If not loyalists, who else will do this job?

I’ve rarely heard such a lack of political sensitivity as Jim Wilson telling Stephen Nolan that, in applying to the British government to be deproscribed, the Red Hand Commando wants their ‘place in the sun’.

What a disturbing way to put it.

But at the same time, Wilson’s interview on the Nolan Show tells us so much about where loyalism is at in 2017. Still grasping for a political voice, still resentful of their exclusion from big house unionism, still frustrated that they can’t seem to access the kind of social and political legitimacy that they perceive republicans to have accessed.

In the mid 2000s, when I was lecturing in Sociology at QUB, I did some work with the RHC and UVF around their efforts to transition from paramilitarism to peace. Billy Mitchell (no relation), a former UVF commander and PUP strategist, who died in 2006, had invited me to spend some time looking into their work as he’d read some stuff I’d written on Protestantism and liked it.

A few years of hanging around with ex-prisoners, going to loyalist meetings, interviewing in the community, observing their interactions with OFMDFM (for whom I co-wrote an internal report, some of the research methods/findings from which are here), I learned a few things…

Loyalism craves political legitimacy. Most loyalists working in conflict transformation groups that I met, did not seek to excuse their violence during the Troubles, at least not to me. In fact many privately expressed regret. Instead, their real motive was to be understood as combatants who are on a journey from war to peace, and to be given some credit for the ways they were trying to move forward. Because this was, and is, a context where many unionists talk to loyalists in private, yet wash their hands of them in public. Where so much of what they do and say is mocked as the rantings of knuckle dragging thugs and fleggers. And it is a context where they haven’t been able to find a place in the political mainstream, often because of their own limitations, of which more below…

Calling this desire for legitimacy a ‘place in the sun’ is horrendous, utterly offensive to victims. I’m out of the loop now, so I can’t claim to know what the RHC’s sentiments in saying this, or applying for deproscription, really are. But what I heard in Wilson’s interview was the familiar frustration that whilst many loyalists have been working for positive change in their areas for a long time now, they feel that few people either notice or care.

To be specific about what I mean by positive change… I spent time in restorative justice programmes which tried to replace punishment beatings with community-based alternatives. Loyalist conflict transformation groups liaised between paramilitaries, youth workers, the PSNI and Probation Board to facilitate this. I went to anti-racism seminars that they ran on loyalist estates. I watched paramilitary bosses give powerpoint presentations to the rank and file about how the war was over, and the ways in which they needed to transition into peaceful politics and community work. They helped get kids get out of paramilitary groups. I saw loyalists’ close relationships with republican ex-prisoners, who they were in regular contact with, and indeed which peace was partly built on. Their mobiles would ring constantly, often having to leave to break up a fight at the interface, or to talk sense into some kid or other.

Just to be clear, I am talking about loyalist conflict transformation groups here, rather than paramilitary groups per se. These are ex-prisoner and community organisations who have links to, and influence with, loyalist paramilitaries. It’s a fine line, and I don’t think the difference is always clear cut. But it is a distinction worth making, because loyalist conflict transformation groups are aiming for a very different modus operandi (professionalised reconciliation workers, liaising with statutory bodies, supportive of the peace and political process) than the paramilitaries (many of whom are actively involved in crime and intimidation, operating totally outside the system). In a peaceful society, we wouldn’t need these kind of intermediaries. But coming out of conflict, these are jobs that need doing, and it’s fair to say that loyalist conflict transformation groups have been effective precisely because of their paramilitary connections.

In the mid-2000s there was little funding for this work, and loyalist conflict transformation groups would string out bits and scraps of grants, often not taking home a wage. The funding situation has changed now, notably with the UDA and Charter NI. But whilst loyalist groups want their work to be sustainable, I didn’t perceive the people I spent time with to be motivated by financial rewards. It was some mainstream recognition they were after. For people to believe that they could actually effect change. Like they saw Sinn Féin doing. They looked at demobilisation and reconciliation processes in other post-conflict societies, and tried to carve out a similar role for themselves in Northern Ireland.

Did they always succeed? Clearly not. Loyalist paramilitarism continues, and, according to a 2015 PSNI report, is still recruiting. Drug-dealing continues. Punishment beatings have declined but not stopped. Intimidation is still rife. Racism not only continues, but has mutated within loyalism in complex ways, almost in a Trump-like anti-migrant isolationism. Riots still happen at interfaces. But, in my experience, loyalists didn’t ever stop showing up for the work.

So why hasn’t their work paid off more? Why are they still on the fringes of political relevance, puzzling over how to be taken seriously?

Partly it’s their own fault. The way loyalists express their objectives is often jarring. This is not to deny the articulate, analytical ways that many loyalists like David Ervine and Billy Mitchell expressed their politics. But as a whole, there is a tendency to use blunt, stark language, an indisposition or inability to sugar coat and spin. This is not always a bad thing. But it has meant that loyalists have struggled to play the wider political game, with it’s nuanced massaging of words and phrases, to bring people along with the broader journey. And because they have never been able to sell their politics to a wider audience or indeed to voters, they often speak in the voice of angry, beleaguered outsiders. A vicious circle which alienates people outside loyalism even further.

And so they have remained pariahs. They have a sense of victimhood and exclusion that outsiders find incredulous. But which makes sense to a bunch of people whose selfunderstanding is that they took to violence in their teens to protect their communities from the IRA. That they were used as muscle and then sold down the river by the unionist establishment. That their communities have lacked, and still lack, the educational resources to find better solutions to their problems. And all of this in the context of a deeply polarised society in Northern Ireland, where everyone is looking over their shoulder to check how much themmuns are getting. Never mind the wider context of late capitalism where sink estates are generally left to go ahead and sink, while the rest of society holds its nose. Loyalists feel they’re trying to move beyond all this, and that they need help to do so.

But there are further challenges to loyalist conflict transformation groups’ legitimacy. Principally, because they have not yet managed to get violent loyalist paramilitarism under control. While the RHC is small, has an older membership, and may not have been active recently, the same is not true of the UVF and UDA. People are still scared of them, and with good reason. People are afraid to complain about flags and bonfires, and feel in many cases that they have to accept loyalist rule in their area, or else…

In the mid 2000s, I was constantly frustrated with how slowly and painfully the progressive message from the PUP and UVF leadership filtered down the ranks, if at all. In typical Protestant fashion, there were splits and splinters and people who would not come along with the wider project. They lacked the focus and discipline of the republican movement. And this wheel is still spinning. A loyalist leadership with one version of their civic role, versus paramilitary battalions and individuals who couldn’t care less and do what they want.

As I’ve followed the progress of loyalist peace-building over the 2010s – from afar this time – I’ve also been consistently dismayed by the pull towards conservatism and the constant own goals. As a result, articulate, progressive spokespeople like Dawn Purvis and Sophie Long have been unable to keep championing the wider project. Not least because whilst loyalist groups were initially champions of left-wing and even feminist ideas, regressive and misogynist tendencies often bubble to the surface.

Whether this means we should then dismiss the whole concept of loyalist conflict transformation groups, I don’t know. What are they for now, if not to bring people beyond conflict? How long does ‘post conflict transition’ last – is 19 years enough? Will we still be here in 49 years? But at the same time, if they’re open to scrutiny, take a clear stance against criminality, support the political process and some people simply won’t come along, are they just to be written out? Should they become ‘normal’ and assimilate into youth and community services? Maybe. But could they then reach who they need to reach? Could wider unionism or the DUP help with this work instead? I don’t think they are equipped to deal with grittiness, nor have they shown much of an interest to date. More than this, unionist parties have often whipped up sectarian tensions for electoral gain, rather than seeking to calm them.

Do I think the RHC should be legalised? Hell no! It’s 2017 and it’s a Commando! But then again, do I think that the DUP and Sinn Féin are also picking over the bones of the conflict rather than imagining new and transformative ways forward? Absolutely. The RHC cannot be singled out for using the language and structures of the past to grasp at meaning in the present. I am no fan of bonfires and flags. But airbrushing them out, in the context of continuing deep division, is impossible. Saying thanks very much, now please go away, would leave a gaping hole in struggling loyalist areas. And I don’t want to imagine what might fill this hole instead…

Which keeps me coming back to the same question… If not loyalists, who else is going to do this job? Who else cares about loyalist estates, the hoods and the fleggers? Who else will be able to tell the ceasefire soldiers why paramilitarism is not all it’s cracked up to be? Who else is going to be able to call out racism in a way that loyalist communities have ears to hear? Who else can offer a narrative of loyalist post-conflict transition? I have more questions than answers. All I know is that when I was a regular in loyalist areas in the mid 2000s, I didn’t see anybody else signing up for the job.


Claire Mitchell is a freelance writer. Formerly senior lecturer in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. She is a member of the Green Party of Northern Ireland, but all views are her own. More at www.clairemitchell.net

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  • Skibo

    Couple of things wrong with your post.
    1) I don’t hate Unionists. I don’t hate the Union. I believe our future lays with reunification. Republicanism is not a case of negativity but the positivity of what reunification can offer the country as a whole.
    2) If you are referring to the sharing of a stage between Rev McCrae and Billy Wright, are you actually contesting whether it happened or the credentials of either party?
    3) are you saying that the UVF were legal and had a right to import weapons from a country that 2 years later Britain would be at war with?
    4) Are you saying that a citizen has the right to take up arms against the government if they believe the political policy of the government is wrong?
    5) Are you saying (and bear in mind the BBC programme last night on collusion) that Unionists did not use Loyalists?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’m not excusing that but the oft-repeated idea that this was “introducing the gun into Irish politics” is nonsense. Separatist nationalists had been actually using (not just threatening) violence for at least 50 years by that point. Or we can go back to 1798 and the massive loss of life then. I’m no fan of the Larne gun-running but really the idea that unionists “introduced” political violence to Ireland is a tad ahistorical.

  • Skibo

    I agree that in the previous fifty years that Nationalism had used violence but up to that time, Nationalism had been going down the road of politics and were well on the way to home rule.
    The introduction by the UVF and Craig in particular of imported German guns was done to curtail the success that democratic Nationalism was having.
    Republicans were not long in following their example especially when the threat of UVF violence resulted in all the discussions on partition.
    The Irish Citizen’s Army would have been more of a socialist movement to protect union workers trying to use strikes to gain better working conditions.
    Interestingly your mention of 1798 would not be as much seen as a catholic rebellion but more of a Presbyterian rebellion.

  • lauradaly

    I think your right not to separate the RHC from the UVF. As to the question are they still involved in gangsterism, we only have Jim Wilsons world that they are not. I think otherwise. A genuine disbanding of RHC is the only thing that would convince me that Mr Wilson is not still in the shadows. I have no doubt that Loyalists deserve something out of the “peace process” but a place in the sun is not the way to go.

  • lauradaly

    I agree totally about Gary McMichael but as you will well know it was made sure that he would not get too far with his efforts. The very fact that the likes of Winston Irvine are sitting on Housing Authority Boards and still running terror gangs on the streets of East Belfast shows you where the problem is. They have been brought in from the cold but still don’t like to play by the rules.

  • Skibo

    I think they do also but use another name and make sure the previous organisation have moved off the stage and weapons are put beyond use.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    separatist though

    I’m not sure the Easter Rising violence was a lot to do with Ulster unionist arms. Rather it was seen as a culmination of the gestation and development of the armed force nationalist tradition, over decades. It declared itself oblivious to the other set of national allegiances in Ireland and I largely believe them, they really gave it very little consideration. It was all about them vs the Westminster government / “the British” (which they defined in such a way as to exclude people of British allegiance in Ireland). The 1918-23 Republican violence then followed on from that. Ulster unionist violence can’t really be said to have sparked or caused nationalist violence.

  • Skibo

    That is your belief and you are entitled to it.
    Republicanism had tried a number of times to expel British governance of Ireland in the past and had failed. They ended up with many people executed, exported and banished from their homeland. Nationalism then used the ballot box when they finally forced the British Government into accepting the right of Catholics to hold political office.
    They were well on the way to home rule and the third bill would have ensured it.
    Unionism used the fact of an armed force, ready to violently oppose the will of the government, to force the government into a two parliament split state but the smaller parliament was to be subservient to the larger.
    I believe the success of the use of the UVF in forcing the British government into political change showed Republicans that violence pays.
    The House of Lords had been used twice to block the will of the elected body.
    Even up 1916 when Republicans again reverted to violence, they could not win elections.
    Unionists during this time had no problem voting for a political party that had a military wing.
    1918-22 was the time that nationalists turned to republicans at the polls. They won 75% of the seats in Ireland and used that mandate to set up a provisional government in Ireland.
    You have professed that the UVF and indeed the Unionist population did not use violence against the Nationalist people of the North. I beg to differ. In around the time of 1922, a total of 458 people were murdered. around two thirds were Catholic while Catholics only mad up a third of the population.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “You have professed that the UVF and indeed the Unionist population did not use violence against the Nationalist people of the North.”
    No I didn’t, actually.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    yes absolutely – everyone who murdered. Murder is murder.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    problem is, we’ve all been told that we have to accept paramilitaries when they try politics and we’re supposed to look the other way over their other activities, or we’re somehow against “the peace process”. Bringing up their past terrorism or their current links to gangsters is “living in the past”.

    A highly credible intelligence services report told us 2 years ago that one of NI’s biggest parties still answers to the leadership of a terrorist group, yet it’s taken as read that this party cannot be investigated or censured for it – indeed its participation is regarded as essential to a working politics in NI.

    We negotiated a good end to the Troubles, but we failed to police the peace process tightly enough thereafter. This is how terror gang leaders are able to play a role in public life – because their apparent immunity was the price they extracted for “peace”. It wasn’t actually in the GFA, remember. Rather it was a cancer that took hold in the early years after it, where we were led to believe that indulging these people was necessary to make the agreement stick. And I’m afraid the government buckled on too many occasions.

    We now have to wait for generational change really to finally move them on and get on with a better politics.

  • Skibo

    MU in previous discussions with you, you professed that the UVF of old were not a terrorist organisation and did not actually threaten anyone.
    I stated that they were and you said you were not sure on figures and would check it out. Did you?

  • Skibo

    What element of collusion needs to be proved before the Security forces can be linked directly with terrorism?
    Is the use of torture of prisoners and the actions against the Hooded Men an act of terrorism?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Usual criminal law standards.

    “Collusion” has become an amorphous word with a definition expanded out of all recognition by nationalist-led discourse unsympathetic to police and security services penetration of paramilitary groups.

    Successive inquiry chiefs and police ombudspeople have taken different definitions (this was covered in detail on another thread a couple of years ago). Collusion is a pejorative term suggesting an element of criminal behaviour on the part of the police or security forces. The problem arises when some people use “collusion” to refer to all agent-running – as if agent-running were a bad thing. They therefore don’t distinguish between legal / justifiable use of agents and illegal / unjustifiable use. As I say, I suggest approaching the subject with more insight and precision – and suggest going back to the criminal law as not a bad starting point.

    Clearly, recruiting an informer within a terror gang is a good thing. And having the informer there, it makes no sense to pull them out as soon as the gang commits a crime. Further, to stay in place, the informer may need to be allowed to be party to crimes. And if everything the gang does is foiled, the informer will be sussed out and ejected – then you’ve lost track of the gang and lost your ability to gather evidence then move in and prosecute. This is where it gets into the moral grey area where a handler gets wind of a crimes in advance and keeps the information to themself; or informs superiors and they decide to let it go.

    There is no getting around the impossible moral dilemma of that situation. In the long-term struggle to disrupt terror gangs, degrade their ability to operate and to reduce the number of lives they took, anti-terror intelligence operatives and police had to constantly balance preventing crime in the short term versus preventing it in the long term.

    In answer to “where was it a crime”, let’s take a couple of examples.

    First, the supposed “collusion” over Poyntzpass. The attack has been cited as “collusion” even though no one in the police or intelligence services had advance warning it was going to happen and none of them was involved in it. It was supposedly “collusion” because one of the gang involved was an informer. He hadn’t informed about that attack. A decision was made, as I understand it, to nevertheless leave him in place on the basis that he had helped foil other attacks and would do so again in future. Better to have him in there than not. To me that is a tough but not an unreasonable or callous decision. I don’t see that as one that should see police or intelligence people being prosecuted. A truth process over it yes, but that’s not a criminal offence for me. It’s not even necessarily wrong, morally.

    Second example, where it was a crime: something like the Pat Finucane murder. I’m no expert on the detail of it but broadly my understanding is there was a rogue handler who knew about the Loyalist plan to kill Finucane and actually encouraged said plan; then facilitated the killer escaping justice. This handler hid what he was doing from colleagues superiors and acted dishonestly. That is actual collusion, properly so-called. Da Silva showed that at times there were small rogue units within the security forces operating this way, completely ultra vires, for periods of some years. That can rightly be called out and those people prosecuted for their crimes and for disgracing the country.

    What definitely shouldn’t happen though is the entire anti-terror informer-running operation to be criminalised, on the basis that the informer carried out crimes while also informing for the security forces. If you take that approach, you can give up on any police force or intelligence agency anywhere in the world combatting organised crime or terrorism. It’s just a nonsense.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I recall saying they weren’t “terrorists” as such, but I don’t think it would be right to say (if I did – you have a record of misquoting me) they did not threaten anyone. The formation of the UVF was a pretty direct threat not to go against the wishes of the majority in north east Ireland.

    On figures, I have looked. I’m not professing to be a historian but as far as I can see the UVF didn’t carry out terrorist attacks. After the war, ex-members and 36th Division veterans as I understand it were among the Loyalists trading attacks with nationalists in the ‘Troubles’ of that era, but not as I understand under the auspices of the UVF. But I really don’t know and would be interested in further info.

  • Skibo

    The formation of the UVF was a direct threat to the Government of the time. That is terrorism, the threat of violence for political means.
    There were around 428 people (correction from a previously quoted 458) killed in the North around that time. two thirds were Catholic where they only made up a third of the population. I do not have a breakdown of who killed who as the statistics are so hard to get a breakdown for. In Jan 1922 to end of Feb the same year 83 murders were carried out in Belfast alone. Not one person was brought to justice. Numerous members of the UVF had been recruited into the Special constabulary in Sept 1920 by the British Government. This only happened in Ulster. In effect an official armed Protestant constabulary.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Isolating “N Ireland” in that period, 56 per cent killed were Catholic (not two-thirds) and 39 per cent Protestant; but as part of wider violence on the island, the pattern there was that Protestants were killed disproportionately to their numbers in places like Cork. So it wasn’t really the one-sided Protestant on Catholic onslaught you’re suggesting. It was also in Belfast very locally concentrated in a few quite central Belfast districts. The patterns of killing were down to a complex interplay of sometimes very local factors and sometimes linking in with wider events. I’ve been reading a great social geography book on it – some amazingly detailed and interesting recent academic work has been done on it.

  • Skibo

    Would you care to share the source. I took my information from a book “A pocket history of Ulster” by Brian Barton.
    Not fully through it yet.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    An article by the socio-cultural geography academic Niall Cunningham – Cunningham, N. (2013) ‘The doctrine of vicarious punishment’ : space, religion and the Belfast Troubles of 1920-22.’, Journal of historical geography., 40 . pp. 52-66.

    “In total, 491 deaths have been attributed to the conflict in Belfast over the two-year period from 21 July 1920, when the first fatality was recorded, through to 29 June 1922 with the last entry. Of these victims 83 percent were male. It has been possible, according to the records, to assign religions to the victims in just over 95 percent of cases, and of that figure Catholics made up 56 percent while Protestants totalled
    39 percent.”

    Catholics did suffer disproportionately, but then also carried out violence disproportionately too (responsible for 44 per cent of the 1920-22 murders but were only 23 per cent of the Belfast population at that time). What it wasn’t was a “progrom”, as some like to present it now.

  • Skibo

    Your percentages are similar to mine with approximately a third protestant murdered to two thirds catholic where Catholic made up less that a third of the population.
    I cannot see how you equate the 44% of murders to be carried out by republicans?
    I agree that it was not a pogrom. Neither was the Border campaign. but the fact that approximately 50000 fled the North and around 8500 forced out of employment does suggest a certain element of manipulation of the community.
    We all need to look at Africa, India, Bangladesh and Israel/ Palestine to get real examples of pogroms.
    Sometimes we need to realise that there are areas of the world much much worse than here.

  • Skibo

    MU I had a quick proof read of “The doctrine of vicarious punishment” and I find one of his statements as flawed and possibly an insight into what he was trying to achieve in his publication.
    Apparently the expulsion of Catholic workers from the shipyard would have happened anyway due to a down-turn in ship building.
    In such a contraction, should the percentage workers laid off not represent the percentages employed?
    I could not find any evidence to his claim that Catholics were responsible for 44% of the killings. The fact that the RUC were nearly 100% Protestant would give an impression of bias in reporting of who committed the murders, particularly as the vast majority of the murders went unpunished.
    He mentions the movement of 2000 Catholics out of the North yet my source I quoted previously states the figure nearer 50,000.
    I will agree that this was not a pogrom. Neither was the Troubles or the Border campaign but the much larger percentage of Catholics killed where they were minority would suggest that Catholics took the brunt of the violent activities.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I’m not sure he was saying what you claim he was saying about expulsion of Catholics from the shipyards. He wasn’t somehow excusing it. He does remind us it was part of a bigger pattern of events where nationalists and unionists felt the need, wrongly, to retaliate for the latest attack from the other side and I think makes some interesting points about events in Ulster not being isolated but interwoven, in the minds of the perpetrators, with some of the patterns of violence and confrontation taking place in the rest of the island (e.g. reprisals in Belfast for killings in Cork as one example).

    The RUC was around 20 per cent Catholic in that era. I think the percentages have been worked out by analysts since then, using a combination of sources, not just police figures anyway.

    I have no idea how many Catholics were displaced, but if it was 50,000, that would have been a huge movement of population in a short space of time. That would be around half of Catholic Belfast at that time exiting the city – or do you mean NI-wide? It seems strange that it’s not more remarked upon or talked about as a historical event. It does seem a lot, what is the source for that figure?

  • Skibo

    Perhaps I didn’t word it correctly about the expulsions from the shipyards.
    ” even had the Northern unionist administration been more willing, it would have been politically unacceptable to have restored Catholics to their former jobs in a contracting labour market”
    It was as if the Northern parliament were approving the expulsion of Catholics. I think that lack of action set the precedent for a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.
    In the end, I think the analysis of the paper is a bit far fetched, using geographical analysis to prove that the troubles of the time were not a sectarian policy of expunging Catholics from society.
    “the highly sectarian nature of the newly-formed civilian police
    force, the Ulster Reserve Constabulary, which was almost completely Protestant in composition”
    Perhaps I should have qualified which branch of the RUC I was referring to but this quote from your own evidence, suggests your analysis of the police at that time is flawed.