Cllr Julie-Anne Corr Johnston’s perspective on 2015 loyalism

Under the title of Perspectives on Loyalism in 2015, Dave Magee had assembled a panel who unpacked their academic and personal impressions of the so-hard-to-define term ‘loyalism’ in front of a listening audience at Corrymeela’s APERTURE festival this afternoon.

Sandwiched in-between academic Sophie Long [talk embedded at bottom of this post] and rapper/teacher Jun Tzu (Jonathan Hamilton), Belfast City Councillor for Oldpark, Julie-Anne Corr Johnston delivered the following address.

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Assuming everyone has one, could I ask you to take your mobile phone from your pocket, handbag or man bag and search Google images for Belfast Loyalist. When you have done that, if you feel comfortable, can you raise your hand and with only one word describe what it is you see.

They say a picture paints a thousand words, as tempting as it is, we could be here all evening so we won’t test that theory.

I remember at the age of eleven, my dad had sat me down to tell me why he and my mother had separated and why he no longer lived with us. Dad told me that his housemate Stephen was in fact his boyfriend. It was my first year post primary or “big school” as mummy called it and I recall sneaking off to the library at lunch time one afternoon. I typed “gay” into Google, so that I could better understand. I hadn’t anticipated that what catapulted onto my screen would shape my understanding for the next five years. I hadn’t anticipated that as a result I would hate my dad and hate gay people. I no longer wanted to understand, I had seen enough, read enough and was left utterly embarrassed, ashamed and entirely in line with the sentiments of condemnation that had filled my screen.

Of course, I’m now in a civil partnership and an out and proud lesbian. My own experience has taught me the struggles of being society’s outcast in 2015, let alone a how it must have felt for a closet gay man In the 80’s. But it took time, it took engagement, and it took empathy for me to move from that initial position: fear, hostility, and even hatred- to where I am now, a proud, gay woman. What does this have to do with Loyalism? It is about not succumbing to our gut reaction, or allowing others to tell us what something IS. The lesson which we can draw from this is that we need to be willing to look beyond the surface, because to do so will allow us to see the whole story, and not just an excerpt. I’m now going to talk about perceptions and the impact which they can have.

Like the word “gay”, perception of Loyalism has changed – once considered key stakeholders in moving this country forward via the peace process, loyalists are now more referenced as “fleggers and protesters that are holding Northern Ireland back”. But are we holding Northern Ireland back? Or is it that those in government have moved on and consigned the Loyalist working class to the past with no place in the future?

For many the latter is a genuine perception.

I recall May 24th; I was standing in the Great Hall of Belfast City Hall and they had just declared my election, everything happened so quickly, friends and colleagues tugging at me for a celebratory hug, a picture here and there, when I was dragged to the side for my first interview. Here I was- a young female non-conforming to the political stereotype- and the first question I was met with was “Congratulations Julie-Anne, from flag protester to councillor, what motivated you to join the Progressive Unionist Party the political wing of the UVF?”

A legitimate question, but one which set an unpleasant precedent, that despite policies that are economically socialist, socially liberal, entirely left of centre and more importantly a stark contrast to the other Unionist parties, it is evident that Loyalism is expected to answer for its past whilst those in government plan for the future.

Regarding the past, I am a little older than the “peace baby” generation. However I have no recollection of ever experiencing the Troubles, possibly a result of my mother’s meticulous efforts in sheltering both my sister and I from goings on outside of our home or church.

But I do have experience of working with ex-prisoners, ex combatants and others within the loyalist constituency, encouraging their involvement in the political process so as to enable them to embrace the principles of participative democracy. I also help them to play an active role in working for social change, both for the enrichment of their own lives, as well as the life of their community.

Encouraging my constituents to do these things is difficult, as they feel disengaged and politically irrelevant yet are expected to do the heavy lifting and influence their community to conform to a society in which you have no stake.

A lot of hard work and little recognition- that is much of the post-Agreement Loyalist experience.

Bonfires are a good example of how Loyalism feels misrepresented. Bonfires are a legitimate expression of loyalist culture with historical significance. The media and other citizens focus on the small number of bonfires steeped in flags, election posters or banners bearing a message of protest. We do not condone this behaviour. There is no need to burn paraphernalia or flags to celebrate our culture. tt is however an unfortunate condition of discontent and one which needs to be constructively addressed.

We want to see change. We want to see progress. We believe that condemning whole communities is counter-productive when encouraging positive change, and there are many positive examples to choose from this year, Woodvale Park being one of them.

Big house Unionism is famous for its scaremongering over the Union. Our concern is not for the Union- the Union is safe, copper-fastened by the Agreement, and believe it will remain as such for years to come. We condemn the manipulative tactics deployed by the larger Unionist Parties, preying on those who feel their place and value in society is already undermined.

For many of us growing up in a working class community, good citizenship has been about knowing your place; we have been encouraged to be followers rather than champions of our own community. A practice that has led us to the margins of society.

Our priority is building the Northern Ireland in which we want to live, one that epitomises the British values of pluralism, inclusivity, mutual respect and tolerance but one in which its citizens have the quality of life in which to enjoy it. We want to contribute, we want to finish what we started when propping up the Good Friday agreement – and for that we need others to engage with us.

For those of us genuinely interested in moving Northern Ireland forward, we must commit ourselves to promoting a diverse society rather than reacting to a divided one. In order to build a truly shared future it is essential each citizen, regardless of their national identity, political ideology, social class or status feel engaged, valued and included. Involvement in the political affairs of Northern Ireland must not be limited to those who have traditionally seen themselves as the political leaders of unionism. Working class loyalists have as much right as anyone else to engage in what David Trimble described as “Real Politics”.

I’m sure that some of you may have read or at least heard of The Principles of Loyalism but for those of you who haven’t it is a document produced by the Progressive Unionist Party which outlines the key components of the loyalist cause. I have brought some copies along with me today and I would like to implore those of you willing to look beyond the surface, to do so, explore the whole story, and not just an excerpt from Google.

Thank you.

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