'The chances of Brexit seeing a return to loyalist violence are slim... but dissident attacks on NI from the Republic could still put loyalists on a collision course with Dublin'
Ahead of Sunday’s 25th anniversary of the UDA/UVF/Red Hand Commando ceasefire, Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson ask why the organisations remain in existence and whether there is a future for them in another form
This Sunday — October 13, 2019 — marks the 25th anniversary of the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) ceasefire statement of 1994, with its often-quoted expression of “abject and true remorse” for “all innocent victims” of the conflict.
A less-quoted (but perhaps more important) part of the statement stressed: “Together we can bring forth a wholesome society, in which our children and their children will know the meaning of true peace.”
More important, because it emphasises the need for movement, a realisation that change is necessary and an acknowledgement that loyalists have a collective responsibility to push away from the structures of conflict if society is to achieve the peace and stability it so deserves.
Today, although there is little paramilitary activity compared to that exercised during the conflict, loyalist paramilitary organisations still exist, prompting anger and frustration across society almost in equal measure.
Further, a small number of individuals linked to paramilitary organisations continue to conduct criminality, coercion and even murder and it is their actions which define the image not just of the organisation they claim to represent, but loyalism itself.
What continues to fascinate the media and frustrate the public is that, some 20 years after the ceasefire statement, the three main paramilitary organisations have yet to formally announce they are standing down.
This impression is partly the fault of the organisations themselves and the inability to forcefully articulate a counter-view against the criminal stereotype that defines them.
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There are many positive actions and initiatives that have been not just supported, but driven by the leaderships of the Red Hand Commando, Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force, yet the value of this work is lost against a background of criminality.
The case cannot be convincingly made for the continuation of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland. But is it possible for a change in public and media attitude if those organisations continue in another form?
If the paramilitary name is jettisoned, but organisations continue to support transparently funded and carefully managed community programmes, would this be acceptable? Or is it the case that, whatever former combatants and paramilitary members do, they will be damned by association and, therefore, cannot be part of any transformation?
There are numerous examples of former combatants who now perform important services and roles within loyalist communities and there is a lot of action which, although not widely known, amounts to conflict prevention.
Recent comment about possible loyalist violence as a reaction to dissident activity and the polarising rhetoric of Brexit, although speculative, provokes further anxiety and loathing.
Realistically, the chance of this happening is slim. Leaderships of the three loyalist paramilitary organisations remain fully committed to the transformative path and there is no desire to see a return to conflict.
This would be self-defeating and destructive to badly needed change and will only set Northern Ireland back. All seem intent on working to prevent such an eventuality.
However, possible incursions into Northern Ireland from dissident republicans based in the Republic, bent on trying to assassinate police officers, or others, does risk bringing loyalists into dispute with Dublin.
Dissident activity in Northern Ireland shows no sign, as yet, of seeking to incite loyalist a response, focussed as it is mainly on discrediting the Sinn Fein peace project. Nevertheless, both the British and Irish governments should work harder to meet with loyalists to better understand possible and actual tensions and find ways to help neutralise both.
Sadly, it only takes the actions of one or two “stray” individuals to create very significant problems that could have incendiary effect. If the Executive was fully up-and-running and a multi-party consensus was reached on how to address such issues, it would at least show some responsibility to take the situation seriously.
A commitment by loyalist leaders to a process of transformation was articulated in the Loyalist Declaration of Transformation Statement (LDTS), released in April 2018. That statement was the first such collective position publicly made by the three loyalist paramilitary organisations since the 1994 ceasefire.
It was clear in its condemnation of criminality and strong in emphasis on the need to build a better society based on citizenship, education and diversity.
In its expression of wanting to “see a better future for all in Northern Ireland” and working with the “co-operation of others” to “ensure loyalist communities are at the centre of Northern Ireland’s peace and political transformation” the statement communicated the need for a new common good and respect for difference. There is some way to go, but it provides an ambitious and morally sound starting-point.
One of the real problems — not just for loyalism, but unionism, too — is the inability to look outside of the immediate environment. There is little attempt to engage with other parts of the Union — even though the Union is presented as the centre of unionist and loyalist identity.
And there is little effort to build external networks of influence internationally to help build transformation projects.
As suggested, the precarious nature of the political situation is a factor here. It is apparent that, for a number of loyalists, the advance of Sinn Fein is a problem, but so, too, ironically, is the party’s potential decline, since it is believed that this would create a space that dissident republicans would step into.
Whether this is true or not, the environment is one of constant anxiety, precariousness and instability. If this situation is to change, then it requires looking outside of the immediate world and creating dialogue and friendship with others as part of a process to arrest and then turn the fears that obstruct progress and keep the landscape unsteady.
If, as the LDTS says, there is a desire to build a better society in Northern Ireland for all, then it is crucial that others be encouraged to discuss with loyalists and unionists what a good society looks like. This, in turn, will build confidence and help create initiatives that bring people together, rather than keep them apart.
During the conflict, the question of national identity was the core rallying point, but in a “post-conflict” society identity must, surely, move towards recognising the value of diverse personal identity concerns that were previously submerged by the urgency of stating national allegiance.
And on this, loyalists and unionists should be more active, finding ways to embrace more nuanced and varied voices that reflect the broader landscape of the UK and, so, the Union itself.
Concerns relating to gender, the environment, employment opportunities and technology now dominate the imaginations of much of the younger generation. How can these worlds be discussed, traversed and shaped as part of a more diverse and so different Northern Ireland? And, more importantly, how can loyalists and unionists make this happen?
Part of the problem here is the need for accepting ways of doing things that are not rigid, certain and emphatic, but fluid, uncertain and creative.
Unionists and loyalists have never been very good at recognising the value of ambiguity, but they now need to do just that.
Ambiguity has tended to be seen as slippery and florid. But, in essence, it provides the space to hold a number of possible and competing interpretations together. It is the space of questions, rather than answers, and of challenging old ways by engaging with new possibilities.
Core positions are often statements of aspiration and intent, but offer no detail. They rely on space to be developed. Transformation needs this. It needs to start from the goal of a generally agreed position and then find clarity and grip as that position takes on discernible effect.
It is clear that many would prefer to see paramilitary organisations disappear. But since this is unlikely to happen, at least in the short term, what other alternatives might be on offer?
For substantive change, the three loyalist paramilitary organisations need to work collectively and deliver symbolic success for themselves and their communities to show that change brings benefits.
They also need to take control of the diversity debate, moulding it through a culture of learning and ideas, with an emphasis on post-conflict citizenship and identity.
Citizenship and identity are important pillars of society and education provides the means to engage with confidence and skill in relation to both. Development of these areas is the transformative route that loyalism must take if Northern Ireland is to continue to thrive.
If not, a new road is unlikely to emerge and the same accusations, condemnations and concerns about paramilitary organisations will still be doing the rounds in another 25 years.
** Dr Graham Spencer is Reader in Social and Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth. Rev Chris Hudson is minister of All Souls’ Church, Belfast.
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