Loyalism: The Enduring Perception of Loss…

Background

My university dissertation that I began researching and writing in Summer 2013 to eventually submit in Spring 2014 asked the question ‘Why do Northern Ireland loyalists feel they have lost out from the peace process and current political settlement?’ This was a question that I genuinely was curious about during the 2012-2013 flag protests resulting from the vote in December 2012 in Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days the union flag flew atop Belfast City Hall.

Although these Northern-Ireland-wide protests are now consigned to history, they dominated news coverage at the time and impacted on people’s lives, from loyalists believing their way of life was being irreversibly changed for worse to a commuter’s journey to and from work being delayed.

What struck me about the protests was the ubiquitous feeling of loss that contagiously depressed every flag protester, namely that they felt their identity and culture were being eroded and that republicanism was winning at their expense. They felt humiliated and mocked. They felt that their lives would be worse off. This negative feeling of loss within loyalism however is not new and has endured since its inception. It was this pessimism within loyalism that I wanted to research and write about and to see what drove it, and whether there was any hope for optimism within political loyalism. Below is a concise version of my dissertation that I have updated to take recent events such as Brexit and the 2020 restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly into account.

Grievances

Loyalist political representatives at the time of the flag protests stressed the flag protests were not just about the flag decision itself but actually was an eruption of anger and frustration resulting from a long list of grievances loyalists had with the political system and political culture of Northern Ireland that they felt alienated from. They believed their unionist traditions, identity and culture were regularly disrespected and were not treated on equal with the identities, traditions and culture of republicans. They believed republicans got a better deal on legacy issues than them and were frustrated with the socioeconomic inequalities their communities had to live with and lack of opportunity, be they educational underachievement, access to further and higher education or unemployment such as in youth unemployment, generational unemployment or even in the access and provision of healthcare services in mental and physical health.

Not all grievances were contemporary however. Many were historical, such as the decades of violence of republican paramilitaries in the Troubles as well as lack of confidence in the state’s ability to handle it along with the generational impact the violence had on the lives of unionists and loyalists. Loyalists also distrusted each succeeding unionist and British government which they felt would compromise too much for peace and could not be relied on in any deals or agreements they negotiated, believing a sellout or betrayal would come further down the line. They also saw the disbandment of certain historical state security services that they believe protected them from republican violence as a punishment for loyalists and a rewarding of republican violence.

Some loyalists historically and in current times believe the domestic and international media is against them and believe they portray them in bad light, thinking the media favours republican narratives of history and political events over that of loyalists. Some loyalists are also distrustful of the police and state institutions such as the Parades Commission, believing they get treated more harshly than republicans in the enforcement of law and order in parades and protests than republicans do, which they believe is intrinsically unfair.

All of these grievances cumulated into some loyalists ultimately believing the union was and still is under threat, where they feared a united Ireland would happen under growing demographics that they believe are in favour of republicanism. In an imagined united Ireland, some loyalists dreaded being oppressed and discriminated against, especially in revenge for events that happened in the past and throughout the history of Northern Ireland and Ireland within a world that is not sympathetic to them or their way of life.

Winning

It would be unfair to say there have been no times when loyalists felt they were winning. During the 1994 ceasefires and negotiations for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, some loyalists were hopeful for the future and believed they benefited from the political settlement and peace process where loyalist party-political representation were included in the peace talks and with there being loyalist political representatives being elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. They believed republican paramilitaries were militarily and politically defeated as they had to abandon their armed campaign and compromise on many key republican beliefs such as agreeing to participate in the democratic institutions of the state they want to dismantle.

Some loyalists believed the Good Friday Agreement would be a new start for their communities where they would benefit from government programmes and peace funding. Some loyalists were also reassured by the consent principle contained within the Good Friday Agreement that Northern Ireland would remain in the UK as long as the majority of Northern Ireland agrees to this, along with the Republic of Ireland repealing its territorial claim over Northern Ireland in the Irish Constitution.

Loyalists that supported power-sharing and devolution were happy to see its return in 2007 and 2020 after each collapse that occurred respectively in 2002 and 2017, along with attempts to keep the political system stable and from collapsing again, believing that direct rule would be worse for their communities than devolution.

In recent times, loyalists that supported Brexit felt a sense of victory when the UK voted to leave the European Union in what they saw was the UK becoming more independent in its affairs even at a cost of losing political and economic influence on the world stage. Some loyalists who do not support power-sharing and devolution were happy to see the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly in 2002 and 2017, as they believed too many concessions were being made to republicans at their expense.

Losing

Historically, loyalists did not find the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement to be a smooth process. They had concerns over North-South bodies and distrusted republican commitments to decommissioning of its arms while spontaneous acts of republican violence happened to put pressure on the British government to make compromises for its security interests. Loyalists also had a perception that the republican negotiating team was superior to theirs and were aware that republicans had more electoral support and legitimacy in their communities than they did and were feared in case republican paramilitaries reverted back to their armed campaign.

Loyalists also felt they did not enjoy the same advantages that nationalists and republicans had in its access to governments, such as the Irish government and the US government in articulating its concerns and interests during the peace talks, which made loyalists feel they had less influence. Consequently, this made it more difficult for loyalist political representatives to sell the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement to a naturally sceptical base that was suspicious of negotiations and deals being made, fearing that information was being withheld from them by the participating governments and that what they would see as a betrayal would come further down the line.

Eventually, loyalist political representation in the Assembly would be diminished over the time of its continued operation in later years, leaving it only with seats at a Council level currently in Northern Ireland. In recent times, loyalists who supported Brexit in 2016 have consequently felt betrayed over the current UK government’s Brexit deal, fearing that it could lead to Northern Ireland being slowly separated in time from the UK with Northern Ireland being subject to different conditions from the rest of the UK.

Loyalists who do no support devolution and power-sharing were angered by the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly in 2020, believing that devolution only serves as a means of republicans to gradually gain concessions in the long run using the face of what republicans consider equality to mask what loyalists believe is a hidden republican agenda. Some loyalists feel this could lead to the dismantling of the Northern Ireland state and of loyalist traditions, culture and identity. They also believe this in conjunction with the current Brexit deal could ultimately achieve a united Ireland through the back door in playing to aspirations to rejoin the EU through constitutional change.

What Loyalism Stands For

A recurrent theme within loyalism is confusion over what loyalists stand for. Some loyalists would say they do not feel represented by the mainstream unionist parties but continue to support them, even advocating unionist unity in all unionist parties either through merging them together as a single unionist party or wanting pacts between them in marginal seats. This shows a lack of confidence in the position some loyalists take and more importantly, they do not see much point in challenging the party-political status quo that they claim to be unhappy with.

There is also a lack of strategic planning. On the one hand, some loyalists supported Brexit not realising what Brexit actually meant in practice and just how complicated the Brexit negotiations would be. Even more importantly, history shows that political instability actually threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the UK as the UK government has other interests to contend with besides Northern Ireland during constitutional crises, such as the regional pressures the UK government is under from its other constituent parts England, Scotland and Wales.

There are also divides within loyalism over social issues such as LGBT rights and abortion. Some loyalists would be more liberal on these issues, some would be more conservative. This also extends to wider debates on what equality means and how it is achieved, along with what action should be taken on climate change and maintaining the environment. Some loyalists would be open-minded on reaching out to republicans to help build bridges while other loyalists would be suspicious of reaching out over past distrust with republicans where they feel they could be outmanoeuvred and so believe it is better not to engage.

Hope For The Future

Many loyalists are effective communicators on social media and blogs where they confidently put forward their beliefs directly to their audience without their views being filtered by the mainstream media, a concern that loyalists historically had. Some loyalists are effective in engaging with the mainstream media in knowing what to say, how to say it and how to rally support for their beliefs while maintaining relevancy. This new generation of loyalist activists are more eager to engage with different media in articulating their views and debating republicans.

Some loyalists have shown learning from past mistakes, such as knowing it is easier to call for a protest than it is to control one and where they sometimes end up, recognising it is not a good look to present to domestic and international media. Some loyalists have taken it upon themselves to politically educate their communities to express their identity, culture and traditions in a positive way and to see the police positively in helping to control protests and parades for their own safety.

Other loyalists have shown outreach to republicans in a genuine attempt to build community relations, recognising many loyalists and republicans experience the same socioeconomic problems as each other and that it is better to spend time working towards solving these socioeconomic inequalities rather than argue over history and politics that they will probably never agree on.

The future of political loyalism is ultimately in the hands of the new generation of loyalist activists and where they wish to take political loyalism in the views they express and the political strategy they implement.

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