Belfast Telegraph

Peter Shirlow: Loyalists stop riots, create jobs, challenge racism and promote inclusion ... so why do we only ever hear about regressive elements who want to turn the clock back?

Threatening violence over Brexit may conjure up a few hangers-on, but there will be no mass mobilisation and no 1970s-style manning of the barricades, argues Peter Shirlow

The late PUP leader David Ervine
The late PUP leader David Ervine

By Peter Shirlow

The late PUP leader David Ervine once quipped, "I don't want to wake up every morning and ask, 'Am I British, or Irish?' I want to think, 'Am I late for work?'"

Such people framed the rejection of their own violence. Loyalists, wearied by conflict, knew that the shelf-life of Northern Ireland could only be extended through power-sharing and mutual respect.

Their legacy remains. Loyalists stop riots, remove flags near Catholic churches and promote inclusion and compromise. They advance their community through building social economy projects, challenging racism, creating hundreds of jobs, undermining sectarianism and delivering social justice.

In schools, they promote restorative justice projects, protect the vulnerable from intimidation and facilitate better educational outcomes. That work is under-recognised, under-appreciated and, therefore, depressingly under-valued.

Such leaders have no desire to return to violence - "Been there, done that and got the T-shirt" (or, more accurately, the prison uniform).

Peace-making is grinding work and requires challenge to self. Gusty Spence, when he resigned as Officer Commanding the UVF prisoners in the Maze, advocated for peace. Seen as "gone soft", his peace-building papers were ripped up and had expletives written across them.

Despite that, emotional intelligence led him to declare that loyalist victims deserved "abject and true remorse" - a sentence which indicated the seriousness of non-violent commitments. Such loyalists were not the "slow-learners" of Sunningdale.

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Such positive intervention remains hidden behind the fascination with those loyalists who do not create jobs, do little to build social justice, or promote a vision of inclusion.

Regressive elements within loyalism bask in the attention their constant begrudgery commands. They seek never-acquired self-esteem, while progressive-minded loyalists achieve it daily.

But why do we remain fascinated by regressive loyalists? Erratic loyalist behaviour comforts those who wish to condemn, ridicule and mock and provides a conflict-fix for those hooked on the past, who revel in violent machinations.

Some who publicly scorn loyalists secretly wish they would have "another go". Of course, loyalists who reject peace-building play to the gallery through cliched response. Sensing treachery at every turn, they constantly choose myopia over far-sightedness.

The optimistic and progressive of unionism are, to them, either a liberal elite or Lundies. They reject such people who care most about their future.

So, is loyalist violence to return? We must remember that, once Johnny Adair, the Loyalist Volunteer Force and Red Hand Defenders left the stage, loyalism generally shifted away from its own stale and repetitive violence.

Dissident republican violence against security force personnel would have once triggered loyalist reaction. Clever loyalists knew the folly of engaging in revenge.

More generally, the decline in loyalist violence happened, because peace-process loyalism deflected youth away from violent elements, challenged the rejection of peace-building and promoted an alternative form of community mobilisation. Those who maintained violence shifted it against other loyalists and the very communities they claim to protect.

Not too much of a stretch, then, to suggest that renewed violence due to Brexit would not be good for the malign trade that some have involved themselves in. It would bring too much heat and collar-feeling that would undermine that illicit trade.

Obviously, the sabre-rattlers "never went away, you know". For them, Ulster is constantly being betrayed; not this time by the high drama of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but by the backstop, a trading arrangement designed by the Government and senior civil servants to protect the Union.

The angry mob claim it was designed because of dissident threat and connivance with the Irish government - a peculiar (and illogical) thought process, given that the Irish government gain nothing from this arrangement.

The very government that gave up its territorial claim is much happier with Northern Ireland in the very place that it is - within the Union. Republicans know that, as do many loyalists and unionists.

The backstop prevents a hard border. The majority of unionists do not want a hard border. A hard border is bad for unionism. Anyone who is pro-Union and has a titter of wit knows that a hard border aids Irish unification.

Loyalists, in supporting the Belfast Agreement, understood that the future of Northern Ireland was linked to recognising and pragmatically endorsing the accommodation of nationalism and republicanism within the state. Negative loyalism rebuffs that.

Shrewder loyalists and unionists know that demography points in a certain direction. They comprehend how parity of esteem, mutual respect and an open border protects the Union. The brand of loyalism that constantly shouts and extols betrayal is out of sync with reasoned pro-Union thinking.

Of course, like all socially excluded people, they were betrayed by indifference, de-industrialisation, austerity, dupery, educational elitism and the erosion of worker and trade union rights.

Many of us have told them that this is the case, but they prefer the hamster wheel of denial, refusal and defiance.

The sabre-rattlers' anger knows no bounds. So much so that their anger undermines any explanation of the cause of their frustration and threatening behaviour.

A form of unionism that would rather eat grass than co-join with others for societal renewal, aiming, as they do, to influence through adopting blood-and-thunder tactics that stopped working decades ago; not realising that intransigence is a key ingredient in the recipe of Irish unity.

Threatening violence may well conjure up a few hangers-on, or even some harm-causing, but there will be no mass mobilisation and no manning of the barricades.

There are many reasons why violence is unlikely: here is one. In the past, loyalists were presented with roaring speeches and those who whispered encouragement in their ears. The message and the unfolding reality were clear.

Those who reacted sat in their prison cell, deprived of family life, while those who extolled the virtues of violence sat at home declaring, "You see those loyalists? They had nothing to do with me."

Dupery is a hard pill to swallow - and is a well-remembered experience.

  • Professor Peter Shirlow is director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool

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