Like them or loathe them, Loyalists Against Democracy will have been around for a year on Tuesday 10 December. They’ve become a local online phenomenon with their mix of parody, banter and acerbic attacks.
It started out as one man trolling “ridiculous” loyalist flag protesters online. Early daft parody protest ideas like complaining about Aer Lingus flying over East Belfast have grown into a collective producing sophisticated graphics, videos, music, a musical for the Edinburgh fringe as well as caustic online commentary and at times venomous assaults on those they dislike or who attack them.
Last December our lives fell apart
Now the whole world is grey ‘cause our culture’s passé …
Last December the vote broke our hearts
And though we cried foul play they deemed our fleg risqué
This year judges have been severe
‘Cause flegging’s not inconsequential …
They’ve launched a charity record – Last December by “Paramilitary Wives” – which is now available to download. The original plan to give the profits to SOS Bus NI were scotched when the charity predictably received abuse and decided not to take the risk of accepting a donation from LAD. Though in the process they’ve triggered a huge number of individual donations to SOS Bus NI! Update – the single has now been withdrawn from sale for “legal complications”.
I spoke to LAD’s founder ‘Billy Smyth’ last week to find out more about Loyalists Against Democracy and find out more about the group whose mission seems to be to hold a mirror up to loyalism while simultaneously drawing rude signs on the mirror with lipstick. Away from his keyboard, Billy is remarkable moderate and affable. While it doesn’t sound like centre-ground politics will pick up many votes from LAD, they felt that Naomi Long was being “unfairly scapegoated” last December. Championing people that they don’t have a lot in common with is a tenet of LAD.
Billy said that at the start of the flag protests they “spotted a gap in the market” with no one really “taking these people on and holding them to account”. “The extremists are quick to use threatening behaviours” to silence newbie commentators who dare to criticise loyalism in the media, while more traditional commentators are held back since they need politicians to for stories.
Jamie Bryson seems increasingly keen to unmask LAD and come after their jobs, but Billy is confident that the collective will remain under the radar.
Anonymity gives you that protection to say what you want.
That’s a view that seems to be shared by parade organisers!
Members of the LAD collective are from across Belfast, with women and men from “traditional” protestant and catholic backgrounds who have “turned our back” on being identified by religion. Billy was keen to persuade me that it was not a middle class collective: living in an estate and going to university might make someone “educated working class” rather than middle class.
Billy believed that “loyalism isn’t doing itself any favours” and while he identified some “rising stars” (who’ll be relieved that I’m not going to name them) he sums up the current leadership of the flag protests as “four or five clowns at the top” and said that they don’t represent the whole community.
We just don’t want these people to ruin what has the potential to be a wonderful place to live.
LAD members clearly attend Belfast City Hall protests and have first hand experience of the “tension and atmosphere” brought about by the heavy policing and “elements who just want to cause trouble”.
Getting people talking and bringing people into the debate who weren’t there a year ago are amongst LAD’s successes according to Billy. He also highlights their petition calling for Edwin Poots’ resignation or removal from office which has collected over twelve thousand signatures and “has [the minister] rattled”.
Billy reckoned that change in Northern Ireland won’t come from politics, but instead would emanate from groups like LAD, from the business sector and civil society. LAD gets angry about more than just flags. Billy asks where is NI’s progressive socialist party that wants to improve education and improve job prospects?
Education will be a future topic for LAD coverage. Other issues like abortion and even the Belfast/Sprucefield John Lewis planning fiasco are tougher to squeeze into LAD’s current formats. Over coming months they will expand their range of characters, and their attention may turn a little more often to the dissidents and republican shenanigans.
Other than T-shirts and music sales, social media are LAD’s oxygen of publicity: blogger, tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook (until it’s next shut down). Social media also allows a constant behind-the-scenes conversation between members of the collective to shape their next steps, discuss possible graphics and posts, and moderate behaviour when boundaries are pushed. Individuals who’ve been on the sharp end of LAD’s online comments may feel that the abuse and bullying is anything but moderate. LAD do seem to be examples of the near-mythical extreme or angry moderates.
Billy described the need to “get into character” and “become a loyalist” when logging into LAD’s twitter account. The collective’s ability to talk credibly for a while and then lapse into abuse and victimhood seems to mirror some of the people and groups they most often lambast.
Adopting the same tone and techniques of those you criticise is a dangerous game. While the collective may feel the ends justify the means, the tenor of their tactics leave LAD wide open to criticism … and potentially open to legal challenge
when they slip into defamatory abuse. On the other hand LAD have created and sustained a widespread awareness of their message in a way that Occupy Belfast utterly failed to achieve. if
Will LAD’s second year in existence be their difficult second album?
As they morph from being purely online to having a greater real-world presence with songs, a musical and other media appearances, their resources and anonymity will be stretched. LAD already know that “being mean” to some media personalities has resulted in their voice being lost to many mainstream outlets.
Parody and satire can be sharp tools but they must be used wisely.
When they’re lampooning loyalist tropes, LAD are at their strongest. There are actions, behaviours, contradictions and characters in loyalist, republican communities and politics – and beyond – that deserve to be powerfully challenged.
When they’re attacking other people – whether ‘players’ in loyalism, academics or innocent bystanders – LAD are at their weakest, leading to accusations (sometimes correct, sometimes wide of the mark) that distract from LAD’s message. Just as sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, bullying and playground mocking are poor ways to expose bigotry and sectarian behaviour.
Only time will tell if Loyalists Against Democracy can be recognised for its satire and contribute positively to building a better city of Belfast, or whether they become a distraction, merely tying up the hands of protesters while others get on with the heavy lifting of improving the city.
In the meantime, many people will nod their heads and take guilty pleasure in the output of LAD, while others will retaliate with renewed vigour.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.