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?

  • Charles_Gould

    A very interesting review, Gladys, thanks for presenting it to us.

    Thought provoking.

    I had not realised that the ideas of powersharing and so on had been taken up and espoused by loyalism in 1985.

    Do you know was this in response to the Anglo Irish Agreement of the time, or was it largely developed before that?

    It is known that some, including Peter Robinson, had put forward ideas of powersharing and so on in the mid/late 1980s, but more senior leaders at the time, including Dr I Paisley and Mr J Molyneaux, had put these to one side.

  • Framer

    “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.’”
    So it was sinister for mainstream Unionist parties to attack the UVF politically and try to protect “their voter base”?
    Perhaps they should have encouraged more UVF murders?
    Ideas like these and the dragging up of William McGrath’s Tara organisation as if it was significant make me despair and certainly reinforce the view that looking into the past in any official way would be colossally unwise, and, of course, get nowhere.
    I also recall that under the open tutelage of Merlyn Rees the UDA were encouraged to pursue an independent Ulster. It wasn’t very popular in Catholic circles however.
    Novosel seems like a reconstructed Trotskyite in that he no longer demonises Protestants but retains all the old certainties about establishment forces and the evil of Thatcher.
    The Provos were criminalised under Labour, as I recall, for the one reason: they campaigned so successfully against internment that jail was the only other option, short of bombing Dublin.

  • Charles_Gould

    Do you think the analysis is a too-simplistic one of “the working class folks in the loyalist community had some positive thinking, and its such a shame nothing came of this, but bad people in the establishment stopped this for selfish reasons”?

  • Reader

    It’s as though the loyalists were driven by fear, alternately lashing out and caving in according to the strength of each new terror. Their one constant characteristic is shockingly poor analytical skills.

  • Charles_Gould

    I’d agree they were driven by fear, but I am not sure reader about the lack of analysis: the various documents such as “common sense” seemed to be thought through.

  • Alias

    “Do you know was this in response to the Anglo Irish Agreement of the time, or was it largely developed before that?”

    It’s origins are with Gusty Spence and company from the early 1970s so it even predates Sunningdale. The PUP first published it circa 1977 after its formation. It’s core reference is the Government of Ireland Act, just like Sunningdale and the GFA. Unlike the UDA, the UVF were early ‘civic unionists’ – the UDA remain as Ulster nationalists. Former SoS Jim Prior said that Spence’s political thinking was 20 years ahead of its time. Maybe, but it was still 50 years behind the Government of Ireland Act.

  • Greenflag

    Good article GG . There was a time when individual ‘loyalists ‘ and ‘unionists ‘ were questioning the then monolithic unionist party prior to the Stormont suspension in 1972 and thereafter .Who now remembers Desmond Boal (one time Paisley’s right hand man ) , Glen Barr or John McMichael and others .

    Whether it was by conspiracy or the march and turmoil of events the challenge to the old Unionist party did’nt come from any radical thinking loyalist group from the broad left of the political spectrum but instead came from those who purported to be more unionist /hardline than the old Unionist party . Thus Rev Paisley’s long climb to power . Perhaps the old Unionist hierarchy’s dislike of Paisley was that they feared he might have absorbed some of the more radical elements in his broad support and would eventually be able to reach an accommodation with Republicans.

    As for ‘Loyalists ‘ being the problem in the here and now . No prizes for pointing out that sad fact .

    Novosel is to be commended for reminding us that not ALL loyalists are or were forever just flag waving cyphers and usefool tools for the Unionist establishment .Some of them were trying to find a way out of the political cul de sac into they ( the old working class loyalists ) would end up in .

    Now that they have ended up in that cul de sac this should prompt new thinking on the part of their would be leaders . problem is they have few if any and those they have are preoccupied in waving flags and berating SF and things Irish to the exclusion of their own interest..

    Given the political history of NI since 1920 and especially given it’s demographics it was never ever going to be easy for any ‘radical ‘ thinking unionist or loyalist to establish a party that would oppose the old Unionist Party .

    The Rev Paisley was the only one who managed but from what I recall many of the former loyalist ‘radicals ‘ were never convinced that Paisley had their interests at heart either and that he simply wanted to replace the old UP with his brand of the same . .

  • Hi Charles, yes – Alias is right, there are antecedents to ‘Sharing Responsibility’ in the 1970s, which Novosel also discusses in the book.

  • Reader

    Charles_Gould: the various documents such as “common sense” seemed to be thought through.
    Novosel seems to think that the loyalists were influenced by external agencies, though he hasn’t quite joined up the dots in that respect.

  • Chris Moore wrote a book about McGrath and Tara. But their role was mainly in the mid-1960s in reviving the UVF as a paramilitary organization. There is also a pamphlet that was published about the Volunteers Political Party. The VPP did not get anywhere mainly because of its associations with the UVF and its policies were socialist–something that put it beyond the pale to the unionist electorate. Twenty years later the electorate was slightly more receptive to paramilitary parties and socialist policies but not enough to make such a party really viable. The biggest problem for loyalist parties is that the parties could not break their paramilitary connections. This had two negative effects. First, it kept the two parties beyond the pale. Second, it prevented them from pooling their electorate, which would have made the UDP more viable and kept the UDP’s pols like Davy Adams and Gary McMichael in politics. I personally pointed out to McMichael that Yitzhak Shamir became prime minister of Israel by joining the Herut, which started out as the party continuation of the Etzel (Irgun) paramilitary group even though he had been one of the leaders of the rival Lehi (Stern Group) paramilitary party. But McMichael said that the voters of his party would never vote for a party associated with the UVF.

  • David Crookes

    “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…..”

    If the quotation is indeed verbatim, I shan’t read the book. Someone who uses a plural verb with a singular subject, and someone who uses three demonstratives in a group of seventeen words, should be going to basic English classes.