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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  • Granni Trixie

    Sophie
    I think that you not declaring your party connection is directly linked to questions concerning the methodology you are adopting.
    For instance you say you are conducting ‘action research’. I would expect you therefore to take a reflexive approach where you locate yourself as an actor in the field you are researching. I would have thought your supervisor would have suggested you do so. In this way readers of your thesis know the point of view from which you write and your thesis could avoid the kind of criticism seen here. Has your supervisor not pointed out such basic concerns?

    Your piece reads like mopery or wingefest and you come across as having been ‘captured’ by the culture you are researching. Also looks like you have confiated the roles of enthusiastic party activist and someone trying to meet the requirements of say a masters or PhD.

    I would really like to encourage you to keep going but unfortunately I feel you seem blind to commonsense morality which cannot understand why you want to privilege the group you are researching.

  • Granni Trixie

    Some people do not buy into the DE myth.

  • Kevin Breslin

    “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interrèd with their bones.”

    As a politician I would not be afraid to call him a political hero for the good he did. Growing up with a vulnerable peace process I did feel after the turning point of the Good Friday Agreement he was doing all he could to stop the madness.

  • Alan N/Ards

    That is very true, Seaan. That can’t be denied. As you well know, you could have had a donkey with a flag on it and some people would have voted for it. Sad, but true.

    But how do you define a “loyalist”? My uncles were labour men, but also pro British. They were not loyal to Craig’s vision of Northern Ireland, but were loyal to the state (UK). The conservative unionist party were opposed to Labour and socialism, and were happy to use any underhand method of keeping them out. They (Labour) were not “true blues” even though many of their supporters had served in both wars.

  • Kevin Breslin

    There’s no evidence that Dawn was so ineffectual in the campaign that she brought none of them on board. Alliance certainly went outside the stereotypical Alliance voters e.g. cozy middle class and liberal people to get so high a vote.

  • aquifer

    A group linked to the UDA has now threatened migrants in housing areas. Our MLAs must designate their position as to which sectarian camp they pitch in. Methinks this groupthink has gone far enough.

    Where are our Northern Ireland specific INDIVIDUAL rights as promised? (left in peace on our own sofa would be nice, given that peace in our time is now too much to hope for)

    OK lets pay for votes. A pound a vote to your party of first choice instead of funding by big business big unions and here big developers and big sectarian gangs. And why should a party with 2% of the votes not have 2% of the seats, when our politics are clearly not about local constituencies, but about religious and national identity. And a serious lack of sex.

    There is clearly not enough of it in our politics. People and political partys are much too uptight, the electoral and political nonfunding systems are keeping them that way, and it is harming them and their shakra. Sex or armed subversives. It really is that simple.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    no loyalist candidates ran in 2015 either. Alliance did not win.

  • The Lagan

    Are we seriously entertaining the idea that we give drug dealers and force flaggers 2 votes each???

  • Kevin Breslin

    Sorry do loyalists only exist if they have someone to vote for, do they only vote for fellow loyalists?

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I do not agree with Sophie at all but there is no need to attack her personally.

  • Granni Trixie

    I have heard that too.

  • Granni Trixie

    I think respectful language should be the norm here but there is obviously the prroblem of appearing to man-woman play in a case like this where you doubt the authority or objectivity of someone claiming academic status.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Alan, I find it interesting to find that the term “Loyalist” in the later 1680s was generally applied to the supporters of James II! When I used it so rather playfully in talks in the 1990s, I was told by fellow members of the MHSI that this was a joke too far.

    As you say, the old Unionist party attempted to absorb all claim of loyalty to themselves, and to suggest that every other party was in some manner anti-British. They wished for a homogeneous Unionist movement.

    When NI Labour began to make some serious electoral headway here in the early 1960s, O’Neill’s policy was to freeze them out. I’d feel that this is exactly what ensured that the Protestant working class became marginalised politically, as they had nowhere seriously constitutional to look for a party that would clearly represent their interests.

    The old NILP offered the best opportunity to rebuild our politics, and I was involved in that Young Labour group that would become the core of the People’s Democracy. Another lost opportunity to develop in our community the essence of what has really constituted a genuine Britishness since WWII.

  • TruthToPower

    Was that the same Sophie Long who appeared in The View not so long ago, slouching on the chair like a kid at detention. PhD students aint what they used to be….

    loyalist communities if given special representation at Stormont would show that NI leads the way in showing political flexibility and inclusiveness to the Neanderthal community of drug dealers, extortionists and racists ie loyalists.

    Republican minded Neanderthals have proven a little better at vote gathering and some are even starting to walk upright but it may take a little time before full evolution into a higher life form is demonstrated

  • chrisjones2

    A start might be to articulate what their issues are. The problem has always been that

    1 what they see as their issues vary dramatically from person to person
    2 when they discuss them they start to fight with each other

  • chrisjones2

    Wow .,,,,,,,

    “Loyalists whos ideology is supremacist by definition” …..and Republicanism’s isn’t when it too is driven by a chosen race myth?

    “denied them right to vote” …….. just as in England and Ireland in the past and where there were property restrictions in votes for Councils based on rateable values of property. Look at the rules around Irish Senate elections today. Are they more democratic.

    “Sectarianism is still rife within Loyalist communities” …as in many inner city Nationalist communities. Have a look at what they burn on bonfire in August in Divis , although there is a concerted effort to clean it up, and the murals extolling sectarian murderers

    “it is plain to be seen how they threat ethic minorities” as also happens in Nationalist inner city areas as well

    There is a huge amount wrong in Loyalist areas but I urge you to try and look at this in context. It aint just them that are the problem

  • chrisjones2

    My parents were hard core unionists and bought their own house but the RV was too low so they had no vote. The NI Legislation was modelled on that in England pre (I think) 1936 or 1948 …..not an excuse but it was as much a case of working clas Prod lie down as Croppie lie down

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I don’t know what sort of contortion you’re trying to twist yourself into here Kevin, but let’s get back to basics. You have no evidence that Naomi Long succeeded in 2010 because of loyalist votes. If you have any, feel free to present it.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Another problem with Sophie’s thought experiment is that loyalist parties used to win seats. In 1998 the PUP won two seats (North and East Belfast). They continued to hold the seat in east Belfast in 2003 and 2007, and only lost it in 2011.

    I hope that Sophie’s extensive academic research examines the question of exactly what caused the PUP to lose that seat in 2011. It seems clear that Dawn Purvis felt that she could no longer continue as leader of the PUP – would Sophie like to speculate on why that might have been ? It also seems clear that exactly half of the PUP’s voters stopped supporting the party as a consequence of this.

    Sophie’s suggestion to identify loyalists as some kind of grouping apart ignores the fact that loyalists once had a mandate, and now do not. It seems to – perhaps deliberately ? – ignore the circumstances that led to those mandates being lost.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    the other hand of what ? What’s your point ?

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I would rather people dealt with the substance of what she is saying rather than trawling her academic record as if to try to discredit her.

    I do agree that she should disclose the fact that she’s a PUP member. It’s pretty obvious that her PhD is going to read like a conflated PUP manifesto; but it is up to the university to decide what they make of that, not us. I personally could not care less what anyone’s academic background is.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I never said that the margin of her success was down to Loyalism, only that loyalists were prepared to vote for her. The very fact Dawn campaigned with Naomi and helped her win votes from PUP supporting areas indicates that simply being a so called big U unionist isn’t enough for some of them.

  • Kevin Breslin

    If the Assembly were a perfect microcosm of the electorate there would be 5 loyalist MLAs in Stormont if loyalists obtained a straight 5% vote. Now that doesn’t take account of constituency variations, or the last quota in each of the constituencies that we ignore, or indeed transfers either.

  • Granni Trixie

    I would like to think that no one here does either (judge contributirs on their academic background). However in this case we have a poster presenting her academic research so how can one avoid judging what she has written on that basis ?

  • kalista63

    It’s also greatly insulting to the indigenous peoples who were displaced of their lands.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Thank You Very Much Sophie for putting an article up for discussion on such a hostile forum !

  • Catcher in the Rye

    thank you for sharing that. I am not sure what your point was though. Elections are imperfect, we all know that.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Dawn campaigned with Naomi ? When did that happen ?

  • Pasty2012

    The Only way any Party gains seats is through the Electorate Supporting them and to get that support to the level needed to win the seats they must continuously offer themselves to the electorate at each and every election. The PUP and the others don’t always do that, they pull out of elections and their “would be” supporters then have to chose another Party, usually the DUP or UUP who have declared that Ulster is under threat and NI Peeps have to vote for them. The fools in the PUP etc. buy into this political crap every time and the electorate are then left voting for the DUP or UUP. Next time a council or Assembly election comes then the “would be” supporters of the PUP, and Others, see no need to change who they vote for.
    Simply solution for the “Loyalist” Party’s is to offer the electorate the chance to vote for them at EVERY election, that way they Build Up their voting base and over time they would likely see a few Councilors and MLA’s.
    Sophie should asking is Why do the PUP keep following the DUP/UUP line and pulling out of elections and expecting a different outcome when they next enter and put up a candidate ? The Nolan Show poll on a UI should give the PUP the confidence to stand against the DUP/UUP at every up coming election and not let them have a free run to feather their family gravy train. But come next May the DUP/UUP will make all sorts of declarations that Unionists have to stand aside to let them have a free run at the Unionist Electorate and the PUP will do what they are told and then next November Sophie will moan on about Loyalists being “Disenfranchised” – No Kidding.

  • John Collins

    Hold on Kevin, It is the Republic of Ireland and not the ‘Free State’. People as one might say ‘up North’ take exception to the six counties being referred to as anything but Northern Ireland, its proper appellation. So please extend us the courtesy of giving the southern state its proper title.

  • submariner

    But that would means themmuns might get in and we cant have that now can we.

  • John Collins

    Well in the case of the Senate, the entire voting population of the ROI had a chance to vote it away some time ago, as in the lifetime of the current Government, and they quite overwhelmingly declined to do so. As a graduate I have a Senate vote but I never exercised this as I feel it is utterly undemocratic. And yes I did vote to abolish it, for all the good it did.

  • Pasty2012

    Well if the PUP want in they will have to play by the same rules as everyone else. Sinn Fein only got to be there by continuously offering the electorate the chance to vote for them. If they had stood aside and told the electorate that they should vote for the DUP or UUP at every other election then why would voters even want to vote for the PUP? The DUP stood against the UUP in most elections and that is how they became the larger Unionist Party, and if the PUP want seats then they have to realize that and follow the DUP lead. The DUP didn’t listen to the UUP when they were being told to stand aside for Ulster, they looked out for themselves and ran against them.

  • Croiteir

    Seems to me that since they are not receiving any financial handouts they are seeking political ones – the perennial sponges.

  • Croiteir

    As a politician? – win many elections?

  • Séan Ó Brolcháin

    Wow, nothing like whataboutry Chris and breaking out the auld two dimensional sectarian card and without seriously addressing a single point I made. Well done 😉

  • Séan Ó Brolcháin

    Did you disagree civil rights barnshee?

  • Séan Ó Brolcháin

    Exactly why civil rights where done on a class and non sectarian basis. Do you think Loyalists should get special status?