“A leadership vacuum” that must be filled

A leadership vacuum is causing harm across Northern Ireland, including in loyalist areas, and contributes to the lure of paramilitaries, warns victims’ campaigner Alan McBride in the latest Forward Together podcast. “I think we probably need to put a lot of investment into areas like East Belfast and the Shankill and other areas to try and improve the leadership potential,” he argues.

Alan adds: “As a grassroots working class Protestant loyalist myself, I have a real feel for that community. I don’t always think that they’re best served by the sort of spokespeople that they put forward at this moment. So I would like to see other voices – voices that perhaps we haven’t heard yet.”

He is particularly critical of DUP representation of loyalist areas.  “I don’t think the DUP represent loyalist communities. I think they use loyalist communities for votes, but I don’t think they really deliver for loyalist communities.  You’ll see that certainly where I live and in other areas. I think there’s absolutely room for improvement there.

“If you look at some of the reports that have come out in the last few years around educational achievement amongst working class loyalists boys – I think there’s a lot of issues out there that are coming out of that. And I think there needs to be a big cash injection initially… taking some of those young people and developing leadership skills and developing them.”

Alan is a strong critic of the education system, which he believes fails children from working class backgrounds.  “I’ve heard people champion our education system and say that it’s the best in Europe, the best in the world and all.  For some people that’s true. But not for a lot of people… We have to absolutely encourage young people, to give them proper role models to aspire to.  And I think that in some loyalist communities there is a real shortage of them, because the role models of some of those communities are the local UDA brigadier or whatever.  I think those are really bad role models.

“There needs to be somebody within those communities that can actually stand up and who people can maybe follow and inspire and move on.  But if they don’t do that, and if that doesn’t happen, then we’re just looking at generation after generation of educational failure, of unemployment, of poverty, of sectarianism, of all the things that plague working class loyalist communities.”

Alan was a member of the former Civic Forum.  “I think that it was a great idea. I think it had great potential. I don’t think that it was particularly well run or well managed. But I would like to see that idea come back again and I would also like for our politicians not to see any form of civic forum or people’s parliament, call it what you will, as a threat to democracy.  It’s absolutely not. It’s an invaluable resource for them, even as a sounding board to get some ideas to have a proper interface with the community, with civil society. And so I would like to see something like that happen again.”

As a victims’ campaigner whose wife and father-in-law were killed in the Troubles, Alan has thought much about how best to deal with the past and legacy issues.  “My own preferred way forward would have been to go back to the Consultative Group on the Past report, the Robin Eames and Denis Bradley report.  I think it was the best [proposal] and I think every time we’ve gone for consultation since then we have come back with something which is considerably less than what we had before.  I think that the Stormont House Agreement, and the legacy aspects of that, is the last time we can go back to the people… You can’t just collectively forget about the past. You have to have some kind of a mechanism to be able to hang the past on.  It’s happened in South Africa, the Balkans, Chile, Argentina and Rwanda. All of the countries that have had conflict have had something where they were able to hang their past on.  What we need in Northern Ireland is one that is tailor-made for our situation.  I absolutely believe that what we have with the Stormont House Agreement is tailor-made for our situation… I think that we need to learn from our past.”

Alan believes that the constitutional question needs to be in the open, with an honest discussion about the options and their implications.  “I think that what has to happen is that those that are proposing an ‘All Ireland’ have to demonstrate and show people in the unionist community what life would be like living in Northern Ireland.  My favoured option is to stay within the union, but only if it’s working financially and economically and is equal.  I suppose like many people I’m more concerned with my quality of life than I am with the kind of flag that flies…  I think that our lot is better in the union, but that was a union that was part of a wider Europe.”

The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.


  • Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.