There is nothing Loyal about Sectarianism

William Ennis, A member of the PUP, writes for us about the issues of Loyalism and Sectarianism in Northern Ireland

The Loyalist activist will also be a human rights activist and will work to ensure that the rights and liberties of the people living and working within his or her community are not infringed. If the principles of civil and religious liberty are to be more than a mere slogan on a banner or an Orange Arch they must be practiced. (William Mitchell, from principle 2 of the Principles of Loyalism document)

I doubt anyone enjoys returning to work after a holiday but following my wedding and a fantastic break in London with my wife this was my first alarm clock Thursday in two weeks. By the time I had completed the brief walk from my house to Sydenham halt I had overcome the dreariness and was instead, on what was a very pleasant morning, just looking forward to getting back into the routine. I exchanged pleasantries with some fellow commuters as I parked myself at one of the tabled seats. It was as the train moved off that my heart sank. Out of the window I saw a wall on Inverary Drive which had been defiled with sectarian graffiti. Huge black letters scrawled out some grizzly and desperate demand of “NO TAIGS IN OUR ESTATE”.

I could only throw my head against the head-rest and wince.

Ill feeling toward Catholic people has no place in my Loyalism because I find it irrational and I have witnessed how it limits those afflicted. It is the most unpleasant strain of conflict hangover evident today.

I believe that sectarianism is in fact inconsistent with Loyalism.

The conflict which raged in Northern Ireland for so long fell largely parallel with religious lines but Republicanism, in its infancy, was almost entirely Presbyterian, and with a huge majority of Northern Irish people still favouring the maintenance of our constitutional position within the Union (which is almost wholly the Loyalist position) it is evident that a great many Catholic’s continue to be unimpressed by the Irish Republican alternative.

And with the latest poll by the much respected Queens University showing 82.6% of the people of Northern Ireland in favour of remaining part of the UK with only 17.4% wanting a united Ireland (Owen Patterson at NIQT, March 2012)

Edward Carson, a figure from history almost as revered by Loyalists today as William of Orange was indeed often at pains to warn those of influence in the new Northern Ireland State of the great wrong that would be mistreatment of “the minority”.

You will be a parliament for the whole community. We used to say that we could not trust an Irish Parliament in Dublin to do justice to the Protestant minority. Let us take care that the reproach can no longer be made against your parliament and from the outset let them see that the Catholic minority have nothing to fear from a Protestant majority. (Edward Carson, as quoted in The man who divided Ireland by G Lewis, 2005)

It may be a temptation to denounce Catholics for their alleged lack of tolerance of our Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) culture, but are those who are guilty of that charge all Catholic? And how representative are those who are? Little has angered me as much as the mass outbreak of snobbery aimed at Loyalists (younger ones in particular) since the flag protests began in December 2012. The re-spelling of the word flag as “fleg” as a means of belittling protestors who speak with a regional Belfast accent was first called by veteran socialist Eamonn McCann.

You can tell there is an element of Snobbery involved any time reference is made to ‘flegs’. If the accents of working class Catholics were systematically mocked in this way there would rightly be shouts of ‘racism’, ‘sectarianism’, etc (Mccann, 2013)

Who would have thought that when the dominant discourse of main stream media essentially declared open season on working class Loyalism the boldest pen to come to our defence would be that of a writer of the Derry civil rights movement, a man who, as an old work colleague of mine would have said, “wouldn’t kick the heels of yee on the twelfth day”.

Many Loyalists of course hold their Christianity as central to their Loyalism. This is a perfectly noble and celebrated strand of our culture and one which provides the starkest evidence of Loyalisms inconsistency with sectarianism. In the book of Luke Chapter 10 verses 25-37 an expert in Law is quizzing Christ. Christ confirms for the man that to get to heaven he must “Love thy neighbour as thy self”. It is the inquizative lawyer’s further demand of clarity as to “who is my neighbour?” that prompts Jesus to tell every Christians favourite Sunday School story, the parable of the good Samaritan.

Politically, culturally and religiously there are no valid reasons for any Loyalist to hold a dislike of Catholic people.

There are however, plenty of reasons to help those within the Loyalist family who continue to struggle with such a mindset. Sectarianism is wrong and should be opposed anyway, but it is, I believe, greatly damaging to the Loyalist family.

Sectarian behaviour when attributed to Loyalists, regardless of how disproportionate that attribution may be, strengthens the hand of those who show our traditions no tolerance. It allows those who resent Loyalism’s very existence to paint us as the problem as opposed to a group of people who have, like other sections of society, suffered as a result of our country’s turbulent past.

We Loyalists must be a confident people rather than merely a defiant one. We must understand and embrace the reality that because a campaign/parade/event is not exclusively Loyalist that doesn’t make it anti-Loyalist. To retreat from society and only emerge for exclusively Loyalist events is damaging because it allows others to seal us up in a box. It makes us easy to disregard, it makes us easy to dismiss. It makes mockery of our pronunciation appear reasonable. It gives default intolerance of Loyalism a veneer of logic. So when I protest against the political forces who would privatise our hospitals, I do so as a Loyalist. When I protest to raise awareness that some British rights are currently denied to Northern Irish citizens, I do so as a Loyalist. When I march with others through the town against racism, I do so as a Loyalist. When I carry placards to raise awareness of and demand action on homelessness, I do so as a Loyalist. I won’t allow other peoples perception of Loyalism to constrain me. This Loyalist will have his say.

Un-Loyalist behaviour such as sectarianism hampers the building of confidence. It prevents others from seeing who we really are. At times, it perhaps prevents us from seeing who we really are. So if you witness a young Loyalist in your family, band or street habitually using sectarian language don’t scold, shout or embarrass him/her, just ask, “why?” Why is this young person angry? Has their anger been planted by others who benefit from it? What is the true cause of their anger? How can we help? With activists such as Julie-Anne Corr Johnston channelling the frustrations she felt as a young Loyalist into her progressive politics this is work which is already well under way.

What will be the Loyalism of our grand-children? All I know is that it shouldn’t involve graffiti on walls.