Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism by Tony Novosel — Book Review

Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, is a book that has received surprisingly little attention since it was published this year (Pluto Press, 2013). Written by American Tony Novosel, a lecturer in History at the University of Pittsburgh, it is a clearly-written and provocative examination of loyalist political development from the mid-1960s.

It is also a timely book, given that loyalism has been ‘in the news’ lately for all the wrong reasons: the flag protests and the violence during the marching season, most notably this year’s Twelfth. Speaking last week at the Merriman Summer School, I said that these events have begun to lead to an unhelpful ‘Loyalists are The Problem’ narrative.

Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity is something of an antidote to the ‘Loyalists are the Problem’ narrative, presenting what for many will be new perspectives on loyalists and their (admittedly often thwarted) efforts towards conflict transformation throughout the Troubles.

What’s most provocative about the book is Novosel’s argument that loyalist political thinkers were far ahead of their republican counterparts in the early days of the Troubles, but their efforts for conflict transformation were deliberately stymied by elements within Unionism and British intelligence.

For Novosel, the demise (though it was not complete) of loyalist political thinking was a ‘lost opportunity’ for Northern Ireland. The consequences of this lost opportunity resonate to the present day, resulting in loyalist communities that feel threatened and disempowered.

Novosel argues that examples of progressive and constructive loyalist political thinking have been largely forgotten or even suppressed. The erasure of loyalist contributions has been so thorough that there are few who challenge the worst stereotypes about loyalists. Novosel even admits that before he began his research (xvii):

“… I had assumed that unionism/Loyalism was a monolithic bloc and that, at best, Loyalists were nothing more than neo-fascists, Nazis and/or sectarian killers.”

Novosel has been researching loyalism since the mid-1990s, and apart from the usual academic sources, the book draws on a range of primary material (pamphlets, speeches) and interviews, including David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson, Dawn Purvis, and others.

By now some readers of this review may be dismissing Novosel’s conclusions, assuming that Ervine, Hutchinson and Purvis are unrepresentative of loyalism and, even if they have previously heard of documents like Common Sense or Sharing Responsibility, pointing out that such efforts were largely ignored by the wider loyalist constituency.

Rest assured that Novosel acknowledges that some loyalist leaders moved too far ahead of their followers, proposing too much too soon. He also recognises that there is a significant segment of loyalism/unionism that is just never going to take people with a paramilitary background seriously.

In a chapter titled ‘The Emerging Light: Political Loyalism 1973-75,’ Novosel details a series of proposals and documents from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Red Hand Commando (RHC) and the short-lived Volunteer Political Party, which included what we might now call proportional power-sharing and the principle of consent, as well as decommissioning, amnesties, and a commitment to tackling poverty and deprivation.

But for Novosel, the standard ‘too much too soon’ argument about the failure of loyalist politics isn’t the whole story.

In a chapter on ‘Darkness at the End of the Tunnel: The Failure of Politics,’ he explores how British policies, unionist political parties and the security forces all undermined the conciliatory thinking emerging from some loyalist quarters. Novosel also claims that loyalism’s political thinking was far ahead of that of the Provisional IRA during this period, with the Provos still believing they could win the war and assuming that Protestants’ Britishness was a form of false consciousness that would quickly be forgotten in a united Ireland.

I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories, because I tend to think that in complex situations incomplete knowledge, misjudgements, and sheer incompetence can prevent progress just as effectively as sinister behind-the-scenes plots.

And indeed, Novosel’s analysis includes elements of poor judgement, such as the British shift to a policy of criminalisation, which he sees as linked to Margaret Thatcher’s reaction to the IRA assassination of her adviser Airey Neave. He argues that this helped to suffocate loyalist political thinking.

But more sinister are Novosel’s judgements about the ‘vested interests within Unionism and elements of British intelligence’ which ‘launched an all-out attack against the UVF and its allies’ (p. 145). Unionists were of course interested in protecting their voting base from the threat of viable working class politics; and they adopted a strategy of painting the UVF and its allies as ‘communists.’

Even more sinister is Novosel’s analysis that ‘Elements of MI5 and MI6 may have run operations, such as the anti-communism campaign, that effectively crippled the politics coming out of Loyalism’ (p. 151). His claims about the involvement of the intelligence agencies are based in part on an examination of the activities of the Tara organisation, ‘created by William McGrath, a shadowy figure with suspected links to MI5 and/or MI6’ (p. 151), previous research by others, and his own interviews.

Novosel is careful to say that more research needs to be done in this area, but concludes (160-161):

“ … elements of MI5 and the security forces … attempted to split the UVF and undercut its political activities. If the UVF was correct these forces attempted to cripple the UVF by creating a non-political, military movement they could control. While, much more work needs to be done on this, the evidence presented in this chapter suggest that rogue elements within MI5 attempted to do this by stoking the sectarian killings of 1974 and 1975. If true, the goals of these actions were to ensure that any cooperation or understanding among the paramilitaries would end, and that the conflict would only result in a military victory over both the Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries.”

Interestingly, Novosel seems almost resigned that his analysis will not be accepted, due to a stubborn resistance to see Loyalists as anything other than a Problem. In his conclusion, he asks almost plaintively:

‘Who will believe this account of the origins and evolution of progressive political thinking within the UVF, the RHC and their political allies, and why it failed? (p. 206).’

From an academic perspective, Novosel presents the evidence available to him. He is responsible in acknowledging that the evidence is incomplete but right to ask the awkward questions that could prompt people to re-think their engagement with Loyalism in the present.

So for me, Novosel’s history of political loyalism could fruitfully contribute to constructive debate in the present around a number of issues, but two in particular stand out:

Dealing with the Past:

Novosel’s account includes serious accusations about the activities of the security forces, the consequences of which – prolonged violence and unnecessary deaths – are serious indeed. Exploring the extent and nature of such activities, as part of a wider process of dealing with the past, is vital to piecing together a more complete analysis of what happened here and necessary for counteracting myths that attempt to ‘blame’ only one side or the other. Unless they are seriously questioned, one-sided myths (on all sides) will continue to form the basis for future division and violence. (Again, it is important to stress that Novosel isn’t excusing Loyalist violence or seeking to shift the blame elsewhere – he is concerned with presenting a more complex account of what happened.)

Looking toward the Future:

Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity is in many ways laced with regret that loyalists’ political proposals were dismissed or ignored. For example, Novosel sees the Progressive Unionist Party’s 1985 document Sharing Responsibility, with its power sharing/voluntary coalition, Irish dimension and bill of rights, as a template for the Good Friday Agreement.

While currently there seems to be little creative or innovative thought emerging from the PUP or wider loyalism, Novosel’s book still prompts us to ask which voices we might be ignoring? I am also struck by the title of the 1985 document, which rather than demanding rights, emphasises the taking on of responsibility.

The idea that citizens can assume responsibility for their own politics and culture is in itself an empowering one, and made me ask why narratives of responsibility have been so absent from contemporary debates?

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