When I finished writing Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity, I hoped it would begin a serious reappraisal of loyalism and move us away from what Graham Spencer calls, “the standard one-dimensional representation of loyalism that so dominates the media and popular imagination” as well as open the door for other researchers to walk through. I never anticipated that its release would coincide with the crisis that has developed in Northern Ireland over the flying of the British flag at City Hall nor have as much relevance to present day events on the ground in Northern Ireland. What is particularly relevant to this study of loyalism and today’s problems is the re-enactment of the all too familiar play that is Northern Ireland’s history.
In this play, the established Unionist parties warn about a real or perceived threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK from Republicanism/Nationalism and that it is necessary to prepare to defend Ulster and/or their British identity. The Protestant working class, a class that has benefited little from its relationship to Unionism and the old Unionist state, suffers from poverty, social deprivation, and alienation, then takes its actions to the street to fight for their flag and culture. Then once the “troubles” are over the politicians sort everything out and the working class goes back to its way of life with little to show for its loyalty. This occurred in the 1920s, 1930s, 1960s, and throughout the period of the “Troubles.”
In a subplot of these plays, we witness the emergence of a political leadership from within the working class, which while believing it is necessary to fight for Ulster, also believes that the working class needs its own political voice, a voice that focuses on social issues as well as the border. This voice is much more conciliatory and moderate in terms of relations with the nationalist population and in fact, calls for an inclusive society that is social democratic in nature. This occurred in the 1930s, the 1970s, the 1980s and in the present era. However, the forces of reaction coming from within unionism and in some cases loyalism itself usually drown out this voice blunting any progress for the Protestant working class and the working class as a whole in Northern Ireland. As David Adams argues,
there is always room for the voices that are opposed and are moving to the right, but there is very little room for the moderate voice, which tends to get stymied. If you are preaching a harder message, you will always find an audience and an acceptance.
In the present crisis in Northern Ireland, this play has begun once again, this time over the flying the flag at City Hall. In the prologue, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, who, for their own reasons, wanted to take the flag down permanently, accepted a compromise deal brokered by the Alliance Party, which allowed the Union Jack to fly on 17 designated days at Belfast City Hall.
In Act One, the DUP and the UUP, instead of accepting the vote in City Hall and working politically to overturn that decision, chose to print 40,000 leaflets targeting the Alliance Party, its members and its offices. Then, performing its part in this play, many within the Protestant working class, enraged by this decision, for over six weeks now have been on the streets to protest the City Councils’ decision and to defend the flag as part of their culture and identity. Appeals, from political leaders from within loyalism, in this case people such as Jackie McDonald and Billy Hutchinson, for people to work politically to overturn the decision, have largely been ignored. As Adams put it above, and as I found in my research, and as we see today, those who have thought little about politics, let alone progressive politics, have gotten the ear of the people, brought them onto the streets, and kept them there, while those with a political vision have been relatively sidelined.
Examples of this retrograde thinking have appeared in various social media, in particular on Facebook. One post called for the expulsion of the Irish from Ulster and another for a “new Troubles.” Other posts complain that the government does not listen to them and the police are not theirs anymore, going so far as to call the police the “PSNIRA.” Consequently, they argue that the demonstrations are necessary to force the government, “SF/IRA” and the other parties to negotiate over the flag with the “PUL people.” At the same time, the crowds and their leaders lack an awareness of the political and practical impact of their actions, as was clearly illustrated on 11 January when a crowd prevented an elderly man from visiting his terminally ill wife near Whiteabbey and a doctor from getting through to a patient.
If these comments and actions represent the thinking of those on the streets it begs the question of where the conscious and progressive political leadership is in these demonstrations and riots or will come from. If there is none, then who will represent the PUL if/when there are talks and negotiations? Will it be the DUP and the UUP again in the guise of the Unionist forum? Will it be those on the streets or writing the posts cited above? Where is a political programme or plan of action that goes beyond returning the flag or reinforcing their identity once the demonstrations are over? Without positive answers to these questions the Protestant working class will most likely find itself, once again, gaining little if anything because it has rejected or ignored the progressive political leadership emerging from its own community. (Note: There is evidence that this tide may be turning now and people are looking to act in a political manner, but it is too early to tell.)
In the second act, Unionism then steps back and proceeds to criticize those who, with its encouragement had converged on Alliance offices, threatened the Alliance members, and taken over the streets of Northern Ireland to get the flag back. They then attempt to take back control of the situation from those on the street.
In the final act, as illustrated above, the Protestant working class having no political programme or progressive political leadership, no clear idea of itself, and what it really hopes to gain, other than returning the flag and stopping Sinn Fein, finds itself in the same position as it was before the crisis.
So, if the script runs true to form, what we are witnessing once more is the play in which the Protestant working class comes on to the streets, in this case, to get the parties to negotiate the return of the flag. And if by chance, the protests lead to serious talks the politicians will take over once more and the Protestant working class will return to a life where the really important issues of political, economic, and social marginalization, along with educational underachievement and social deprivation will continue to exist and may even be worse.
Even more damaging to the working class is the fact, just as my research has shown, is that unless something within the community itself changes dramatically, it will remain without a coherent and forward thinking political leadership and will be at the mercy of those who, as one of my interviewees said, “do not have our best interests at heart.” Consequently, if the Protestant working class does not begin to engage constructively with politics and more importantly with its progressive political leadership, then it will once more find itself adrift and returning to, as Gusty Spence put it in his 12 July 1975 speech in Long Kesh, the “domestic serfdom” that it had endured for fifty years.
Tony Novosel is a senior lecturer in History at the University of Pittsburgh. He is involved in ‘common history’ projects in Belfast. He is the author of Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism (Pluto, 2013).
The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism
Unique in-depth investigation into working-class Loyalism in Northern Ireland as represented by the UVF and RHC and their political allies.
“A significant contribution. Novosel exposes the limitation of commonly held views that loyalism was apolitical and merely sectarian.” – Professor Peter Shirlow, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast
“Novosel’s study of the UVF and its attempts to develop a politicised loyalism challenges the standard one-dimensional representation of loyalism that so dominates the media and popular imagination.” – Graham Spencer, author of The State of Loyalism in Northern Ireland