Irish and Loyalist

Loyal Irishman

In my first post in this series – looking at what it is to be Irish (as an adjoint to my blog ‘The New Irishman’) – I sought to show that Ian Paisley was 100% Irish. Ian Paisley’s Irishness was stated unequivocally by the man himself; and third party observers have testified to his quintessential Irishness.

In my second post I sought to show that the protestant in Ireland has historically, and in Northern Ireland presently, been considered as illegitimate and as an inauthentic outsider – “imperialistic blood-suckers” as southern Protestant Hubert Butler put it. This sense of being improperly Irish, the latent expectation that Protestants should recant for historical wrongs, and the republican expectancy that they come to their senses and see Britain for the unspeakably hideous entity that it is, has accompanied me for as long as I can remember. The position for many remains – Catholic and nationalist is Erin and virtue, Protestant is Saxon and guilt. However history is not and cannot be as simple as that. I’ve started to ask: if we can have great length to Irish history (800 years), why can we not have great width to Irish history (the whole European theatre, where man slaughtered then took reprisal, oppressed then counter-oppressed)? In Europe we can invert the Catholic-Protestant formulation – So often Catholicism been oppresion and guilt, while Protestantism has been suffering and virtue. Repeatedly the Pope has apologised to Protestants here in January 2016 and here in June 2015.

As well as being improperly Irish and expected to recant, there seems to be a belief that Unionist’s are English. Except this couldn’t be more absurd, as I wanted to demonstrate in my third post. Try to tell a loyalist that he is English, and he will punch you. In fact, loyalists and unionists can despise the Englishman as much, if not more, than any Green Book republican – Unionism’s anglophobia as I call it. Englishmen such as Churchill and Welshman Lloyd George wanted all-Ireland Home Rule, but loyal Ulstermen and Irishmen implacably opposed any such settlement. Yet Irish republicans say that all blame and responsibility lies with England. I’m not saying England hasn’t been troublesome and meddling; but the fight for republicans is not with England but with fellow Irishmen who happen (entirely legitimately) to hold allegiance to the Crown and not to the Republic of Easter Week.

In this fourth post I simply want to show that loyalism and Irishness is not a contradiction, but entirely compatible. Many leading loyalists have self-described as Irish. Gusty Spence said:

“It’s sad today whenever you see a kind of an anti-Irishness. I suppose maybe it’s understandable because of the Provisionals campaign. Whatever little bit of Irishness people felt or some people felt – I feel greatly Irish – it was kind of driven out of them by these people who purported to be absolute Irish, and dogmatic, by bombing and shooting them.”

David Ervine said he was “profoundly both British and Irish”:

“The first time I ever went to the United States, someone in the audience in the dialogue we were having thought it was ludicrous that I could be British and Irish. Then we asked how many in this room are Irish American and 95% of the people in the room put their hands up. So it is OK to live 3000 miles apart and be Irish American and but is not alright to be British Irish. There is no purity these days. We are long past the concept that we are a purity of the Scots or the English or the Welsh or the Irish, rather we are an amalgam of many things. I am profoundly both British and Irish and those who have to deal with me have to take me on those terms. Why should I be ashamed of that? Why should there be some sense of me being less of a human being because I advocate a political process that can incorporate all aspects of my life?”

Linda Ervine explained to William Crawley on the BBC programme It’s a Blas (which followed William’s journey to learn Irish) how she viewed Irish identity and the language. She said:

“I feel I’m British, but I’m Irish. I feel that as Protestants from Northern Ireland we are the other Irish. We are the ignored, forgotten Irish that have been over looked. Because when people think of Irish identity they think of catholic, they think of nationalist and they think of republican. And that’s not who I am. That’s not my identity. So I think that is why people from my community have rejected that idea of an Irish identity and what goes along with that – Irish dancing, Irish language. So for them that is something that is alien to them. Yet for me I see actually now that that identity is mine as well.”

The well known loyalist and Protestant from Northern Ireland Billy Mitchell explained in an interview how he held himself as Irish and further regarded being Irish and British as wholly compatible. He said:

“Identity transcends the boxes, you know? For instance in cultural stuff I was brought up in an era where Irish culture had absolutely no problems for me – I would regard myself in that respect as an Irish unionist. I’ve no problems with Irish culture; I’ve problems with the provisionalisation of it. I have some affinity with spoken Ulster Scots but I have very little time for the politicisation of it. We grew up with the hamely tongue or the language of the hearth – it was bate out of us at school. My musical taste…I have no problem with Irish music whether its ‘diddly-dee’ music or traditional Scottish music. Basically if you’re talking about culture, my culture in music is blues! Blues, and strangely enough classics – the like of Katherine Jenkins. I have a problem with people talking about your cultural identity…I have problems with people trying to piegeonhole me; because I’m as comfortable playing the bodhran…as I am playing ‘The Sash’.”

When Billy Mitchell talks about an “an era where Irish culture had absolutely no problems for me” I think he is referring to the pre-Provisional IRA era when Irishness wasn’t associated with the armalite and “Brits Out”. I showed here that IRA violence wiped out Protestant self-identification as Irish, and here that violence strengthened partition.

William Ennis, PUP activist and apostle of David Ervine, explained his Irishness in 2016:

“Having grown up in an environment which led me to recoil in discomfort from anything of Irish flavour or association the comfort I now feel with the Irish strand of my identity is something I have gained with age. It’s clearly not a Sinn Fein kind of Irish, not an ourselves alone kind of ultra nationalist Irish; but it is a welcome splash of colour which I find in no way inconsistent with my Unionism or my Loyalism, for my Irishness is not politically charged. Why shouldn’t Ireland have its representation, Northern Ireland, in the United Kingdom? As Ervine once exclaimed, “Why can’t I be an Irish citizen of the UK?” So why give in to a certain strand of nationalism and surrender the Irish identity to those who oppose Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK? They don’t own it. My Irishness is not the same as that of Gerry Adams, but who is to say that his is the true type? Who is to say there is a true type? So I prefer W. B. Yeats to Roger Casement, I’m more Tony Novosell than Tim Pat Coogan, more William Mitchell than Bobby Sands, more Siege of Derry than Easter Rising – my Ireland has room for all of the above, and this is true while Northern Ireland remains in union with our brothers and sisters (often literally) in England , Scotland and Wales.”

Sam McAughtry, born and raised in loyalist Tiger’s Bay in Belfast, said:

“[I’m] a hybrid unionist… happy to live in the United Kingdom but I am happier still to be Irish and to proclaim my Irishness.”

He also said on February 28 1996 in the Irish Senate after being welcomed as a rare northern Protestant representative:

“As I stated on the day of my election, it is my dearest wish to see this island inhabited by five million Irish people, living in two jurisdictions with consent, but with institutions established to emphasise their Irishness.”

Billy Hutchinson of the PUP said in 1997:

“I feel that we shouldn’t exclude things that are Irish because they are Irish, and I think that is what we tend to do.”

In 1995 a group of Protestants including loyalists issued a statement, ‘A New Beginning’, saying:

“We challenge loyalists and republicans to acknowledge that over the centuries each community has imbued many of the other’s attributes, to the extent that the heritage of both traditions has increasingly become a shared one. We challenge loyalists to acknowledge the “Irish” component of their heritage, and nationalists to acknowledge the “British” component of theirs.”

loyal Irish

Yet, the simple observation from the Simpsons below is perhaps more powerful than the words of all those loyalists above combined. We can fight about who the True Irishman is and who the infidels are, but to the outsider we’re all Paddies – even the Red White and Blue Irishman!

Brian is a writer, artist, political cartoonist and legal blogger.

Actively tweeting from @brianjohnspencr. More information here:

  • Dassa

    Really enjoyable read. I have recently warmed a lot to my sense of Irishness. The problem has been that in Northern Ireland SF want you to be Irish, but their type of Irishness only and The DUP want you to be British but only their type of Britishness only. There needs to be a realisation that its not that simple.

  • Zig70

    Poor Sam, mixed in with these lot.

  • Gingray

    Was Lloyd George not Welsh?

  • murdockp

    the Anglo Irish of the Republic have a great life and kept thier rights and freedoms.

    there is everything to gain and nothing to fear.

    I would moot that the burning of the Irish flag on bonfires suggests Irish affinity does not extend to the wider loyalist community.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Is this evidence that the never-ending existentialist crisis is finally coming to an end? I sincerely hope so.

  • Jollyraj

    I think Sinn Fein have for decades tried to manufacture an ‘existentialist crisis’ of identity. Having failed to achieve that, it’s all hands to the Republican pump of proclaiming that there is one. And that hasn’t worked either. What next, one wonders.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Weren’t many unionists involved in their search for an identity about 20 years ago? I remember some friends of mine were invited to various symposia up the Shankill at the time. Here’s one publication of the period:

  • Muskerry

    Here in the republic, the Irish identity is undergoing profound change. My kids are in schools with kids whose parents come from Poland, Lithuania, France, Italy, Nigeria, Jordan, Brazil and the Philippines – to name many. And we don’t live in a city.

    So the old narrow white Catholic Irish identity is being well stretched to reflect the new reality. Identity is not static, nor should it be. It moves and changes – how many signatories of the Ulster Covenant in 1912 were descendants of United Irishmen?

    The Irish identity is there for anyone that wants it. As is the language. And if you can be Nigerian-Irish or Philippine-Irish, can you not be British-Irish or Irish-British?

  • SDLP supporter

    BJS, some of your recent posts have been really thought-provoking to a democratic Irish social democrat like myself, and I hope to comment soon.

  • John Collins

    ‘Poor Sam’
    Poor Sam once said when his father met a stranger in the pub and they had a few drinks together, the stranger and his dad were friends after one drink and, more alarmingly, friends for life after two.

  • patrick23

    I guess it wasn’t the intention of the piece, but in quoting liberally from loyalists, I still feel no more enlightened as to “Britishness”, beyond the mentioned Scottish dancing

  • Alan N/Ards

    “I would moot that the burning of the Irish flag on bonfires suggests Irish affinity does not extend to the wider loyalist community.”

    Unfortunately, you are right about the burning of the Tricolour on bonfires and It’s not something that I condone. They really need to wise up. Maybe, the way the football fans from this island are getting on in France will help to change things. Who knows. BTW, have you ever seen any Bodhran’s, shillelaghs, Irish rugby shirts and flags, celtic crosses ( there is one on the NI football shirt) going up in smoke on bonfires?

    Personally, I know at least a dozen unionists who play the Bodhran. I know many who wear the Irish rugby jersey with pride and sing Irelands Call with gusto. But I have to admit that I don’t know any who would say that the Tricolour is their flag.

    When you say the Irish flag, do you believe that this flag is the legitimate flag of this island and no other flag can be used to represent Irishness? Many people (on this island) see the Cross of St. Patrick as their all Ireland flag (and I count myself in that group) and maybe rather than rejecting all things Irish, the flag burners are just rejecting Irish republicanism.

    Yes, I know things have moved on but some people can’t let go of the past. I know the union flag (which includes the Cross of St. Patrick) and the NI flag ( which NI fans use) still go up in smoke at certain times of the year in republican areas in NI. In fact, I can remember a Union flag burning at last St. Patrick’s parade in Belfast city centre.

    Maybe, there will be a day when unionists can find find a place in an Ireland that gives equality to their way of being Irish. If you believe that the republican Tricolour is the only flag that can represent what it means to be Irish, then there will never be a place for unionists in the Irish nation?

    Do you believe that by rejecting the Tricolour unionists are rejecting their Irishness? If you do, would you define Irishness for me?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    There are a few books I’d recommend, Patrick, for deepening your understanding:
    – Laughlin’s “Ulster Unionism and British National Identity Since 1885” – academic and historical but still traces the development of British identity in some detail. For an alternative view, see Prof Alvin Jackson’s work; Jackson may be the better all-round historian but I think Laughlin has it on this particular topic.
    – For something shorter, more personal and more de nos jours, psychologist Geoffrey Beattie’s “We Are The People” is a great read and gives an intelligent insider’s view of British identity in Ulster from a working class (or in his case former working class) perspective.
    – Dr Steve Bruce’s “The Edge of the Union” is also good
    – Dr Kirk Simpson’s “Unionist Voices” is a great at showcasing ordinary British people in NI in their own words talking about the Troubles. Fascinating even if, or perhaps especially if, you’re not from that background.
    – Anything really by historians Professors Paul Bew and Henry Patterson – both get it and are able to articulate it brilliantly.
    Happy reading!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    the crisis of identity stuff is such nonsense. Identity is complicated – everyone’s – end of. British people in NI no more than anyone else.

  • Anglo-Irish

    You are of course fully aware that the tricolour was an attempt by republicans to honour the shared cultures on the island, and that the green and orange with white for peace between them was an inclusive gesture?

    That show of friendship was not only ignored but was used as a provocative insult by the burning of the flag.

    It seems to me that unionists despite being in the minority on the island have a rather inflated sense of their entitlement.

    Maybe you can prove me wrong and show me a commensurate gesture from the PUL community toward their CN neighbours?

    Genuine question and I would be delighted if you can as it would show some measure of coming together in friendship.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Identity is personal and many people never face such a crisis simply because they don’t need to: they are sure within themselves even in the elasticity of their identity. Speaking theoretically: If we subsume our individual identities into any form of collective identity we are sacrificing much about ourselves not least independent thought. This problem of self labelling bedevils us in Northern Ireland to varying degrees. On top of that we have the insertion of much myth and mistruth into our collective identities and many Northern Irish incorporate these myths into their sense of identity. A crisis of identity is only avoidable if the myths remain unchallenged. Unfortunately it is ‘the enemy’ (including ‘Lundies’ & ‘West Brits’) that is perceived as challenging the myths and then the collective identity too which only results in an endless and unnecessary circling of the wagons. Most people who self identify as British use that adjective but rarely refer to themselves as Britons. Many Northern Irish identify themselves as Unionists or Nationalists along with a variety of other nouns but we don’t use adjectives so much. This self labelling indicates an inflexibility that doesn’t protect against stronger external influences and challenges.

  • patrick23

    Thanks. I’ll definitely go check some out

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “If we subsume our individual identities into any form of collective identity we are sacrificing much about ourselves not least independent thought.”
    Some people don’t believe in having collective identities at all – do you fall into that camp? Are there any group identities you’d see as less problematic?

  • Alan N/Ards

    I have said it before that I believe that the green, white and orange flag would have been the ideal flag for any agreed Ireland. It such a shame that it has been tarnished by republican extremists. If an agreed Ireland does come about they should remove the white and just use the green and orange. It’s no longer the hated and tarnished Tricolour and I see the white as acting like a barrier, keeping warring factions apart.

    As far as unionism’s “inflated sense of entitlement” goes – well we have to live here (unlike you) and we don’t expect to be given anything on a plate ( by republicans) so we will have to defend our own corner. So if an agreed Ireland is to work unionists will make sure that their voice is heard. The same goes for Northern Ireland. Unionists need to be accepting and generous for it to work properly.

    Yes, I accept that it was a genuine gesture by genuine republicans. The problem for many ( if not all) of the unionist population was articles two and three of the Irish Constitution. Any show of friendship (regarding the flag) was nullified by Articles Two and Three.

    “Maybe you can prove me wrong and show me a commensurate gesture from the PUL community toward their CN neighbours?

    Genuine question and I would be delighted if you can as it would show some measure of coming together in friendship.”

    I’ve had to think long and hard about that one. Lol! I suppose until the GFA political unionism gave nothing away. It was as if it was a weakness to be generous to your neighbours, and as someone who is pro union that is pretty shameful.

  • Anglo-Irish

    To be honest I’ve never been too impressed with the tricolour as a flag, it’s too easy to confuse with the Italian flag when it’s been left out in the sun too long!

    As someone who’s background is England and the ROI I tend not to be as obsessed by flags and symbols as the inhabitants of NI appear to be.

    Having said which a flag should be distinctive, and a better one for Ireland would be a gold O’Neill harp on a blue background as currently used by the president.

    As you say the gesture was well intended but has been rendered redundant as a flag for the whole island by it’s appropriation by one side and it’s ritual burning by the other.

    The impression that I get as an observer is that most of the gestures of friendship have been offered by the nationalist side and rejected by the unionist side.

    Unionists have even tended to view changes which have been made purely for equality reasons as being concessions.

    At some point rapprochement is going to have to become a two way street for the sake of future relations.

    I can understand to a point a certain amount of siege mentality from the unionist side but we are no longer living in the 18th century and there is little to fear in a shared future.

  • Alan N/Ards

    “I can understand to a point a certain amount of siege mentality from the unionist side but we are no longer living in the 18th century and there is little to fear in a shared future.”

    The words “shared future” are the important part of this paragraph. If people are convinced that this is what’s meant by a UI/ agreed Ireland and nothing will imposed on them, then you never know what could happen. But, it will not happen overnight.

  • Anglo-Irish

    No it won’t, 30 years is my guess unless ‘events’ change things, and a Brexit might.

    But a shared future is what it’s all about, there are extremists on both sides that have been allowed to have far too much influence on events to everyone’s loss.

    I believe that most people on both sides are reasonable and want the best for their children’s future.

    A United Ireland is the future and is inevitable, but the history of these islands means that the connection between Ireland and Great Britain will always exist. That connection will always be positive and supportive, there are too many interconnections between the two for it to be anything other.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “Having said which a flag should be distinctive, and a better one for Ireland would be a gold O’Neill harp on a blue background as currently used by the president.”
    Exactly, a more Irish symbol than a harp is hard to come by (well, maybe a shamrock, but a harp is prettier imho…)

  • Alan N/Ards

    I really believe that the words United Ireland are the wrong words to use when describing how things on this island might pan out. Whenever unionists hear the those words they simply see it as another way of saying Dublin rule and reminds them of the Provo campaign to try and bring it about. New terminology is needed by republicans if they want to allay the fears of many from the unionist camp. Just a thought.

  • Anglo-Irish

    You remember my point about the sense of entitlement that unionists appear to have, and the one way rejected gestures of friendship?

    You now want to alter the semantics of the situation in order to make unionists feel comfortable?

    Point being of course that once the country is reunited the term United Ireland becomes redundant, the country will simply return to being referred to as Ireland.

    As for Dublin rule, as a Sheffielder I’m not overly enamoured with London rule, but as a pragmatist I accept the fact that that’s the way the world tends to operate, the capitol gets special treatment.

    In fact in Ireland’s case I think it would be a good idea to have regional local government with certain limited powers based on the four provinces.

    Belfast, Galway, Ennis and Killkenny could be the locations. Obviously, in Munster those langers from Cork are going to raise some petty objection but sod em! : )

    Dublin will still be the capitol as it has been for centuries, bunch of jackeens.

    As the voting system is PR+STV the interests of unionists are fully protected as they will have precisely the amount of representation that their numbers require.

    That’s democracy in action and no one should be demanding more than fairness, should they?

    Although talking of semantics, the term Unionist will also become redundant at that stage and a new term will be required, any thoughts?

  • Alan N/Ards

    “Although talking of semantics, the term Unionist will also become redundant at that stage and a new term will be required, any thoughts?”

    It’s more than likely that unionists will just call themselves unionists.

    Unionists could of course call themselves the British Citizens Party, The Royalist Party, Northern Irish Independence Party or the Orange Party ( the list is endless) but I would think that we will stick with Northern Irish Unionists. At the end of the day, we can use what ever name we like. But, that’s a long way away and we will probably not be around to find out.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Well I certainly won’t be around as I believe it will take at least another 30 years to happen unless we vote Leave today in which case all bets are off and it will all depend upon what happens over the next few years.

    As for the name, whilst I fully appreciate that unionists have a long and well established habit of describing their institutions and place of residence by totally inaccurate names I do think continuing with the use of unionist once it’s no longer applicable is a step too far.

    Whilst I can see the reasons for the previous misnaming – at least to a point – I mean ‘ The Royal Two Thirds of Ulster Police ‘ and ‘ North East Ireland’ whilst being accurate don’t have quite the same ring to them do they?

    Once the union with Britain no longer applies continuing to refer to a party as unionist is a bit ridiculous don’t you think?

    Having said which, a party representing the interest of those Irish people who come from the Protestant tradition will be required

    They will also have a not insignificant input into the running of the country.

    I like team games and all great teams have balance, someone has to provide the spark of ingenuity and others have to do the graft.

    A team composed of grafters is boring and uninspired, a team consisting of star players will run riot some days and get mullered on other days.

    I genuinely believe that a government consisting of both Irish cultures will be excellent.

    There is no way to prove it, but my theory is that had the Ulster planter Irish been in charge of the Irish economy there never would have been a ‘Celtic Tiger’, not enough entrepreneurial spirit.

    BUT, if the planters had been in a position to have influence upon the situation there wouldn’t have been the total balls up crash that followed.

    Only a theory ( and the English went down the same self destruction road ) but whilst I think that the Presbyterian outlook on life doesn’t seem like a barrel of laughs sometimes a Jeremiah in the corner is needed to rein in the more inane flights of fancy.

    I honestly believe that if the old differences can be reconciled there is a prosperous future for Ireland as a country.