Loyalist identity: reading the runes

Pete linked to this excellent essay on loyalism and Unionist identity yesterday at Open Democracy. I thought it might worth re-visiting in a series of posts. Professor Stephen Howe’s starting point is the Loyalist rioting in Belfast and elsewhere during the summer which contains, he believes, some indications as to where things may be headed in future:

Much media and political comment has “explained” the profundity and rootedness of this feeling in terms of bigotry and criminality, of archaism and atavism. Defensive Unionist politicians speak in terms of Protestant disillusion, even desperation, at a peace process which they think has invariably favoured Catholics. None of those labels is entirely wrong – yet what lies behind the events of recent days goes much deeper. It engages the whole nature of Britishness in Ireland and beyond, and the very ideas of identity and community, modernity and tradition most of us use so routinely. And as I’ll try to show, the songs Loyalists sing, the pictures they paint, even the tattoos and t-shirts they wear, tell us a lot about what’s going on and what might happen next.

Next: reflecting a modern condition

A slightly inhuman presence that bans bad comments and works late at night to remove the wrinkles in Slugger’s technical carpet. You will need to know about the comments policy to stay off the fightin’ side of me and there is a bit of background about me here. You can email me using this spam-proof link if you really need to, and Slugger is @sluggerotoole on Twitter. But above all, remember, Play the ball and not the man.

22 thoughts on “Loyalist identity: reading the runes

  1. “Kill ’em all. Let God sort them out”, actually derived from a medieval Catholic bishop’s words about proto-Protestant heretics in southern France. Obviously, Adair and his fellow gunmen must be unaware of this.

    Why? I would have thought he’d enjoy the irony (and perhaps, as he might see it, the justification). They’ve a dark humour those Orangies.

  2. I thought the phrase was originally attributed to one of the Pope Urbans during one of the crusades where he advised that something along the lines that it was alright to kill everybody on a righteous crusade as God will know his own.

  3. I have to agree with Jaffa here.

    Ever since the rioting we have had every psudo-insert as applicable- coming on to the Media trying to explain why this happened as well as Loyalist/Unionist politicians trotting out the “themuns” excuse.

    I read the article yesterday and though some of it may be applicible a load of it was the usual Malone Road/Islington chattering classes nonsence.

  4. “Kill ’em all. Let God sort them out”
    I don’t want to indulge in histotical oneupmanship but the quote is inaccurate.It refers to the time when the Crusaders first seized Jerusalem.The muslims were being lined up for slaughter when it was reported back to the Pope that a certain number of the Arab population of Jerusalem was Christian presenting a dilemma for the slaughterers-to-be.It was then that the Pope gave his infamous advice.

  5. “Kill ’em all. Let God sort them out

    I don’t want to indulge in histotical oneupmanship “

    Neither do I, but.. it’s a popular phrase slogan printed on T-shirts in America, apparently originating with the US Green Berets.

    I think that’s a much more likely source for Johnny.

  6. “Did anybody actually read the essay ?”

    Yes, I did. I came away with a post-apocalyptic vision of the smoking ruins of formerly proud working class protestant citadels ruled over by bizarre Mad Max characters.

  7. I think this essay probably demonstrates the limitations of blogging as a means of engaging in any kind of serious analysis.

    Although it’s written in a reasonably accessible style (well -as far as these po-mo things are concerned) it’s still a very long article, has a large number of quite complex arguments and covers a hell of a lot of (interesting) ground.

    No wonder it only received about seven or eight comments initially (and the same again today).


    Because most of us are sitting in work, browsing the web when we have a boring minute or two to kill and are not willing to put in the serious effort to appraise such a beastie.

    Much easier to focus on little details like “Kill ’em all. Let God sort them out” than try and digest the whole thing.

  8. Nestor, agreed. That’s why I’m hoping to break it down into smaller pieces. It might help people digest it.

  9. As a unionist/loyalist I found this comment both disturbing and patrionising having grown up in a predominatley unionist town for all of my life and many many of my freinds and relations being this so called uneducated underclass to sit in a house or a park, bar or even church is to understand the deep hurt anger and betrayal the unionist people feel that this so called peace process has put us through

    ex PUP supporter

  10. As I’ve inferred many times before on Slugger, there has been a paradoxical twin-track approach of politicizing republicanism and their mainstream mouthpieces, the Sinn Fein/IRA rafia, but criminalizing loyalism and seeking to illegitimize their ideals and aspirations.

    This is not acceptable. People of the Protestant faith who are ideologically Loyalist are NOT bigots, and should not be treated as second-class citizens of the United Kingdom.

    P.S. Maxi, I’m a U.P.R.G. supporter. Why are you disillusioned with the PUP? Is it because of their waning support and influence within the UVF or because of their support for the deeply flawed Agreement?

  11. In fact “kill them all let god etc” was said in 1209 by the Abbot of Citeaux in Beziers during the Albigensian crusades against the (protoprotestant??) Cathars when he was asked how to distinguish between Catholic and Cathar – however the Catholic Encyclopedia denies the phrase was ever used

  12. Although I think a lot of this article is tosh it’s made me rethink some stuff.

    I’ve been wondering out loud a bit about the potential to reconcile loyalist and nationalist identity with a “back to the future” approach.

    I had a little fantasy that unionists might, in re-exploring a Scottish identity find a way to reconcile their sense of self with that of their nationalist not quite neighbours.

    I asked a few questions on Slugger;

    Might the traditional classification of Irish as a language distinct from Scots Gaelic be usefuly reconsidered; perhaps in the light of the work being done to link Scots and Irish identity in An Leabhar Mor (the Great Book of Gaelic exhibition running in the Ulster Museum at the moment)? The Book of Kells was, some say, written in Iona after all.

    Would a more generous approach to Ulster Scots help give loyalism a more constructive dense of self than being british and not a taig?

    Would a mental map of Scotland and Ireland as regions of the same culture, most tightly woven between the Bann and the North Channel help?

    This article reminds me that this is all a lot of liberal wistfulness. At least as far as hardened loyalism goes I need to catch myself on.

    I was born on, and work on, the lower Newtownards Road. I should know better. The Saltire flies over the Con Club, the loyalists support Rangers and insist on Ulster Scots funding but these people don’t really give a fig about their Scottish roots. They just want to feel strong, scary and different.

    If they didn’t have loyalism they’d be happy with naked gangsterism.

    That said I still think the essay is a candidate for pseuds corner (me first!). IMHO Johnny Adair named his dog Rebel after the one in Champion the Wonder Horse – although he probably thinks the Fenian connection is quite funny.

  13. I read the entire piece (whew!) and as a Texan I feel a certain affinity (isn’t the right word), maybe a kinship with the Ulster Irish, and understand the loyalist angst. Everyone thinks you’re a backward boob. The tee shirt quoted that says “Everybody hates us-and we don’t give a fuck.” I don’t condone it, but I understand it. In the post-modern, metro-sexual world, loyalists and Texans feel like it’s a black tuxedo world, and we’re the pair of brown shoes!

    However, we here started to understand this a few years ago. The loyalists in question, if the article is true and balanced, are trying to fight modernity ect with marching bands about the Somme. No gonna work.

    We here, as they are there, are fiercely proud of heritage, hyper-patriotic, working class and as a culture under-educated. Violence is endemic. You’re either with us, or against us. (I loved that line in the speech.)

    Some loyalists, seem to have all this as their raison d’etre.
    They have to try to move their culture forward, get educated, bring the ecomomy up. Like the piece said, they’re stuck in a time warp between the Celtic Tiger and Cool Britannia, loyal to a system that has changed and couldn’t give a rat’s fart about them.

  14. CL –

    but criminalizing loyalism and seeking to illegitimize their ideals and aspirations.

    Are you suggesting that loyalism, no more than republicanism, isn’t financed by orgaised crime? Frankly no one believes this.

    I would have assumed that maintenance of the union was the main ideal and aspiration of Loyalism. Whatever the problems surrounding the implementation of the agreement (and Loyalism has been one of many serious impediments to progress) it has managed to copperfasten the principle of consent being required to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. And how does the malaise in loyalism and unionism in general strengthen the union from a British perspective? Honestly, hand on heart, do you think that the majority of people in Britain would be quicker to relate to Bertie Ahern or Ian Paisley? The world – and most importantly Britain and Ireland have moved on and either Loyalism moves on politically and socially (and that doesn’t mean anything in terms of a UI before you get a bee in you bonnet) or it will be sidelined. Britain doesn’t owe you anything. And as I’ve said before, we in the Republic don’t owe nationalism anything either. But both will be there to help those who want to move on.

    Guns won’t help save the Loyalism, and unless loyalists are prepared to go headlong into the political game and ditch the paramilitarism they will never get the measure of republicans, with or without the union.

    What is remarkable about both your comments and those of Maxi is that even though they are clearly genuinely stated, they are completely lacking in any sense of direction for the future.
    Basically, what are you loyalists going to do about it themselves? And idle threats of violence eminating from loyalism won’t get anyone anywhere – they just reinforce the stereotypes you are lamenting.

    Maxi –

    betrayal the unionist people feel that this so called peace process has put us through
    You’d swear that the peace process was worse than the preceeding 30 years reading this. Is it that the republicans have achieved infinitely more for themselves and their community in their political activity than they ever achieved by military means that disturbs you?

    Isn’t clear to you by now that they sacrificed many of their more idealogical positions in return for these gains? Why do you think they have to do one thing and say another?

    BTW – it is notable to actually get two loyalist posts back to back. Look at the way republicans (to wildly varying degrees of success) are prepared to get their spake in, versus the near absense of loyalist opinion (CL excepted). It is a mirror of the absence of loyalism from the political sphere.

  15. Ringo, I wouldn’t extrapolate too much from that absence. Slugger has been cycling stories for a long time that have had little substantial interest to most Unionists or Loyalists. Give it time, and they may come.

  16. Maxi

    Help us out here. What is it that you’re hurt about ? The union is safer than ever, there will be no UI, the DUP is in the ascendancy – what’s not to like from your perspective ?

  17. Maxi-You have to understand equality for catholics is not a concession to republicans.It’s equal rights for all.Do unionist people feel betrayed by this?Perhaps you hope for a protestant parliament for the protestant people and the RUC beating catholics off the roads and into their cardboard boxes?

  18. Loyalists don’t see nationalists as getting equality as much as an unfair advantage. Whether true or not, that seems to be the perception.

    Loyalism has genuine grievances, but how it articulates its real needs that requires work. Another need is better leadership. When unionist politicians point the finger at ‘themmuns’ getting more than ‘us’uns’, loyalists now realise that this is an admission of their own leaders’ failure.

    So if democratic politics is not seen to be ‘stopping the rot’, republicans have shown them how the threat and use of violence can lead to certain gains.

    Nevertheless, they are still nowhere near the stage Sinn Fein are at.

  19. I agree with most of the above Gonzo with the exception of:

    So if democratic politics is not seen to be ‘stopping the rot’, republicans have shown them how the threat and use of violence can lead to certain gains.

    Violence and the threat of violence brought republicans the agreement – which we all subscribed to. In the post-agreement implementation phase, I think republicans hold the primary responsibility for the repeated failures and lack of progress, but I don’t think that it is remotely accurate to say that republicans made their gains because of violence and the threat of violence.

    By this logic the greater violence emanating from loyalism in recent years would have resulted in even greater gains for them. And it clearly hasn’t. The difference between the two sides isn’t their willingness to resort to violence – this notion we’ve been hearing since July that loyalism might have to break the habit of a lifetime and resort to violence is absurd.

    The single biggest difference between loyalism and republicanism in a post-agreement NI is that republicanism has a political force that is not just far more effective than what loyalism has at its disposal – but far more effective than its own military force.

Comments are closed.