On the importance of Unionist leadership…

JOHN COULTER makes a welcome return to Slugger. He argues that Protestant working class Loyalism is at a crossroads and its very existence may depend on the future of the Northern power-sharing Executive. He goes on to probe the loyalty crisis facing ‘working class Prods’. He believes that lack of leadership within unionism for could see Loyalist working classes turn directly to the ‘auld enemy’, at least for help in bread and butter issues.
By John Coulter

If the power-sharing Executive fails to materialise and the Stormont Assembly axed, the Northern Protestant working class will be plunged into its biggest identity and directional crisis since partition.

Loyalism is the broad umbrella once used to describe the might and muscle of Ulster’s rural and urban working class. Now it has become a byword for secular, inner city criminality and paramilitary ‘turf war’ feuds.

The creation of a power-sharing Executive by 24 November remains the last effective hope to cure working class Loyalism of its present identity sicknesses.

The word ‘Loyal’ for centuries was the bastion of the Orange Order and referred to Orangeism’s conditional loyalty to the English Throne, provided the monarch was a Protestant. Members of the Order wear the initials LOL (Loyal Orange Lodge) on their collarettes to signify this religious allegiance to the Williamite Act of Settlement.

Loyalism properly entered the Northern political vocabulary in the 1960s to describe militant Right-wing Protestants opposed to the liberalising policies of the then Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill.

Practically, from 1966 on, Loyalism represented the violent paramilitary side of the Unionist family, especially the pro-Paisleyite Ulster Protestant Volunteers and the revamped Ulster Volunteer Force.

However, while middle class Unionism may have sympathised with the aims and objectives of the UPV and UVF, it sought to put clear social distance between political activity and naked sectarian street violence. Loyalism was also used to define and reinforce the class structure within Protestantism.

Unionism was re-defined as the church-going aristocratic families, the middle class and the rural working class. Loyalism became the non-religious, socialist-leaning working class who lived in Northern towns and cities.

Loyalism’s supposedly greatest triumph was the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike which collapsed the Sunningdale power-sharing Executive. But Northern Protestantism is littered with twists and ironies.

Ironically, if Loyalism had embraced Sunningdale with the SDLP, it would not find itself in a situation a generation later having to do the same business with the Provisional IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein.

For much of the Troubles, working class Loyalism was perceived to be doing the dirty work of Unionism and Orangeism’s middle class leaderships.

Nowadays, many working class Protestants must feel like physically vomiting when they see how Unionism has treated them since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Now Ian Paisley’s DUP has become the top dog in Unionism, the Paisley camp has abandoned working class Protestants, also commonly called The Prods.

The ordinary Prods may have tramped Northern streets in their thousands for Paisley’s election stunts, the Carson Trails, and for paramilitary groups like the Third Force and Ulster Resistance.

But with fundamentalist Paisleyism donning the politically symbolic middle class fur coats once worn by the Ulster Unionist aristocracy, its clear the blunt message from the DUP is – ‘the working class can kiss my ass’.

How many working class Prods have ended up in jail because they were conned by the religious fervour of the Paisleyite fundamentalists?

Mention socialism to the DUP and you’ll be branded an atheistic Marxist. How many UVF paramilitary members and their families have voted for the DUP, only to find themselves political outcasts.

To the Paisley camp, the UVF’s political movement, the Progressive Unionists, is no better than one of communist dictator Joe Stalin’s Soviets.

And given the vitriolic rhetoric coming from the liberal middle class UUP over party boss Reg Empey’s bid to bring Loyalism in from the cold, there no room in Ulster Unionism for working class Prods either.

There is also the vast gulf in attitudes between Unionism and republicanism concerning paramilitary prisoners. Within Sinn Fein, significant status is given to the views of former or serving IRA inmates. In Unionism, Loyalist prisoners are dismissed as common criminals.

At one time, the UUP used to boast about its Unionist labour movement – but that was only a clever ploy to con working class Prods into voting for Orange-dominated Unionism in their thousands.

In trying to find a niche for the election-battered UUP somewhere on the political spectrum, Empey has been attempting to initiate a series of policies which have earned him the nickname Red Reg because of their socialist overtones.

There is the real danger if working class Protestants continue to feel increasingly alienated from their own political parties, they may eat humble pie and turn to the ‘auld enemy’, Sinn Fein, for help on bread and butter issues.

Former RUC officer and Orangeman Billy Leonard, now a Coleraine Sinn Fein councillor, has talked openly about the number of Prods seeking his help on constituency matters.

It may only be a trickle now, but if Unionism doesn’t start looking after the working class Prods, the concept of Protestant republicanism could become a significant political force within a decade; a view rubbished by Bible-thumping, Cromwellian-worshipping Puritan Unionists.

The appointment by Sinn Fein of former republican prisoner Martina Anderson as a so-called Unionist Ambassador may be branded by middle class Unionism as a publicity stunt.

But in Northern society, money talks and would Loyalists really care if it was Sinn Fein councillors who were securing their benefits as long as they were getting those benefits?

Dumped by the DUP; shunned by the UUP, and finding the fringe Loyalist parties ignored, there is also the danger the identity of working class Loyalism will be dead and buried within a generation.

While republicanism is striding forward into a movement which could have ministers in two sovereign parliaments – Stormont and the Dail – within a year, working class Protestantism is rapidly running backwards to the politically meaningless existence which Northern working class Catholics found themselves enduring under the Brookeborough regime from 1946 to 1963.

Until O’Neill in the mid Sixties, only one Northern Ireland Unionist Premier had tried to improve the lot of the Protestant working class – John Millar Andrews, who was Prime Minister during the World War Two years 1940 to 1943.

He invented the concept of Constructive Unionism, an ideology which if implemented, would benefit the North’s working class generally, irrespective of religious affiliation. But it was J M’s successor, Basil Brooke, who ensured the working class was kept in its place and Constructive Unionism confined to the dustbin of history.

Likewise, ordinary Catholics have a legion of working class icons to commemorate, such as James Connolly, Sean Mac Diarmada and Eamonn Ceannt from the Easter Rising era and Bobby Sands from the 1981 Hunger Strikes.

And who have the Prods managed to scrape up from the grave? Psycho terrorist Lenny Murphy, the Master Butcher; British agent and sectarian killer Robin Jackson, dubbed the Jackal, and LVF maverick Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright.

But what working class Prods need is a living political icon – someone who will mobilise them into a powerful pressure group based on Patriotic Socialism.

The Unionist Clubs succeeded in achieving this in the early years of the 20th century as the Protestant working class was mobilised against Home Rule. But many who were engaged in this working class unity were slaughtered during the carnage of the First World War from 1914-18.

In the late 1980s, another attempt was made to mobilise Loyalism against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985 through the Ulster Clubs movement, then spearheaded by leading Portadown Orangeman Alan Wright.

But working class Loyalism’s Achilles’ Heel is it lack of street discipline. In March 1986, widespread rioting during the Day of Action against the Dublin accord saw middle class Unionism once more snub Loyalism.

This same snub was delivered to Loyalism by middle class Orangeism in July 1998 at Drumcree following the deaths of the three Catholic Quinn brothers in a sectarian arson attack in Ballymoney in Co Antrim at the height of the protest.

So until that Loyalist icon emerges; until working class Protestants launch their Patriotic Socialist Front, ordinary rural and urban Loyalists will remain nothing more than electoral cannon fodder for the Fur Coat Brigade dominated DUP and UUP.

Paisleyism became a potent force in Unionism because it gave a platform to two muted voices in late 1960s Protestantism – religious fundamentalism and the Loyalist working class. But as Loyalism engulfed itself in inter-paramilitary feuds, racketeering and criminality, the DUP’s religious leadership was quick to ditch these worthless sinners.

The late Enoch Powell, former South Down UUP MP, used to brand the Paisley camp as the Protestant Sinn Fein.

Ironically, the practical reality is that if Stormont falls and the cross-border bodies assume political control of the North, Loyalism may well have to become a Protestant Sinn Fein to survive.

Even more dangerous for middle class Unionism was the ominous warning from PUP boss David Ervine who suggested there could be a violent Loyalist reaction if the British and Irish governments pursued a policy of cross-border partnership without an Assembly in existence.

Such a Loyalist leadership will not be listening to Unionist politicians. The danger is that Loyalists will embark on their own agenda, which would not include middle class Unionism reaping any political benefits from a new millennium Loyalist armed struggle.

Then again, with working class Protestants politically in tatters, do Loyalists still have the stomach for such a fight?

First published in Magill Magazine, Dr John Coulter is a political journalist with the Irish Daily Star.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Now Ian Paisley’s DUP has become the top dog in Unionism, the Paisley camp has abandoned working class Protestants, also commonly called The Prods.

    Then why do these people keep voting unionist ? There are plenty of other parties to vote for. If they think the paramilitaries represent their interests so well then why don’t they vote for them ?

  • Wasiwasreallybannedfordescribingamissfitzpostaslam

    “Protestant working class Loyalism is at a crossroads”

    Is there any other kind of Loyalism?

  • deadmanonleave

    Very welcome return. Coulter so often has an interesting angle on things. I guess I’ve always been interested in what he has to say as he’s one of the few unionists or loyalists who’s written for the Blanket, and some excellent pieces too.

    I’d be very interested to hear the responses of those from a working class background to his positon here. I’m really hoping he’s not dismissed as a ‘Lundy’ or ‘rotten Prod’.

  • slug

    “And given the vitriolic rhetoric coming from the liberal middle class UUP over party boss Reg Empey’s bid to bring Loyalism in from the cold, there no room in Ulster Unionism for working class Prods either.”

    Hmm. The working class are not the UVF, Mr Coulter.

  • Dave

    What a load of balderdash. There is a difference between Loyalism and Unionism but not when it comes to the vote. As for cross border activities between the British and Irish governments without the assembly up and running and therefore without the consent of the majority will bring a backlash. Maybe the day after such an event people will just fail to turn up for work, who knows maybe the majority of the people of Northern Ireland will just up sticks and camp out No 10 (would that be logistically possible)? I’m sure they would not be silly enough to burn their own property and shops in protest (lessons from the past)

    November 24th will be a test day not for Loyalism/unionism but for the British government and I have no doubt whatsoever that the British and Irish government will “TRY” to implement cross border authority without the consent of the people.

    Loyalism/Unionism at a crossroad? I don’t think so, they know which path to take and it’s not the garden variety.

    Only the people of Northern Ireland can resolve the issues and that means that both governments should butt out and stop interfering with a situation they don’t seem to understand or really care about.

    Choice open to people: A politically forced United Ireland or a shared Independent Northern Ireland by political agreement.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    The views of Coulter are not very original.

    1. Paisley never had any interest in the working classes other than to turn up at his rallies, mountain tops and to pour money into his churches.

    2. Protestant working class does not = loyalist, that is a gross insult to the vast majority of the working class protestants who are law abiding and have no time for loyalist thugs and do not vote for them.

    3. Because his his septugenarian MLA father does little for his constituents in North Antrim – not even an office in Ballymena the largest part of his electorate – does not mean that other Unionist MLA’s are the same, many of both kinds offer an excellent service.

    4. The 24th of November will move as required to get a result, T Blair needs one for the history books.

    5. Unionism does need a leader that all unionists can respect, I don’t personally see one in either of the Unionist parties but maybe there is someone in the younger ranks yet to come to the fore. Someone who can embrace catholics and protestants and who understands both sides of the divide, someone who is prepared to take a stand when things they disagree with are done by their parties. The fact that all UUP MLA supported the sordid liason with the PUP says little about their convications and more about their pockets. SH had more ***** than all of them I think there may have been one or two councillors who stayed in the party and spoke out. Could one of them be the new principled leader that unionism seeks. (does anyone know who they were?)

    So as usual Coulter wastes a lot of paper to say nothing of any relevance to where we are today.

  • Little Eva

    I like this man’s stuff for it’s comedic value. Surely it is mostly a piss take and not meant to be taken seriously.

  • Billy

    Dave

    I agree that you are correct in that the 2 govts will move on with “joint stewardship” after Nov 24. This will not be joint authority but will entail a much larger role for the RoI govt than many Unionists want to believe.

    However, any “loyalist” backlash will inevitably result in violence against innocent Catholics – the “loyalist” terrorists lack the desire (or intelligence) to prevent this.

    Frustrated Democrat

    NI is well down the list of priorities of the UK electorate. Blair’s legacy is completely dominated by Iraq followed (a long way behind) by winning 3 successive elections for Labour.

    Getting an NI assembly back won’t be regarded as a great “result” in the UK. It won’t do much for Blair’s popularity – the people who are anti- Blair are unhappy with his Iraq, Lebanon and domestic policies. They couldn’t really give a s**t about NI.

    Blair, Hain and Ahern have invested too much in the Nov 24 date. If it isn’t met (which looks likely), they’ll move on. There are UK council elections at the start of May – Blair (and Labour) have much to do from Jan to April. Too much for them to waste any more time on NI.

  • deadmanonleave

    Leaving Coulter’s father asisde, his basic premise is that working class Protestant people have been totally let down by the political leadership in the mainstream Unionist parties (UUP/DUP). The UDP/UPRG appear (from the outside at least) to be nothing more than a mouthpiece for the UDA and the PUP seem to vacillate between trying to be a working class party and being the voice of the UVF.

    I don’t think that this is far from the truth. The question for me is where do working class Protestants go from here?

    On another note, Little Eva, glad you like the moniker….wonder if anyone else on here knows it’s origin?

  • aquifer

    If coulter is right, protestant alienation from unionism is more likely to manifest itself as political resignation and passivity as the Island integrates.

    What ireland is becoming is not what they feared, but it is not what the Provos professed to want either.

    To get what they need, they need not do very much.

    Or they can rely on the DUP to fail on their behalf.

  • fair_deal

    As someone who is actually from a working class Loyalist family this ‘poor us’ stuff gets really frustrating. It is so disempowering to sit round blaming everyone else. It’s a reverse MOPEry syndrome that doesn’t do the Loyalist working class any good. No one is going to argue that working class life is all roses and chocolates neither was it Victorian London.

    It ignores that the social and economic well-being of the Loyalist working class has been consistently better served by being in the United Kingdom since 1921. So they weren’t being “evily exploited”. They voted for a Union that delivered for them.

    Have the Loyalist working class not benefitted from the five giants since 1945 (NHS etc)? Stormont had one of the strongest public housing programmes in the UK post WWII. Did that not benefit them?
    It was the Exchequer who produced massive subsidies to key industries that employed the Loyalist working class in their tens of thousands for decades. Did that not benefit them?
    It was Ulster Unionist leadership had to fight for the principle of equality of taxation/equality of benefit which ensured such benefits flowed.

    The UWC strike has turned into a working class myth too. It succeeded because all sections of the Unionist community supported it. When the same alliance couldn’t be put together in 1977 it failed.

    The author has an ability to take one quote in this case Billy Leonard’s comment and build a huge social thesis. It ignores that part of the DUP’s strategy of electoral growth was solid constituency work. Also the quote could be taken from any political representative for despite all our divisions a person looking a solution will try almost all the avenues.

    I have seen two politicians and a community group get in a huge argument about who got something for a local resident when in fact the resident had went to them all about the same problem and their combined efforts had got it sorted.

    I have been in UUP and DUP offices and seen the files and correspondence relating to people from nationalist areas. I know people from a Unionist background who have went to nationalist representatives.

    None of this means that suddenly the political facades are going to come crashing down.

  • Comrade Stalin

    4. The 24th of November will move as required to get a result, T Blair needs one for the history books.

    Please stop repeating this rubbish. It’s right up there with “they can’t take our parliament away”. Blair has almost given up trying to fix this place in the face of opposition from the people here. There are plenty of other places he can go to secure his legacy, such as it is after the disasters that are Iraq and Afghanistan.

    fair deal:

    I agree with everything you said. I am not a unionist but I have recently had excellent support on a domestic matter from my local DUP MP who commands the respect of everyone in my street.

    I also agree that this stuff about the “poor underrepresented working class” is off the mark. I believe that the people repeating this are using the term “Protestant working class” as a euphemism for the loyalist paramilitaries. The UVF and UDA do not get the kind of attention they think that they deserve, and that is why they keep complaining that they are being ignored.

    The point about UWC is relevant. UWC is an example of how the middle class political unionism will manipulate the working class, and the loyalist paramilitaries, when it suits them to do so. UWC succeeded because of the application of loyalist threats and intimidation. The 1977 strike failed because the government learned the lessons of the previous strike and immediately put the army and police into place to stop it gathering momentum.

  • exuup

    this of course ignores the fact that working class protestants voted DUP not PUP or the UDA, its quite clear that “loyalists” are an extreme minority politically and if they cant abide by the law of the land then let them be locked up

  • ciaran damery

    What is Loyalism? It is an excuse used by Unionists to distance themselves from other Unionists who engage in sectarian terrorism. The fact of the matte is that Unionists/loyalists are led by a fundamentalist bible thumping preacher who claims to be a ‘holy man’ yet is responsible for inciting sectarian hatred in occupied Ireland. He may not know the difference between a gun and a bottle, but he certainly is responsible for enticing many young Unionists to engage in sectarian murder. Mar shampla, Grave Yard Butcher Stone, attributes his sectarian murderous activities to Paisley’s rants. So Unionism is led by a dinasour whose hands are drenched with the blood of Irish people. This begs the question, why would so many vote for a raving loonie who despises catholics and Irish people? What sort of people are they? In any other society (except perhaps for North Korea), Paisley would be considered an embarassment and rabble rousing coward who enticed others to fight his fight. What unionism needs is a leader who has foresight and who has the intellectual ability to see that Ireland is destined to be reunited. His rejection of the GFA is based on hatred, an emotion which prevents him from accepting democratic mandates of those he dislikes. Fortunately, the oul codger is slowly being forced to change. He now accepts the integral role of Dublin in the governance of occupied Ireland. He has no choice but to accept that the Uncle toms in the sdlp are history and obviously is too scared to face and cooperate with Sinn Féin. Paisley’s a loser. History will show that his hatred caused the unionist community more harm than good. The most that he and other unionists can hope for is to delay the inevitable denouoment of the conflict, id est, reunification.

  • Frustrated Democrat

    Comrade Stalin

    What else is left for him in the next 6 months?

    Watch and see what happens, he hasn’t given up he wants a result, that result is DUP in office with SF. His final legacy, not IRAQ or Afganistan or the Health Service or Education it is too late for them.

  • Dave

    “Getting an NI assembly back won’t be regarded as a great “result” in the UK. It won’t do much for Blair’s popularity – the people who are anti- Blair are unhappy with his Iraq, Lebanon and domestic policies. They couldn’t really give a s**t about NI.

    Blair, Hain and Ahern have invested too much in the Nov 24 date. If it isn’t met (which looks likely), they’ll move on. There are UK council elections at the start of May – Blair (and Labour) have much to do from Jan to April. Too much for them to waste any more time on NI.

    Posted by Billy on Sep 16, 2006 @ 12:52 AM”

    This is your opinion and if proven to be true, would lead to the conclusion that Independence for Northern Ireland is all the more a viable option? The majority of people IMO don’t hold with the idea of a United Ireland not even the geographical version. The dogs in the street know that “Southerners” do not define Northern Ireland Republicans/Nationalists “Northerners” as Irish.

    True Republicans/Nationalists live in the Republic of Ireland and not “under British rule”.
    as defined by Northerners.

    An independent Northern Ireland is the only viable solution IMO.

  • George

    fair_deal,
    you mention things like the NHS. Unionists voted against the NHS so if the union has delivered for loyalists since 1921 it has, for all intents and purposes, been despite their unionist representatives and not because of them.

    Unionism claiming credit for things like the NHS is akin to Sinn Fein claiming credit for the Celtic Tiger, in my view.

    As for the UWC, don’t forget that the state didn’t try and face down the UWC. If the police and army went AWOL in 1997 as they did at the time of the UWC then we might have had a very different result.

  • fair_deal

    George

    The voted against it in westminster because they held the Conservative whip and also considering Labour’s landslide victory voting against it was an empty gesture. You also omit to mention that the Unionist government introduced the exact same legislation in NI and voted for it. Every post WWII social reform introduced in Westminster was introduced by the Stormont government.

    I realise nationalists keep looking at 77 and think the same would have worked in 74. Just because they both werestrikes doesn;t mean the dynamics were the same. The spread, depth and variety of support it could call upon in 1974 made the state’s task much more difficult. This support is clearly evidenced by the fact that the anti-sunningdale candidates won 11 of 12 seats and a majority of the popular vote. Also the pressure the UWC was primarily aimed at was a locally based executive while in 77 it was trying to put pressure on the central government.

  • kensei

    “The dogs in the street know that “Southerners” do not define Northern Ireland Republicans/Nationalists “Northerners” as Irish.”

    Myth. Odd how opinion polls always show continued strong support for a UI in the South.

  • Brian Boru

    “The dogs in the street know that “Southerners” do not define Northern Ireland Republicans/Nationalists “Northerners” as Irish.”

    Utter rubbish.

  • George

    Fair_Deal,
    “Every post WWII social reform introduced in Westminster was introduced by the Stormont government.”

    Not exactly true, I think you are forgetting the 1967 Abortion Act. Anyway, I never said reform wasn’t introduced, I said it was done despite unionists not because of them.

    The Unionist government was not a supporter of the welfare state in any way, shape or form, it isn’t a case of merely following the whip.

    It simply wasn’t able to afford to stand up against the implementation of the welfare state proposals, which it considered socialist. The reason is familiar: Westminster might simply stop picking up the tab for NI.

    In the end, a guarantee that Stormont would be relieved from the financial burden of paying for such services from local revenues did the trick.

    For these reasons, I find it a bit rich for unionists to try claim the credit for something the never wanted and refused to pay for.

    Also, I’m not a “nationalist” as where I come from, south of the border, that term only pertains to our northern brethren who wish to join with us.

  • Reader

    George: Anyway, I never said reform wasn’t introduced, I said it was done despite unionists not because of them.
    As an aside, what way did nationalists vote in Stormont over the NHS and Grammar Schools way back then?

  • fair_deal

    George

    If you bother to check what I wrote you will see I am clear that these are the benefites of the Union. I quote

    “They voted for a Union that delivered for them.”

    I did not give the Unionist party the credit for the welfare state. I gave Stormont the credit for two things housing and the principle of financial equality.

    “it was done despite unionists not because of them..The Unionist government was not a supporter of the welfare state”

    It just introduced it all in Northern Ireland and voted for it in Stormont.

    I accept my error on the Abortion Act.

    Irish nationalism and its supporters are not restricted to Northern Ireland.

  • Nationalist

    I would disagree that the DUP have abandoned loyalism totally, after all just today we have seen confirmation in the papers that Ian Paisley Junior has been playing golf etc. with the Shoukri brothers over the last number of years.

    This goes to show that Jnr, like his dad, will use the loyalist muscle when he thinks fit. Albeit now he will have to change his golf partners.

    The DUP will always keep close discreet connections with Unionist terrorists in order to enhance their threats of doom. November the 24 and the consequences that will surely follow if the Governments introduce closer workings and more Irish Government say in the running of the North, as hinted in an interview.

  • Crataegus

    Kensei

    Odd how opinion polls always show continued strong support for a UI in the South.

    This is something that has always puzzled me, who in their right mind would want the place and why? I can fully understand the British lack of interest; it is not so much an asset more a liability, but can’t just abandon it on someone’s doorstep.

    Anyone willing to accept the liability with fervour has to be certifiable? If I still lived in Dublin and there were a referendum, given the current state of affairs, I would vote against unity. Potentially an unstable bottomless pit.

  • ciaran damery

    Funnym you should say, “The dogs in the street know that “Southerners” do not define Northern Ireland Republicans/Nationalists “Northerners” as Irish.”, yer right. But Irish people tend to refer to one’s home county rather that calling inhabitants in occupied Ireland, “northerners” Mar shample, he’s/she’s from Cork or Carlow or Tyrone. In Britain, yer regular man on the street will consider you Irish. In an case, you are wayyyy off the mark.

  • kensei

    “This is something that has always puzzled me, who in their right mind would want the place and why?”

    Because it’s their country, and they care for it, warts and all? Because there is a shiteload of their countrymen here? Because they think they could make it work?