Soapbox: Is it time to consider giving Loyalists special group rights?

Sophie Long is a graduate student at the School Of Politics, International Studies And Philosophy at Queens University in Belfast. Her thesis is based on action research undertaken in collaboration with Loyalist communities. Here she argues that we should equip Loyalists with the necessary power and resources to compete as equal participants in the politics of Northern Ireland.

Loyalism- Outside the System

As the five main (by which I mean two dominant) Executive parties engage in another round of talks, Loyalists are beginning to agitate for inclusion in the political deals which affect them. Their arguments have significant grounding. Why should Loyalists – as full citizens – be subject to agreements which they have had no part in crafting?

If we take the consistent, Loyalist argument that neither the DUP nor the UUP represent them effectively (setting aside the issue of ethno-national voting for now), we are left with a group who are outside of the political system, and who are deeply unhappy with their position.

This is an undesirable state of affairs for anyone who wishes to increase participation in formal politics, with voter turnout in Northern Ireland hovering at around 50% or lower in Loyalist areas. There are social and economic consequences to consider also. Feeling cut-off from formal politics is closely correlated with participation in protest movements, as we saw in the 2012 flags protests.

The problem, therefore, is that Loyalists no longer trust mainstream Unionism to deliver on the issues which affect them.

The formation of the Loyalist Communities Council was intended not only to address paramilitarism, but also disengagement from politics and low educational attainment. If these issues could have been resolved by the Unionist parties already in power, the L.C.C. would not have been needed.

A Proposed Alternative

Instead of encouraging Loyalists to vote, or reminding them that they have no mandate, there is an alternative. Group-differentiated rights, or special group rights, are a mode of ensuring political representation and improved quality of life for minority groups. These are provided to groups who would otherwise be marginalised or whose voices would be disregarded by the dominant political groups.

In India, members of certain castes and tribes are provided with reservations, to ensure they can survive. Maoris in New Zealand were automatically granted four seats in government under the Maori Representation Act of 1867.

In Malaysia, special programmes were implemented to increase the number of Malay people in higher education. Internationally, it is recognised that some groups require specific rights in order that they can participate as equals in society.

Special group rights run counter to liberalism, and operate on the basis that majority systems do not allow minorities to compete on an even playing field. In Northern Ireland, whilst we have a certain allowance for ‘group difference’, this has become a form of ethnically-divided majoritarianism.

Small, Loyalist parties have struggled electorally, relative to mainstream Unionism. This has led to Loyalist discontent, with the Loyalist-Unionist relationship breaking down to the point of dysfunction. As Loyalists have specific interests, I argue that they should be provided a quota of seats in government, so that they can participate politically.

Does Loyalism Qualify?

How can we justify this? Loyalism is a distinct group, currently not represented at the highest levels of government, nor in universities, or in business. We can see ample evidence of these uneven outcomes for Loyalists, not least the desperate plight of Protestant working class boys struggling in a school system which is designed to allow the best to flourish and the rest to flounder.

Low voter turnout in Loyalist areas is often used to present Loyalists as apathetic and apolitical. Loyalists are not apathetic. They are disenfranchised. What better way to address this than to actively re-enfranchise them and provide Loyalist seats in local Council and Stormont?

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We cannot simply encourage Loyalists to ‘try harder’ at politics. Numerically small, and politically overpowered, this will only lead to frustration. The foundational argument for special group rights is that it is unreasonable to expect a minority to compete in a game which they will never win. The electoral share for the Progressive Unionist Party over the past 17 years demonstrates this (Fig 1).

The political system which we have produces ethno-national outcomes- the biggest party within an ethnic bloc triumphs. Smaller parties, then, are not actually competing. They are instead engaged in a process of tokenistic participation.

As a matter of justice, we ought to ensure Loyalist political representation, and roles in economic and civic life.

Not all groups are suitable for these special measures. In order to qualify for special group rights, most political theorists insist upon certain criteria being fulfilled.

These are:

  1. The group has a common character and culture.
  2. People growing up amongst the group will have their tastes and interests shaped by the group.
  3. You are a group member if a) you recognise yourself as such and b) other group members recognise you as such.
  4. It is a historically significant group with a common understanding of history.
  5. There is no need to ‘qualify’ for group membership, as outlined above.
  6. There are often a set of shared interests and common goals.

I am arguing that Loyalism qualifies as a group under these conditions. The claim is not that Loyalism is an internally homogenous group – there are internal divisions and differences within Loyalism – but that there are a set of agreed interests, issues and characteristics which are unique to Loyalists, and which cannot be progressed by anyone other than Loyalists.

The politics which we wish to see – more generous, more inclusive, more fair – will not naturally emerge from the current duopoly (the DUP and Sinn Fein). Eight years have passed with little more than playground politics on professional salaries. Each party has the power and influence to begin to cooperate with the other on non-ethnic issues such as health, employment and education.

They have failed to do so, and so we must adopt alternative measures.

If we genuinely wish to see a more confident, outward-looking Loyalism, we must equip Loyalists with the necessary power and resources to compete as equal participants in the politics of Northern Ireland. For this I believe the implementation of special group rights is necessary, not only for Loyalism to flourish, but as a matter of justice for minority groups.

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