Belfast Telegraph

Jamie Bryson: ‘We must build aspirational ethos which encourages education and upward mobility’

Man with a Union flag
Man with a Union flag

By Jamie Bryson

The editorial published on UnionistVoice.com last week was designed to embed the roots of a debate on the conventional view of loyalism, from which other branches of discourse could organically grow.

A number of contributors raised challenges, especially around the perceived linkage with paramilitarism. I would strenuously point out loyalism is not a byword for paramilitarism.

It is necessary, however, to deal with the reality of that perception, therefore I have devoted the majority of this riposte to addressing that issue whilst briefly making a number of other broad points, all of which require more detailed discussion.

The conventional view ignores the reality that many loyalists who had active roles in proscribed groups are now wholly committed to peaceful activism, driving positive transition within their communities.

I think the language around such transition - such as assertions that groups should 'disappear' - puts forward simplistic and unworkable solutions to a complex social problem. Loyalist organisations are made up of human beings who are part of loyalist communities; where is it suggested they should disappear to?

If persons are bound by a shared history and friendships developed over many decades, how is it proposed that you forcibly decommission people's minds to break that social cohesion?

The IRA did not 'disappear', they simply transitioned their military structures across to political, community and civic activism. There was no such pathway for loyalist combatants, given political parties linked to such groups enjoyed only limited success.

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The real challenge is for former armed loyalist groups to dismantle military structures and use the social cohesion that has grown from them to effect positive change. That requires a deep and thoughtful analysis of what I believe is the nub of the issue; how do you exert positive influence using the social cohesion born out of dormant military structures without crossing the line into illegality or coercive control?

I have consistently challenged what I believe is a blanket criminalisation of loyalist communities by the Paramilitary Crime Task Force who are, in my view, seeing crime and loyalism through the same lens and thus feeding the alienation within sections of the loyalist community.

I support the pursuit of all crime, regardless of where it emanates, however I object to attempts to portray loyalism corporately as little more than a criminal enterprise. I would welcome PSNI engagement with the most alienated sections of loyalism, in order to allow a two-way adversarial critique of policing and transition. This could play a key role in dealing with feelings of exclusion.

The dehumanisation of loyalism is evidenced online by the social tolerance and often endorsement of 'satire' sites which exist solely to troll, mock and ridicule loyalists. If such a vitriolic campaign was directed against any other cultural, ethnic or religious group then there would quite rightly be outrage amongst what I broadly labelled the 'liberal elite'.

Robert McCartney QC provided perhaps the best summation of this group. I believe such a caucus does exist and their favoured media contributors, who for the most part tend to be liberals and/or soft nationalists, are disproportionately amplified by the broadcast media.

A portion of this stems from a liberal tilt in the media which creates a moral impetus to platform views conducive to a utopian Northern Ireland.

We must also not discount nepotism flowing from a self-righteousness amongst this elitist group; this encourages the deployment of various inter-linked streams of influence to create a perpetual cycle of peer-to-peer patronage.

Loyalism must build an aspirational ethos which encourages education and strives for upward social mobility. Malachi O'Doherty and Ruth Dudley Edwards both made valid points around internal loyalist suspicion of the media; we must address those challenges through persuasion and changing mindsets within our own community, in order that we can showcase a confident and articulate brand of loyalism.

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