a more collective representation that meets the needs of loyalists as well as unionists particularly depends on new voices and representatives emerging in loyalism that are able to challenge unionism and push it to be more creative and imaginative in how it serves the Union and Northern Ireland more generally.
Once the label of loyalism has gone then more constructive and pressing discussions can take place on unionist identity, Britishness, the Union, developing relationships both inside and outside of Northern Ireland and enabling new forms of expression to be explored in areas such as sport, literature, music, comedy, business, education or politics.
And those discussions needs to underpin the promotion of a more diverse and inclusive society where the importance of compromise, ambiguity, hope and aspiration shape what is said, how it is said and when it is said.
Beneath the popular image of loyalist belligerence and trouble things are moving and if loyalists want the long-term security of the Union to endure such movement is essential.
Initial change can be subtle, with, for example, young people not as drawn to symbols of a conflict as they once were as that conflict slips further into the past. At that point issues of personal rather than communal identity begin to surface and expectations about the future become influenced more by anxieties about environmental damage than loss of life from communal violence.
If the idea of equality means anything it is that class does not matter and that social mobility and aspiration are open to all
These changes transform attitudes and allow fresh points of concern to emerge. As new opportunities come to the fore questions about access and availability inevitably arise. Until now much of this has been conceptualised as part of a ‘peace dividend’ and determined by others who overwhelmingly, although not entirely, tend to be middle-class. As such, many loyalists feel ostracised from the socio-economic benefits of peace and look upon the idea not with interest but disdain, removed from its appeal and excluded from participating in the brighter future it suggests has arrived.
If the idea of equality means anything it is that class does not matter and that social mobility and aspiration are open to all.
The reality is starkly different however. The means to enjoy both dramatically increases with confidence, opportunity and support. Social groups do not start at the same point in the process of advancement and so mechanisms need to be constructed to help those who are most disadvantaged to begin with. This is where outside help is needed and not as imposition, but as facilitation. It is also an area where unionists and unionism can and should do much more.
What is needed is active, focused, coherent strategic thinking, kept simple and that resonates constantly with those it is designed to serve and help. And the best way to ensure this is when the voice of local people is incorporated into mainstream discourse, respected for its contribution and then acted upon because of its credibility.
All too often what has been the focus of unionist identity is the past and defence of that past. But what really does need defending and nurturing is the future
If people have a stake in change they are more inclined to support it and take ownership of it. Isolated from change and reduced to mere spectators or consumers they are less emotionally attached to the prospect of success or failure and so indifferent to the possible advantages that might arise.
All too often what has been the focus of unionist identity is the past and defence of that past. But what really does need defending and nurturing is the future. A future not built on a continuation of stasis but a new language, new relationships and energised discussion to help push for diversity and aspiration. A preoccupation with preserving rather than cultivating identity reflects deeply-held fears about changes to the constitution and how a legacy process might play out. Even though for economic and security reasons both are unlikely to happen.
Surely the best way to address concerns about the future of Northern Ireland is to expand the appeal of the Union by welcoming those who do not see themselves as unionist but are not keen on supporting a united Ireland either. The role of the NHS throughout the pandemic carries with it a positive message about Britishness that unionists need to learn from and its charter emphasis on respect and dignity should be a political template for any decent society.
Hard and rigid positions on identity tend to keep others out more than welcome them in. New confidence depends on softening identity and making it more open to others. This does not mean jettisoning that which is core to one’s values and history but recognising that such values and history change and that it is better to influence that change than have it imposed by others.
As reports about loyalist disadvantage continue to be published and the peace monitoring industry offers comparative statistics of achievement and non-achievement perhaps it would be wise to remember that statistics and policies do not change attitudes but dialogue does. This now needs to urgently take place between unionism and loyalism if a positive, vibrant and attractive Northern Ireland is to be developed.
Dr Graham Spencer is Reader in Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth and Rev Chris Hudson is based at All Souls’ Church, Belfast.