John Kyle on faith and loyalism

Councillor John Kyle (PUP)John Kyle – Belfast City councillor, well known East Belfast GP and evangelical Christian – addressed a large crowd at Contemporary Christianity last Tuesday evening. The strapline for his thirty minute address was

Where Faith and Loyalism Collide

You can listen to his talk on the Contemporary Christianity website or through the embedded audio player below. John Kyle explained how he joined the Progressive Unionist Party in 2000 “to support David Ervine”, a man who he found to be “refreshingly honest, progressive, thoughtful and self critical”.

PUP Councillor John Kyle speaking on "Where Faith and Loyalism Collide" at Contemporary Christianity (mp3)

He went on to describe the social and economic disadvantage in “working class unionist” communities who view themselves as being “loyalist”, and gave examples of the pessimism and even fatalism that can characterise many loyalist communities. Commenting on the mental health issues in loyalist areas, he explained:

Belfast has the unenviable notoriety of having the highest prescription of anti-depressants of any comparable city in Western Europe.

He turned to the media portrayal of a loyalist: “muscled, perma-tanned, tattooed, gold-necklaced, numerous ringed, male, with a pit bull terrier and a tight t-shirt”.

They say that in Long Kesh while the republican prisoners took university courses, the loyalist prisoners went down to the gym. In actual fact, more loyalist prisoners left Long Kesh with university degrees than republican prisoners did.

Despite his impression that most loyalists have little church involvement, John Kyle gave some examples of how local churches have positively engaged in loyalist communities and found respect.

Later in his short talk, he looked at some of the main problems experienced by loyalist communities – unemployment, educational failure, health and the persistence of paramilitary organisation (and he listed out some of the reasons they endure).

The spirited Q&A session after John’s talk wasn’t recorded.

Talking to John Kyle afterwards I asked him if he described himself as a loyalist?

I wouldn’t use that terminology. I would view myself as a Christian who is actively involved in politics, I’m in a party that has policies that I want to support and promote and it gives me an opportunity to contribute to the political debate about issues I feel are vitally important to the future of Northern Ireland.

Interview with PUP councillor John Kyle (mp3)

Having not set out to be a politician, and given the bumpy road of the party, why stay with the PUP?

I think there is still a job to be done there. I think that the political project that the PUP is not complete yet. I think the conflict transformation is not yet complete. I think that the problems that face working class communities are still there and are as difficult and as prevalent as ever. And I think there is a job to be done to bring about a greater sense of community well-being and community renewal. I still see the PUP as a viable vehicle to try and achieve that and so I am still happy to work with it. I think it is important to be clear about what behaviour you think is acceptable and what behaviour you think is unacceptable, and not to try to justify things that cannot be justified, or to excuse things that are inexcusable. But having said that I think that the political project that is the PUP still has life in it and I want to work with it until we see further gains.

Could John Kyle see a time when he would step back from the party?

I suppose politics is an never-ending story. There will always be issues, and difficulties that communities and countries face. While I have opportunity to contribute now at a local government level, I am very keen to do that. I’ve no doubt that at some stage this phase will pass and I’ll move on and do something else. But I think I’ve an opportunity to contribute now and I want to take that opportunity.

Do you think the main denominations have dropped the ball and let down – or even abandoned – loyalist communities at times?

I think that there has been a disconnect between the main church institutions and loyalist communities. I think that there are many committed Christians who are making a very important, valuable contribution to loyalist communities. I think there are churches that are there working away effectively and diligently and faithfully. But I think that for many folks in those working class communities, they don’t really see the relevance of the church and they don’t view it as something that has very much to say to them.

Should the church try harder? Should there be a hundred John Kyles?

Oh no, God forbid! I think it is clear that there is huge need in the world, and our commission [as Christians] is to preach good news to the poor. I think that it’s important that we should be continually engaged wherever there are issues, wherever there is need, wherever there is injustice, wherever there are problems and people struggling with really significant socioeconomic and personal difficulties. I think the church needs to roll up its sleeves and be involved there.

I note in passing that the Presbyterian Church’s Good Relations Conference in February is picking up this theme. Describing “peacemaking” as “not so much about ‘ecumenical’ matters as it is an outworking of Christian discipleship in relating to others around us within our diverse society”, they are offering delegates from Presbyterian congregations seminars on building better relationships with Loyalist communities, ethnic minorities, people from different religious backgrounds, and those from other political backgrounds.

Billy Hutchinson took over as PUP leader at their October conference, but was gone quiet since. John Kyle explained what the party was up to:

The party is very active. We’re restructuring. We’re looking at our policies. We’re debating and discussing what we view are the crucial political issues of the day. And I think we would hope that when the next round of elections comes round we’ll have something constructive and fresh to contribute …

The way that our political institutions are set up, any party which doesn’t have an MLA or an MP doesn’t get funding and therefore when there’s no funding it does mean that life is challenging as a party. We have a significant number of volunteers, but we can’t employ the staff that other political parties can to develop their strategy and do their work.

At their conference, a presentation on ACT (Action for Community Transformation) explained the UVF’s change process that had so far involved 1,400 members.

I think that’s a very active programme. The goal is to see UVF members making valuable contributions to their community and I fully support that, and it is work in progress.

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  • sliabhluachra

    Interesting post.

  • derrydave

    Hard to argue with anything with anything put forward by Mr Kyle above. Don’t know of him at all, however he certainly comes across well and seems to be in politics for the right reasons . Society as a whole can only benefit from people of his calibre and beliefs being involved and engaged.
    Very surprised to hear that more loyalist prisoners attained degrees in Long Kesh than republicans – as he states the perception is very much the opposite.

  • Dec

    ‘He turned to the media portrayal of a loyalist: “muscled, perma-tanned, tattooed, gold-necklaced, numerous ringed, male, with a pit bull terrier and a tight t-shirt”.’

    Yeah, blame the media for that.

    ‘They say that in Long Kesh while the republican prisoners took university courses, the loyalist prisoners went down to the gym. In actual fact, more loyalist prisoners left Long Kesh with university degrees than republican prisoners did.

    I’d be interested in seeing some statistics for this. I don’t necessarily doubt that but it’s odd we’ve never heard this before.

  • Turgon

    The probelm with Dr. Kyle’s position is always the same.

    To be fair unlike some loyalist politicians he seems able to condemn specfic actions by loyalists. Indeed he claims to be trying to help move people away from violence and to help loyalist communities.

    The problem is that the working class unionist communities Kyle claims to speak for reject the PUP (the PUP have two councillors Kyle included). Furthermore one of the biggest blights on working class communities are the loyalist paramilitaries. Yet the PUP will not sever their link with the UVF terrorists and are amongst their most vocal when protesting about arresting loyalist criminals for criminality – usually nowadays against working class unionists.

    The rejection of the PUP by working class unionist communities is likely to be related amongst other things to the fact that they (the PUP) are so frequently seen in suport of the loyalist criminals who blight their lives.

    Kyle has attempted to sever the link with the PUP: he made it a key plank of his leadership and he failed. Yet he did not walk away.

    it is difficult to avoid man playing here but Kyle has been a member of a party which is linked to loyalist terrorists. Although Kyle may oppose their past and present criminality the PUP institutionally holds a position that the murders committed by the UVF were justified – they include some of the most foul crimes of the Troubles and a number of more recent murders.

    Kyle has stuck with the party despite it seems his views being rejected and his proposals spurned at every turn.

    Maybe Kyle had honourable motives for joining the PUP but his ability to minimise the relevance of behaviour he thinks is “unacceptable” – which the rest of us call crimes including murder- is breath taking.

    Sometimes with some groups or vehicles to help society the other baggage makes honourable people refuse to join. I have always held that view of the PUP as have most people in the unionist community. Kyle, however, was willing to join, quite probably for honourable motives. There must come a point, however, where the honourable thing to do as a Christian and indeed as a decent person is to leave. The fact that Kyle seems unable to see such an option as a realistic possibility would be worrying in a normal organisation. The fact that he still cannot see it after the number of crimes the UVF have committed and the PUP’s craven attitude to the UVF is breath taking.

    There comes a point where trying ones best and ignoring a few issues beome hopless naievity. There is then a point where that naievity becomes a form of dishonesty and hypocrisy. Most would suggest that in regard to the PUP that time past long ago.

    Kyle himself may be a honourable man but his remaining in the PUP seems to be doing society no good, working class unionist communities no good his own honour and integrity no good. The only group it seems to be helping is the PUP. Kyle may not care about how others view him but for the good of society in general and working class unionists in particular he should leave.

  • sliabhluachra

    Good, reflective post Turgon.

  • Turgon –

    The problem is that the working class unionist communities Kyle claims to speak for reject the PUP (the PUP have two councillors Kyle included) …

    The rejection of the PUP by working class unionist communities …

    Your language is very absolute. It’s not a total rejection. They get votes in the areas in which they run. Working class votes are certainly spread around a number of parties, and STV preferences may not list PUP close enough to the top to matter, but that doesn’t mean to say there’s no support.

  • dwatch

    The PUP has more support from working class Protestants than the NI Conservatives have from middle class Protestants Councillors: PUP= 2
    NI Conservatives = 0

  • Turgon

    Alan,
    That is fair. There is not no support but there is little support. If they cannot get into the top 5-6 of an STV election the person giving them the 6th or 7th preference is expressing very little support for them. I vote all the way down my ballot paper excluding Sinn Fein and any loyalist parties. I may well put Alliance / SDLP 5th or 6th: that does not mean I have any significant support for them.

    Very few people support the PUP as their 1st preference and placing a 4th 5th or 6th beside the PUP is not really expressing any sigbnificant level of support for their policies.

    Hopwever, you are correct: they do not have no support; they have very little support.

    The PUP pride themselves on speaking for working class unionists whom they claim have been abandoned by mainstream unionism. They have something of a point re abandonment though the DUP in East Belfast at the last election seemed to be beginning a serious effort to change that.

    There is, however, inadequate support for the PUP to be a serious political force in Northern Ireland or even in East Belfast and that is a hot bed of support as compared to the large unionist towns and country areas both of which have many working class unionists.

    My fundamental thesis on this is not that working class unionists are all disinterested in politics or that they are somehow hoodwinked. I suspect most feel the DUP reflect their position better than any other party. The DUP manage to be surprisingly left wing in some ways and remember not all working class unionists are left wing.

    Quite a number, however, will be left wing and two generations ago the NI Labour Party did well. There are a large a number of reasons why the PUP do so much less well than the NILP did. However, the PUP is massively hobbled by its involvement with the UVF. Kyle saw that and tried to change it but failed. With the link in place and the DUP with its vastly superior resources making serious attempts to reconnect with working class unionists I do not see much future for the PUP. Also that means they can achieve little for working class unionists. I really think that the UVF link is the single largest impedement to the PUP. Any attempt to analyse the PUP which fails to adress that link it practically pointless. It is not the elephant in the room: it is the room.

  • Turgon – If by the next election, the ACT programme has managed to keep going and started processes of community transformation and consigned the UVF’s previous activities to history books (and courts), then perhaps the PUP will be less “hobbled” and more appealing. They have another 3 years …

  • derrydave

    It is possible Turgon to respect someone who appears to be working in public life in order to make a difference regardless of the fact that they may be a member of a party with whom you disagree. Mr Kyle refuses to even categorize himself as a loyalist – he has ,i think even you would admit, no UVF history. He is a Christian, and as a GP is probably someone who has done more than most politicians to help and work within his local community. I find it rather incredible therefore that you can claim that his remaining within his party is doing society no good and working class unionist communities no good – I’m sure that he appreciates having someone like you point out to him the error of his ways. It’s a good thing that the TUV are such a well-respected, welcoming bunch, and such a positive influence in our society with such a massive support base, otherwise people may be tempted to speak of glass houses.

  • There’s an interview with Hutchinson in the latest edition of LookLeft magazine, which should be in Easons.

  • HeinzGuderian

    Not only should religion be kept out of schools,it should definitely be kept out of politics.
    I mean to say,haven’t we had quite enough of all that aul nonsense ?
    I know I have !
    What relevance has a belief in any particular,invisible sky daddy,got to do with the price of eggs ?

  • BluesJazz

    May be a bit on the edge of topic, but the BBC documentary on the BallySally estate in Coleraine (deffo ‘loyalist’ in terms of residents) was a depressing introspection on Housing Executive estates. I assume East and West Belfast have similar. .

    Even the seagulls looked depressed.

  • John Kyle did get 1022 first preferences in May. That was 75% of the quota. So it is not true, as Turgon claimed, that very few people support the PUP as their first preference.

    The reason it took him 9 rounds to get elected is because the PUP is not as transfer-friendly as some of the smaller parties (such as the candidate excluded in stage 8).

    In the end he was elected under quota, but so were two of the DUP councillors.

  • GavBelfast

    On the few occasions that I have heard / saw him, he does come across well.

    Not raising a voice, not shouting down others and not exaggerating is so much better at getting one’s point across.

    It strikes me that he would be relatively more effective at making his case with the general public, but maybe not those who his party might have an insight into the thinking of, whereas ….