Review: My Only Crime was Loyalty (Jamie Bryson) – “Compromising isn’t my style”

I am not a diplomat and nor would I want to be. Compromising isn’t my style.

When people talk to me about Jamie Bryson there are a number of questions they repeatedly pose. Is he stupid? Has he gone away? How did he end up a flag protest leader?

Jamie Bryson book cover - My only Crime Was LoyaltyThe first two questions can be answered with ‘no’. And along with the third, they’re at least partly explained in Bryson’s latest book My Only Crime Was Loyalty which he has self-published and released today. (£7.99 in paperback, £8.04 on Kindle.)

The first hundred pages go over old ground, documenting his experience of being on the run, arrest, charge, bail, intelligence services and the Ulster People’s Forum. They are followed by a long set of appendices collecting together other writings and details of complaints and responses.

Fundamentally Bryson has written the book to explain the background to his encounters with the PSNI over the last two years and his very long running court case.

At times it reads like a revenge mémoire, allowing the prominent flag protester to hit back at investigating officers, the PPS, the judiciary, naysayers, the odd journalist and public representatives who have maddened and frustrated him.

At times it is reflective and self-critical. Bryson explains how he exacerbated and prolonged his falling out with Willie Frazer. He admits his weaknesses. Yet the author fails to believe that going on the record to criticise “DUP lackeys”, to say that “the Judge was a coward” and to publicly critique individual (albeit unnamed) PSNI officers will harm him more than it helps. His chapter about being on bail markedly recounts allegations made about his presence and actions before adding:

But that would have been a breach of bail. And I wouldn’t breach bail.

Readers have to make their minds up whether this is implicit boasting or explicit repudiation.

Despite acres of newspaper coverage, relatively little is known about the inside of the flag protests. Most people experienced the protests through the news, in the car, or out shopping in Belfast. Bryson usefully devotes an entire chapter to clarify his rise to prominence in the Ulster People’s Forum and details the movement’s growth and actions. The UPF is the only (loyalist) three letter organisation that is mentioned in the book.

Fundamentally, supporters of Bryson will read this book and cheer on their man … though some will wish they hadn’t been included. Critics will use it to reinforce their belief that Bryson is irrelevant and trouble. Journalists and commentators will check to see if they are mentioned, and whether it is positive (Allison Morris, Suzanne Breen, Sara Girvin, Stephen Nolan, David McCann) or negative (Sam McBride, Sunday Life, Sunday World).

The authorities will be spurred on to furiously check for nuggets of information they could use to bolster their legal cases and any ongoing investigations. The spooks will already have read the book. Some people will realise they’re not mentioned for legal reasons! And Bryson’s lawyer will panic every time the phone rings in case someone threatens libel.

Having been implicitly critical of a previous Jamie Bryson publication, I have to say that this one is better written. While the word-processed-and-published style and lack of a literary editor and design does lead to stylistic issues, they don’t get in the way of the plot.

The process of writing may have been cathartic, but an increased understanding of his psyche and motivation, knowing that his bail condition variation requests were more about trying to humiliate and embarrass the authorities than ease the constraints will not change a lot of people’s minds about Bryson. Yet reading the book will allow Bryson to get under people’s skin and might just humanise the best-known face of the flag protests.

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Some extracts:

On being Jamie Bryson:

People judge me by what they read in the newspapers, by the views of others. Many people despise me and many love me, yet the majority have never met me. They don’t know me. That bothers me a bit. People make judgements quickly and stick to them. I suppose in a sense that goes with the territory. You just have to learn to live with it …

Some from my own community don’t like me either. I don’t quite know why. Perhaps it is because the flag protests and some of my campaigning have affected their gravy train. Some are just DUP lackeys and sheep. I don’t lose any sleep over it.

When I sat down to write this book it was important I was honest. I have made mistakes at times and throughout the book I have admitted that. If I thought somebody was a clown then I said that. I don’t believe in telling lies. I am not a perfect character and nor am I the messiah. I am just an ordinary fella who cares deeply about my Country, my culture and my heritage. There is no shame in that.

On life as a Christian:

I have a strong faith in God which helps too. I fundamentally believe that not one hair on my head will be harmed unless it is God’s will. That gives me an amazing peace inside.

I don’t live my life as a Christian should, I am candid about that. I occasionally drink to excess, I have sex outside of marriage and I do things that I am not so sure God would approve of. But you have to make judgements. One day I will face God and give account of my actions. I have made peace with that too.

Recalling the PSNI search for him in North Down on 27 February 2013:

The PSNI searched the offices and surrounding area bemused as to why they could not find me. One officer became irritated and shouted “He’s not f**king Houdini, find him”.

(Throughout the book, PSNI officers fall into two categories: “principled and decent old school RUC lads” and those who Bryson feel hate and “persecute” him.)

On that curry:

I refused food in Police custody because I do not trust the PSNI. I did not go on hunger strike and then order an Indian curry. I don’t even eat Indian food. That entire story was a figment of the imagination of some newspaper ‘source’. It was a lot of nonsense.

On getting to know Michael Stone while in prison:

I quickly came to the conclusion that Michael Stone is not mad, he is not insane. He is an extremely intelligent man with a much clearer grasp on what is really going on in this Country than many of those who seek to dismiss him. One thing that will live with me forever is when I asked him if he regretted the stand he took for Ulster because it had ended up with him spending much of his adult life in prison. Michael simply said “I did what I had to do. I had my best thirty years on the outside”.

If Michael Stone was a republican there would be massive campaigns to have him released, sadly many within Unionism seem to have forgotten about him and others are probably happy to let him rot in prison. I hope that one day Michael Stone can once again be a free man.

On testing his bail conditions and attending court when it wasn’t his case:

Jim Dowson was representing himself at this early stage of his case and he asked me to be his legal advisor. It’s called a McKenzie friend in legal circles. I attended Court for Jim’s first appearance after he got bail. The anger on the face of the [investigating officer] was a sight to see. She was spitting nails, furious because by being at the Court I was within 4 miles of Belfast City Centre. However, the condition stated that I was permitted to attend Court … It would have been fantastic propaganda- “Your honour Mr Bryson was within 4 miles of Belfast City Centre, he was attending Court in an official capacity to assist a man without legal representation…”- but she didn’t take the bait on this occasion.

A few months later my conditions were changed to not being within 500 yards of City Hall. This meant I could attend Court as often as I wanted, and indeed I did.

On becoming a leader of the Ulster People’s Forum:

The protest at the Alliance party was well attended. I was approached by a camera man who knew my face. I would have been well enough known in media circles due to community work over the years and I had already had a bit of adverse attention from the Sunday World in relation to flag disputes in the North Down area. The cameraman asked me to speak. I readily expressed my view not only on the removal of the flag but on the wider peace process. After this other cameras present approached me to speak, I was happy to do so. I saw it as an opportunity to get across my anti-agreement political viewpoint. And so it began.

The following day a protest had been organised for Newtownards. I was handed a loudhailer and asked to address the crowd. I spoke for a couple of minutes; again I spoke about wider issues and received widespread support. A video of the speech was uploaded online …

After the Newtownards video I began to be contacted by organisers of other protests across the Country and invited to speak at them … I began travelling around the province speaking at different rallies and protests. It seemed that most rallies attracted the same speaker … We travelled some miles over those first few weeks. Rab, Roy, Jonty, wee Jim, Glenn, Michelle and Josh frequently came to various protests across the country with me.

On getting access to the draft Haass proposals:

The draft Haass documents were meant to be secret, only those in the room were allowed to view them and they weren’t allowed to leave the building. So I was asked to come to the building. I don’t think it was policy from the UUP or DUP to show me or Willie Frazer the documents. It was individuals within those groups who were reasonably sympathetic to our more hard line views.

I went into the toilets and was passed a shorthand copy of the documents. I was given 15 minutes to study the document whilst the person who had given me it went to make a phone call. He returned after 15 minutes and took back the paperwork he had given me. I expressed my disgust at what I had read and he promised to keep me up to date. He said he would deny this exchange ever took place, I said that he didn’t have to worry; I would never reveal my source.

On being accused of being a dole cheat:

[A Sunday newspaper] claimed they had run an investigation and ‘uncovered’ that I was doing the double. Again this was totally false. They claimed I was working as a taxi operator and at the same time claiming job seekers allowance. They wanted to paint me as some kind of low life dole cheat.

The truth is that I was actually working along with [the taxi firm] on a voluntary community project. I was seeing if they could design an employment scheme for young people within the local area. They genuinely wanted to do something positive in the community, and they ended up having their business plastered all over the front page of a Sunday rag by some pathetic excuse for a journalist. Their ‘crime’ was having me in their office to try and draw up a scheme to bring young people into employment.

On football (Bryson manages 1st Bangor second team) and politics:

I hope to continue in football management, it is a challenge and I have got the buzz back. It gives me another interest in life which is important.

I am not so sure that I have a future as an elected political representative; I don’t think I have the patience or a high enough tolerance for lies. I intended to stand in the local Government and European Elections this year but I had to withdraw late on. The truth is that I found out my partner was due to have a child. The elections would have placed a lot of stress on her and that is why I announced that I would be taking a step back from politics. I resolved to stay in the shadows. It lasted a while but if truth be told I missed the hustle and bustle of it, I missed living on the edge and I missed the natural thrill.

Some people are addicted to smoking, some to drinking and some to drugs; I think my addiction is the buzz you get from living in the danger zone. I think you get used to the adrenaline and when it’s not there you start to crave it. That maybe sounds a bit strange, but it’s the truth of how I feel. Maybe my body and mind have just adapted to living in a constant state of high alert and when I am not in that place I miss the adrenaline rush. I can’t explain it any other way.

The main part of the book finishes by recalling …

David McCann the political commentator asked me during an interview how I would like to be remembered. I had never really thought about it then, but I have now.

Bryson goes on to list ways in which he hopes he will or will not be remembered:

I hope those who do know me will remember me as someone who devoted his life to the cause of Ulster, our people and the freedom of our future generations.

I hope my friends remember me as someone who was loyal to a fault, as someone who always stood by his own and as someone who would stand by his friends no matter what the personal cost.

I hope my children look up to me and realise that I took the stand I did be-cause in my heart I genuinely believed it was right. I hope that I will be a good father, a good step father and a good husband.

It’s clear that Jamie Bryson doesn’t take advice. He’s headstrong and lives with the consequences. Maybe becoming a father will soften his heart. Maybe that will widen the issues that he puts his energies into. Throughout the book, there’s a near complete absence of analysis and complaining about other ways in which the loyalist community Bryson chooses to represent suffer deprivation and unfair treatment by parties, government and society: health, education, welfare, housing, employment.

My heart is full of bitterness and hatred, I have seen what is really going on in this Country and because of that I can never forgive those who have tried to destroy it and nor can I forgive those from my own community who have been complicit in that by their silence …

[The armed conflict] is over and they and found out that they cannot win, it leaves us with the battle for the peace, the political battle. It is up to my generation to defeat them in this new battle, and to finish them once and for all. Perhaps the warped Republican ideal- the cause that inflicted so much violence and destruction upon our Country- will die out with the Provo’s.

Maybe this new generation of people from a Roman Catholic and Nationalist background will reject cultural wars and reject the idea that their previous generations fought some kind of just war against the British. Maybe they will simply want to live and let live.

I hope so. Because then I can go and enjoy my life and leave politics to those of my generation who can compromise and build a lasting and prosperous peace. I could leave politics to the politicians and enjoy celebrating my culture from time to time, socialise wherever I wanted, and watch my family grow up in a thriving society where the hatred and bitterness is long gone. Maybe then I could put all my hatred and the desire to resist the system in a glass cage with the words ‘break in the event of war’ on it.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.