Words deployed in new phase of war…

THE launch of the ‘Love Ulster’ unionist campaign against a United Ireland yesterday was steeped in symbolism. Echoing the arrival of the Clyde Valley arms shipment for the UVF at Larne in 1914, Shankill Mirror newspapers were unloaded from a boat at the port yesterday. The aim was – I think – to illustrate that the unionist side of the argument against republicanism was capable of being made through democratic means. Wullie Wilkinson’s statement that one of the aims of ‘Love Ulster’ is to counter republican propaganda would seem to back this. However, the use of loyalist terrorists to distribute the paper throughout NI was disconcerting for many unionists and others. And since when did the UDA give a damn about a free press?!The News Letter reported John McVicar of the Shankill Mirror, one of the chief organisers, saying that the paramilitaries could not be ignored. “The reality is that loyalist paramilitaries are part of the Protestant community,” he stressed.

“They along with a lot of other people were part of the conflict we have been involved in and they need to be part of the resolution. We have come out of 35 years of violence, things aren’t going to change overnight and we need to influence everyone in our community positively and that includes loyalist paramilitaries.”

Great. Now we have another loyalist Gerry Adams.

Of course, it’s better that loyalists unloaded a paper cargo and not a metal one, but frankly, no-one would believe any paramilitary who said this was indicative of the direction loyalism is heading in. Evidence on the ground tends to suggest the exact opposite. There is no question of UVF or UDA decommissioning at present, even when both present a much greater threat to both unionists and nationalists than any republican grouping at this time.

By heaving bundles of newspapers off a Larne boat, UDA leader Jackie McDonald was perhaps attempting to demonstrate to loyalists that there was now an alternative means of pursuing their political ambitions, other than through violence. Whether loyalist paramilitaries actually have any political pretensions these days is another matter – hard, honest work may not appeal very much to someone dealing drugs or living easily on extorted money, ostensibly in the name of Ulster.

The ultimate irony is, of course, that McDonald’s UDA is currently going around newsagents’ shops every Sunday morning stealing and burning copies of the Sunday World tabloid paper, which lambasts and lampoons loyalist terrorism. So much for supporting a free press Jackie – the campaign should end now if you don’t want to look like a completely hypocritical chancer of the first order.

Nevertheless, the campaign’s deep symbolism seems to amount to an attempt to shift the conflict onto a different level. In a sense, this is simply following the example of the republican movement, which moved the theatre of conflict to other arenas, such as culture, through opposition to Orange marches, for example, or the establishment of Daily Ireland as a means to disseminate republican ideas to a wider audience.

Some of the symbolism used in the ‘Love Ulster’ campaign propaganda is more knowing and historically conscious than most current unionist/loyalist cultural representations, which veers between the arcane quasi-Masonic symbolism of the loyal orders at one end, and the brutal glorification of loyalist violence in murals at the other.

For example, the professionally designed ‘Love Ulster’ poster entitled ‘Evil happens when good people do nothing’ takes its cue from Edmund Burke, a conservative Anglo-Irish philosopher.

It is certainly a more modern, imaginative and subtle effort at propaganda than yesterday’s Shankill Mirror front page – ‘Ulster at crisis point’ – which is such a tired old expression that it has become a worn-out cliche. What surprise lies in store for us next week: ‘Ulster at the brink’?

The poster also appropriates Martin Niemoeller’s poem:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist – so I said nothing. Then they came for the Social Democrats, but I was not a Social Democrat – so I did nothing. Then they came for the trade unionists, but I was not a trade unionist. And then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew – so I did little. Then when they came for me, there was no one left who could stand up for me.

However, this time the ‘victims’ are the B-Specials, the UDR, the RUC and now the RIR. Helpfully, unionists aren’t asked whether they did anything when ‘they’ came for others, reinforcing the notion that the State acted solely in defence or was reactive to others’ violence. Happily, Niemoeller was a Lutheran and unionists tend to sympathise with Israel in the Middle-East conflict (whereas republicans show solidarity with the Palestinian cause). Remember all the Israeli and Palestinian flags that popped up in Belfast a few years ago?

(Unionist icon Carson also appears on the poster, extending a red hand in an angry ‘stop’ gesture, adding historical authority to the international solidarity. The pose is adapted from his statue outside Stormont’s Parliament Buildings, with the original gesture being an upturned hand.)

Claiming these culturally iconographic words and appropriating them for the unionist cause, while simultaneously seeking international common cause is perhaps an unexpected move from a unionism that long seemed only capable of being inward-looking. Although there has long been an underlying sympathy and fascination with Israel within Ulster Protestantism, ‘Love Ulster’ looks like it is extending that remit.

The news that unionists are off to Colombia to bring back civilian victims of FARC activity is perhaps another indicator that unionism’s real international objective is to cultivate new support in America. Unionists are big fans of George Dubya and his foreign policy, and perhaps see the potential of mining as much ‘anti-terror’, pro-Israel sentiment in the States as they can while he’s in charge.

Well if it worked for republicans when Clinton was in power, it must be worth a bash, eh?