What can Unionism do about loyalist paramilitarism? Unionism has preferred to avoid this issue rather than attempt to resolve it. Nevertheless, it is a problem, which must be addressed as it is barrier to a normal society and harm is being caused to working class communities by its continuing existence. In Part 1, I will examine how Unionism has dealt with this issue during the peace process and argue that the two basic options of engagement on the one hand and policing on the other are inadequate. In Part 2, I will outline the concept of a social peace and set out a number of options which might resolve the problem. Unionism, the Process and Loyalist paramilitarism
To date the issue has been treated in the following ways.
First, the political leadership of Unionism decided to exact a political price in return for engaging with the political representatives of the PIRA. This decision meant Unionism calculated that greater benefits flowed from adopting this position than coming to terms with damage created by the continued existence of Loyalist paramilitarism. In the interests of consistency, it also meant that the Unionist leadership had to keep a similar distance from Loyalist paramilitaries.
Secondly and partly in consequence of the first, the issue has become a political football. For instance, although Republicans have called on Unionism to engage with Loyalist paramilitaries. However, if Unionists show the least signs of doing so Sinn Fein then accuses Unionists of displaying double standards. Also, Nationalism has represented Unionist avoidance of the issue as evidence of Unionism turning a blind eye to Loyalist violence.
Third, the norms of Nationalism are applied to Unionism. Policy makers, politicians and commentators ask why Unionism has not adopted the nationalist approach of embracing paramilitarism – why can’t Paisley/Trimble/Empey do a Hume/Adams Process? This view makes the fundamental mistake of assuming that the two main communities in Northern Ireland are mirror images of one another. They are not. Nationalist methodology will not achieve the same result in the Unionist community.
Fourth, the government have tried to use the paramilitaries and their parties as a means to undermine the two main Unionist parties. After the failure of the Brooke Mayhew talks in the 1990’s, the government were frustrated with the existing voices of Unionism and they hoped to encourage alternatives. Post-Agreement, the UUP tried to isolate the DUP and the anti-agreement section of the Unionist community by adopting a similar approach. The government’s attempt did succeed in bringing forward some effective community workers but produced only modest change in the Unionist political landscape. The UUP’s attempts failed miserably and arguably backfired.
However, Unionism needs to take up the issue because it is in its own self-interest to do so. Unionism needs to remember that while Irish Nationalism is a key competitor and principle threat to the Unionist aspirations, it is not the only one. Loyalist paramilitarism can pose an internal threat to our social cohesion and is a barrier to the full flourishing of Unionist communities.
The primary options
The two most frequently suggested options to address Loyalist paramilitarism are for it to be policed away or by direct and full engagement with armed and active paramilitary groups.
Option 1 – Policing the problem
This has been the primary position of the DUP. However, this approach is flawed for a number of reasons:
Limitations to policing – If policing and criminal justice alone could deal with crime then the world would enjoy very low crime levels and what crime did occur would have a 100% clear-up and conviction rate.
Not in a position to exercise control – In the absence of devolution and the fact policing is not a devolved power means politicians are in no position to secure this outcome. What structures that do exist and operate, the Policing Board and District Policing Partnerships, do not give politicians direct control. These bodies are means to advise the policing command structures and question them on their actions and commitments.
Government engagement – Government has ongoing engagement with Loyalist paramilitaries but this engagement is predicated on turning a blind eye to varying levels of Loyalist activity and crime.
Community v zero-tolerance – The demand for tougher policing is essentially a call for the zero-tolerance approach but this is wholly at odds with the developing policing culture within the PSNI which is the softer community policing model.
To conclude, it is easy to call for tougher policing but it is folly to suppose that it alone will produce the desired outcome. Besides the PSNI are not subject to political direction, those who do control the PSNI won’t do it and the PSNI are not favourably disposed to such an approach any way.
Option 2 – Engagement
This has become the preferred option of the UUP. However, the capacity of engagement to deliver and the willingness of the Unionist community to tolerate such an approach differs from the Nationalist community. While both communities have their paramilitaries, their position within their communities and the dynamics around them differ. These include:
Ideological commitment and endorsed means – Since the 1916 Rising the use of force has been an article of faith of the organisation that revolt spawned and the partial success of the IRA’s 1919-1921 campaign conveyed the impression that force could work. At any given time in the last 90 years the IRA has enjoyed fluctuating but continuing electoral support. Within Unionism the use of force has been seen more of as a threat (1) gesture and/or a tactic in times of civil strife. Loyalist threats and violence have primarily been reactionary (2). It is basically reactionary to London policy and republican violence(3). The third Home Rule period is a good example of Unionist attitudes to force. Force by the original UVF was to be used in clearly defined circumstances i.e. a threat, unlike its modern namesake. These circumstances were set out in the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant and this Covenant with God made the use of violence legitimate. However, when the original UVF did see battle it was on the unambiguously legitimate battlefields of France, not the fields of Ulster. Its ‘self-legitimised’ use of force never had to be used against its neighbour. It was the only occassion in the 20th century, when a majority, or even a significant section, of the Unionist community ever given its clear endorsement to the use of force by a non-state organisation.
The state alternative – Those in the Unionist community who wanted to fight terrorism had the option of joining the security forces. This meant a legal means to respond to violence existed. This always made Loyalist paramilitarism seem less legitimate in the eyes of the broad Unionist community. In their particular circumstances, there was no state alternative for the nationalist community.
A clear political programme – The Republican movement had a clear political aim. The political programmes of Loyalist paramilitaries changed throughout the troubles. Indeed, at one stage the UDA declared it had nothing to do with politics – ‘that was the job of the politicians’. In the post-ceasefire interviews with active members, it is clear many did not join paramilitaries to achieve a clear political goal but out of anger at political changes and a desire to retaliate or defend their own community. This is also reflected in the much less influential relationship between Loyalist paramilitaries and their political wings in comparison with Sinn Fein and the PIRA. For example, early on in the peace process Gary McMichael called for punishment attacks to end and he was completely ignored. It is easier to engage with those who have a clear idea about what they want and political representatives with clear influence.
A permanent feature – Paramilitarism within the Nationalist community has a historical continuity that it does not have in the Unionist community. The IRA in various forms has existed for almost 80 years with the Irish Republican Brotherhood before it. It has launched repeated violent campaigns to achieve separation from the United Kingdom. Permanence and persistence can often provide an explicit and implicit legitimacy within a community. It leads to a somewhat more open attitude to engagement (although the genuine and wholehearted opposition to violence of a clear majority of nationalists during the Troubles should be fully acknowledged).
Living off the backs of the people – Any paramilitary organisation ultimately has to live off the community it operates in. All terrorist groups engage in criminal activity to raise funds. The terrorist group that succeeds the most is the one that raises the most funds while causing the least harm to its community and that is not seen as their primary activity. The PIRA has been relatively successful at this. However, too often in Loyalist communities paramilitaries have revelled more in how much harm they can cause and how much criminal activity they can become involved in. The corruption of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the drug dealing since the 1990’s, the blackmailing of young people to join etc is well remembered and known. This behaviour affects whether an organisation is viewed as a paramilitary group involved in crime or a criminal group involved in paramilitary violence. In public perception, the IRA tends to fall into the former category (4) and Loyalism the latter. Such behaviour, and the refusal to acknowledge it or seriously address it, is the basis of longstanding resentment towards Loyalist paramilitaries in many of the communities in which they appear powerful. This means they are often perceived as a ‘necessary evil’ to be tolerated rather than the creation of popular will, something feared rather than respected. A ‘silent majority’ in working class areas will punish anyone who cosies up to the paramilitaries too much. This was reflected in the drop in UUP working class support when it seemed too willing to leave working class areas to the paramilitaries and their parties after the Belfast Agreement.
Predominance of paramilitarism – The PIRA’s presence and public support was much more widespread across the nationalist community. PIRA has been able to attract support beyond an urban and working class base, particularly in rural areas, whereas Loyalist paramilitarism has been largely restricted to an urban and working class base. In many Unionist communities the paramilitary presence was negligible to non-existent. After the early 1970s, this was particularly true in many provincial towns and rural areas. People in these communities and the middle classes tended to opt for the security forces or for ‘doomsday’ paramilitary groups (5). Some fell into the trap of perceiving the present strength and spread of Loyalist paramilitarism as being how it has always been. It wasn’t. It is much more a post-ceasefire development. Also as this growth has coincided with the peace process it is seen by many as a product of it and why they do not buy into the positive hype around the process. This means large sections of the Unionist community have never had nor want any truck with Loyalist paramilitaries. They spent the Troubles obeying the law, supporting the security forces and shunning explicit and implicit support for paramilitarism. They are left particularly cold by the argument that “We had our paramilitaries. You had yours” because they never regarded the UDA, UVF etc as ‘their’ paramilitaries. Also they expect the same standards to be applied by their politicians. This is reflected in voting patterns. Disenchanted UUP voters were reluctant to switch to the DUP because of past associations with the Third Force and Ulster Resistance (some still refuse to make the switch). It was also reflected in the hostile reaction to the UUP and PUP link-up.
Predominance of one organisation – There is more than one paramilitary organisation in both communities. However, the PIRA has essentially established and maintained a hegemony across the nationalist community. Throughout the Troubles, Loyalism has seen the fortunes of the different organisations fluctuate. With the post-ceasefire growth in Loyalist paramilitarism, the two main organisations are now similar in size and/or influence in their communities. The instability of the relationship between the organisations and within them is clearly evidenced by the various feuds. This is reflected at a local level too. It is easier to deal with one large stable organisation than two competing organisations with varying degrees of stability at high and local levels.
Poor results – Engagement as a means to reduce paramilitarism is not exactly a novel approach. It has been a feature of the peace process for the best part of 10 to 15 years. The government and Irish government began engaging with Loyalist paramilitaries prior to the ceasefires and have consistently maintained the relationship throughout. The UUP opted for the engagement strategy for a number of years ago through its work with the Loyalist Commission and latterly with the link-up with the PUP. Yet for all the efforts in 2006, Loyalist paramilitarism has a stronger presence today than they did when the engagement began. It needs to be acknowledged that the Loyalist paramilitaries have ridden the waves of the peace process very well over the past decade. They shift from pro to anti, from reducing and raising activity, always closely matching the mood of working class Loyalist areas. At each stage, the groups end up with increased membership and stronger control. This raises the question: do the Loyalist paramilitaries intend to disappear? In the past the evidence was not encouraging. However, recent evidence provides optimistic and positive signs e.g. the decline in punishment attacks, the increased level of internal debate.
These different dynamics combine to mean the use of paramilitary force in Nationalism could be characterised as the black sheep of the family. By contrast, the use of paramilitary force in Unionism could be characterised as the bastard child of a Victorian family (This attitude is also the basis of feelings of resentment by Loyalists to other sections of the Unionist community). Loyalism is more incoherent, disjointed and unstable than Nationalism. Loyalism makes for a more unreliable partner and there is no Loyalist equivalent of Adams. Significant segments of the unionist community – to be found in working class, middle class and rural communities alike – will punish the political party which directly engages with Loyalist paramilitaries, whatever the outcome. Hume would have been forgiven for failure, a Unionist leader wouldn’t.
This means anyone in Unionism wanting to tackle paramilitarism faces a more difficult task, a higher risk of failure and a greater political cost.
1 This can arguably be traced back to the Volunteer and United Irishmen. The Volunteers relied on large demonstrations i.e. threat. The United Irishmen tried the same in the 1790’s with large demonstrations and after the failed they had the abortive revolt. The poor turnout and high desertion rate show how many of its members preferred the threat of violence to its actual application.
2 The two examples of a pro-active approach by Loyalism were the early UVF attacks in the 1960’s and less so the pan-nationalist front analysis of the early 1990’s.
3 The two peaks of Loyalist violence were in the early 70’s when significant community conflict developed and the early 1990’s driven by the generation of Loyalists angered by the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
4 This perception of the PIRA was seriously challenged by the Northern Bank Robbery and the McCartney murder and led to the use of the term the Rafia. The likes of the INLA and IPLO would have matched Loyalism in their concentration on criminality.
5 These groups gather weapons and conduct basic training for ‘doomsday’. Doomsday is generally defined as a unilateral withdrawal and transfer of sovereignty by the government. This scenario is actually a political impossibility but this does not get in the way of some believing it.