Loyalism must succeed where Sinn Fein has failed…

Moore Holmes is a Loyalist from East Belfast. You can find him on Twitter

I have a fond memory of my dad telling me how foolish he thought the phrase, “learn from your mistakes.” Each time it came up in a conversation, he’d half-chuckle and half-scoff, provocatively asking, “why not learn from someone else’s mistakes and save yourself the hassle?”

Although my dad would be at pains to point out that I’ve sung “Fathers Advice” far more than I’ve ever heeded it, there is something of merit from those words of wisdom to our current predicament, as Loyalism reflects and responds to Sinn Féin’s most recent high profile mistake.

In the face of Sinn Féin’s hypocritical disregard for public safety, I understand the real temptation to be belligerent and proceed as if lockdown has all but come to an end. After all, if the joint leader of Northern Ireland does not think it important to follow the guidelines, why should anyone else?

But with Bonfire Night and the Twelfth-at-home celebration just over a week away, this sort of thinking could have profound consequences for society. In my opinion, it is short-sighted and reckless.

Commentators have compared Sinn Féin’s actions at Bobby Storey’s funeral to giving the public the “two fingers.” Some could again argue, it’s natural that a part of us, angered by their blatant disregard for the rules they helped create, are now entitled to return Sinn Fein the gesture.

But that too would be impulsive and self-defeating. It would make little sense to chastise Sinn Fein for their contemptible actions, only to repeat those actions a fortnight later. “Do as I say, not as I do” was a common criticism of Sinn Fein, but for Loyalists, it would become, “do as they say, do as they do,” if we followed Sinn Féin’s lead in ignoring the health regulations for our own interests.

In my opinion, Loyalism would do best not to engage in a race to the bottom by trying to even the score. It’s a zero-sum game and will advance the inaccurate negative perception of our community, all the while providing cover for Sinn Fein and their inexcusable behaviour.

Retaliating by repeating Sinn Féin’s errors will only serve to equate elements of our community with the problem and attract the same form of criticism and condemnation. This would be all the more egregious because up until this point the Loyalist community have played an important role in being part of the solution.

Throughout the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of our community have been exemplary. It’s been heartwarming to see and hear of the tremendous humanitarian effort within Loyalist quarters.

Many of whom have been working around the clock, often unseen and unheard of, desiring no praise or attention, providing essential services for vulnerable people in our society. (One volunteer I spoke to delivers over forty food packs a day.)

By no means is this exclusive to the Loyalist community of course, but as a Loyalist myself,  I take particular pride in the fact that during this unprecedented crisis my community has admirably stepped up to the mark.

Which is all the more reason we should tread carefully now that our cultural events are round the corner and Sinn Féin’s self-entitlement has ignited some dangerous impulses.

There is divided opinion about this years bands and bonfires within the Loyalist family. Even though it only stated support for “safe and sensible” bonfires, the statement from East Belfast Cultural Collective last night about the resumption of bonfires was met with cheers and groans from members of the same household.

And while I respect the rationale of those on both sides of the debate – the question of will they or won’t they take place is largely immaterial. Whether you support them or not, bands and bonfires are going to take place this year in some capacity. Some of that is down to “returning the gesture,” and much of it is also because lockdown is progressively easing and the growing fatigue toward it.

Over 80 parade notices have been submitted to the parades commission thus far and we are already seeing bonfires sprouting up across the province – no doubt we will see more. In simple terms, the bus is leaving whether you are on it or not. Whether that’s a happy or sad reality for you, it’s a reality nonetheless.

All that’s left to be determined therefore is in what capacity will these bands and bonfires take place? How will they respect public health regulations, if they do so at all?

This is where the Loyalist conversation should go. I, for the record, support the local resumption of bonfires and parades assuming they adhere to the public health regulations. That should be the condition upon which support is given. But I equally contend, that I do not for one second believe the guidance will be followed in the absence of the following two recommendations:

  1. A strong and precise public health message for all participants and attendees of bonfires and bands to adhere to.
  2. Vocal and visual grassroots leadership accompanied by stewarding on the ground to ensure public health advice is effectively followed.

Some will dismiss this approach and believe breaching the guidelines inevitable. Perhaps it naivety, or unfounded optimism, but I am of the opinion that with the right application of the two recommendations above a regulatory abiding celebration can be done – it must be done.

For those that believe it too much of a risk, this approach will be considered too far. For those who want to “return the gesture,” it won’t be far enough.

Either way, we must realise and accept that Loyalism will be centre stage in a weeks time. And our audience? A gallery of critics hoping we forget our lines. It’s imperative we starve those critics. Instead, we must showcase a safe celebration respectful of the public health emergency and unashamedly proud of our heritage.

Any celebration that proceeds must be conscious of the public health risks and take deliberate and effective measures to ensure the regulations are upheld. If such measures are applied, instead of becoming a health hazard to our community, our cultural celebrations will raise the spirit of our community in a way that only our bonfires and bands can.

Rather than make our own mistakes, why not learn from Sinn Féin and save ourselves the hassle? This years celebration promises to be, because of its uniqueness, the most memorable Loyalist celebrations of our lifetime. Let’s make sure they are remembered for the right reasons. In order to achieve that, Loyalism must succeed where Sinn Fein has failed.

DSC_0095” by domsball63 is licensed under CC BY

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