Unionists, Loyalists, and Conflict Transformation. A book about how things are changing.

Book cover - Unionists, Loyalists, and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland by Lee SmitheyUnionists, Loyalists, and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland is a new academic tome by lecturer and researcher Lee Smithey. In the book the Pennsylvania academic outlines his findings based on 67 interviews over eighteen months with grassroots activists in unionist and loyalist communities and organisations.

This is largely a book about men, even though they make up less than half of Northern Ireland’s population. Surely conflict transformation, as a process that includes broad-based cultural change, must involve both men and women. Yet, when it comes to the narrow but high profile set of symbolic practices that are widely identified as unique expressions of Protestant ethnopolitical identity, they are usually planned, debated, and executed by men and organizations with male membership.

Some might argue that there is no discernible change of approach or attitude on the ground. Others may point to momentous steps being taken by individuals and groups. The reality is somewhere in-between. Lee’s research points to changes of strategy – sometimes small – that are allowing “more constructive means of pursuing political agendas and expressing collective identity” to emerge.

Lee Smithey is launching his new book at No Alibis bookstore on Botanic Avenue tonight (Monday 12) at 5.30pm. He’s also appearing at a free lunchtime seminar at QUB – Continuity, Change and Conflict: Transformation among Unionists and Loyaliststoday at 1pm in Seminar Room 1, Institute of Irish Studies, 53-67 University Road.

The author was up at Parliament Buildings last Thursday evening at a pre-launch event sponsored by local MLAs and attended by quite a number of the interviewees and subjects of the book. Lee agreed to a quick interview in the corner of a very noisy room.

The 264 page book is not a light read. However, some sections caught my eye.

The Swathmore College author concentrates on Protestant community but admits that a similar study “could be productively undertaken within Catholic and nationalist organisations and communities”. However, he notes that “breadth usually means less depth” and instead chose to concentrate his finite resources on one set of grassroots.

The manoeuvring of the Orange Order is a oft-returned to theme in the book with some districts slowly morphing their practices and adopting a more public relations savvy approach.

These are unfamiliar strategies for Protestants who have tended to feel that change is a harbinger of defeat.

Yet the author notes:

If polarized and entrenched identities contribute to intractable conflict, the transformation of those identities into ones with less defensive and more inclusive orientations should occupy a central place in peacebuilding models.

One chapter is devoted to the analysis of murals. (Gable wall painting peaked between the First and Second World Wars.) There’s a fascinating categorisation of 212 loyalist murals photographed across Belfast: paramilitary and historical themes dominate the genres. Initiatives around the “mitigation of intimidating or polarizing cultural expressions” continue across the city, with some steps backwards as well as forwards.

The book has obviously taken time to write, and some of the research is now five years old. As a reader, while at times I found the gap a frustration, the time delay did give a perspective to some of the interviews quoted throughout the book.

The use of Ulster Scots to cement “historical and cultural links with Scotland as a reservoir of unique cultural practices and a place of origin” is dissected in detail in chapter six.

Among Ulster-Scots activists, the search for a narrative of ethnic origin, a legitimate homeland, and relevance on the international stage takes several forms.

Mention is made of Dr Ian Adamson’s books and papers “claiming that immigrants from Scotland settling in Ireland were not in fact only colonial settlers but were returnees to their land of origin”. Despite widespread academic criticism, this Crutlin theory “has been adopted by loyalists and Ulster-Scots enthusiasts to preempt nationalists’ claims to indigenousness or at least to pursue cultural parity” and was influential within UPRG and UDA factions for a time.

The author concludes that “Protestant identity has been based on simple propositions about allegiance to Britain and doctrinal contracts with the Catholic Church” leaving many feeling “that Catholics have cornered the market on culture, history, language, and the arts both in Ireland and internationally”.

Yet even tenuous [my words, not Lee’s] heritage and cultural references can be gateways to contact and cooperation and “may constitute a dimension of grassroots conflict transformation”.

The lack of Irish and Ulster history in schools together with the ‘street’ history within communities – never mind the lack of critical historical reflection – means that one interviewee suggested that people working on mural redesign projects with historical themes “are not 100 percent sure of the history themselves”.

Chapter seven explores “strategy, pragmatism and public relations” and includes a breakdown of the economic stimulus generated by marching banks bands. An annual investment of £500,000 in the bus trade. Uniforms (replaced every four to five years), instruments, rent of halls, printing costs, food, insurance … Maybe today’s final publication of the Programme for Government will include details of grants available from Invest NI to start a band!

Unionist and loyalist groups used to have “political qualms” accepting money from the International Fund for Ireland because of its association with the Anglo-Irish agreement. One interviewee said:

Here’s the reason why we’re so poor at social development and social skills and all the rest of it. Ian Paisley told us for years that if we take part in community development, at least social initiatives, that will break down the union. That’s against the state. And our people said, “Don’t get involved with community development. Don’t’ get involved in education. Don’t get involved in human rights. They’re another IRA-Irish Republican plot, so don’t run to them.” So for thirty-eight years, we haven’t. But it’s left us with an awful deficit. It’s left us, I would say, on a playing field where we’re not even in the dressing room yet, and all the other teams are on the playing pitch.

A quick read of the book pointed out lots of community development and conflict transformation efforts that I would otherwise have continued to be unaware of. Reimaging murals. Learning not to look a gift horse in the mouth. Reforming elements of the Orange Order. At yet still grasping at historical straws to find identity.

Lots of small steps taken. A lots more steps needed.

The publishers Oxford University Press are offering a big price reduction at No Alibis tomorrow night. A Kindle version is also available.