In Part 1, Steve Bradley laid out a prima facie argument for why political violence has not delivered in Northern Ireland, particularly for the Republican movement during The Troubles. In this part he looks at a much broader history of unionism to further argue that political violence doesn’t work.
Unionism and loyalism doesn’t need to look to anyone else to justify using violence. It has its very own long history of threatening force to advance its political objectives. Prior to the World War One-era Home Rule crisis, Irish unionists could rest easy in the knowledge that their own political objectives were regularly in alignment with those of the British government – and so could rely on the State to act as enforcer if and when required. By the time of the third Home Rule crisis in 1912, however, that synchronisation had become fractured.
Westminster wanted shot of its ‘Irish problem’ through granting the island devolution – meaning that for the first time the London government (and by consequence its military) could no longer be relied upon by unionists to enforce what they saw as their own interests. Unionism therefore responded by establishing its own paramilitary organisation in 1913 – the Ulster Volunteer Force. A year later it armed that force with weapons bought from the Kaiser’s Germany – a country that just a few months later thousands of UVF members would fight and die against in Flanders (how many Ulstermen were killed by German munitions financed from the proceeds of the UVF’s gun imports?). Loyalists were not only happy to take up arms against their own country, but to also enrich the coffers of their nation’s main enemy in the process. It certainly is a curious definition of ‘loyalty’.
The establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921 again placed political unionism in a position where the machinery of the state could provide whatever force was needed to promote and protect its objectives. This was most clearly illustrated by the violent RUC response to the cross community Civil Rights marches in the late 1960s – which triggered the chain of events that ultimately led to The Troubles. The abolishment of Stormont and its ‘B Specials’ reserve constables by the British government in 1972 denied political unionism and loyalism access to physical control over Northern Ireland (though it still retained considerable influence within the RUC and UDR).
DUP leader Ian Paisley had appeared to long harbour a desire for his own Carson-esque militia organisation, and in response to concerns over increasing British-Irish cooperation in the early 1980s he established a new loyalist organisation called ‘The Third Force’. The group, which he claimed had 15-20,000 members, held rallies on hillsides around NI – with large numbers of men displaying what they claimed were firearms certificates, and senior politicians like Paisley and Rev. William McCrea parading in military berets.
At a show of strength in Newtonards 6,000 people marched to the Court House, many in balaclavas and military attire. And at another Third Force event in Tyrone the RUC were attacked and two of their vehicles overturned. When the Anglo-Irish agreement was signed in 1985, political unionism’s furious response saw the formation of yet another loyalist paramilitary group – ‘Ulster Resistance’. It was launched in November 1986 at a 3,000-strong rally at the Ulster Hall, chaired by Sammy Wilson and addressed by Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson. Both Paisley and Robinson were photographed in red berets, with the latter also attired in military fatigues. Robinson told a later rally at Enniskillen that the organisation had attracted thousands of members who were already involved in training and drilling. In 1987 Ulster Resistance combined with the UVF, UDA and other loyalist paramilitaries to purchase a large quantity of arms from Lebanon – financed by the proceeds of a bank robbery in Portadown. Parts of that arms cache were later intercepted by police, and one of those convicted was a former UDR soldier. Whilst the DUP regularly complain about Sinn Féin’s well-documented history with republican paramilitaries, it remains silent over its own clear history of involvement with shadowy and illegal loyalist groups (which appears to continue to this day, through its regular consultations with the UDA).
The 1990s saw Orange Order marches become contentious issues at a number of flashpoints across NI – the most notorious of which was Drumcree church in Portadown. From 1995-2001 loyalists engaged in serious annual public disorder there against British security forces deployed to prevent them marching through a nationalist neighbourhood. Rioting and sectarian attacks also took place across Northern Ireland, along with a number of high profile sectarian murders. Orangemen are still not allowed to march their ‘traditional route’ there to this day – yet again proving that violence does not deliver in Northern Ireland. This regular cycle of fruitless loyalist anger and violence was repeated yet again in 2012-13 over the flying of flags on designated days at Belfast City Hall. That issue was in many ways similar to the current Protocol protests, in that it was largely manufactured for political purposes (at that time to vilify and undermine the Alliance Party, who had taken the Belfast East parliamentary seat from the DUP in 2010). Yet again the protests and violence failed to change anything, and eventually fizzled out.
It is therefore clearly bogus to claim that violence has been anything other than a repeatedly failed strategy for both republicans and loyalists in NI over the last 50 years. And it is particularly disingenuous of loyalists to perpetuate the myth that Republicans have gotten what they want from violence – when instead of a 32 county socialist republic they have instead had to settle for involvement in a partitionist parliament, support for a partitionist police force and respectful inter-relations with the British monarchy.