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.