In Part 1 & 2, 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 and the Unionist movement since the Home Rule crisis. In this part he concludes by looking at the lessons loyalism and republicanism have learned from their previous campaigns of violence.
What is very telling on the issue of violence is the vastly different routes that republican and loyalist groupings have chosen to follow since the Good Friday Agreement. Republicanism has remained a largely unified and coherent entity that continues to support the Peace Process. Small dissident groupings exist in places like Belfast, Derry and Lurgan, and indulge in sporadic acts of violence. Yet in more proof of the failure of violence to deliver – not only has their adherence to physical force failed to advance their cause, it has instead seen them become scorned and marginalised within their own communities. Contrast that with the situation within loyalist neighbourhoods since 1998. Because far from slowly melting into the background, loyalist paramilitaries have instead remained ever-present and dominant within many working class protestant areas.
According to reports, they continue to openly indulge in extortion, racketeering, drug dealing, deadly feuds and other criminal activity – without the Troubles-era ‘justification’ that it was to raise funds for the defence of their areas (let alone the political justification that it was to oppose the other side’s violence). In contrast to the rump of Dissident Republicans, loyalist groups retain memberships numbered in the tens of thousands and retain a much stronger presence and controlling grip over multiple neighbourhoods across the north. And whilst Dissident Republicans have been sidelined politically, loyalist groups have instead found themselves ushered onto centre-stage in recent months – granted audiences with British Ministers, senior unionist politicians and multiple media outlets via the sanitised facade of the Loyalist Communities Council. And all without any electoral mandate.
A large part of the explanation behind the different post-Good Friday approaches of loyalism and republicanism boils down to leadership. Sinn Féin has indulged in patient and gradual work over a prolonged period of time to nudge Republicans continually away from violence. And the absence of credible calls for a return to militancy within mainstream Republicanism shows how they have instilled a coherence, confidence and clear sense of purpose to the movement whilst doing so. Contrast that with loyalist groupings and their communities. They have largely been forgotten about and left to their own devices by unionist politicians, who have looked the other way whilst paramilitaries maintain a stranglehold over multiple neighbourhoods. Whenever the spectre of unrest or force is required by unionist politicians as a form of political leverage, they poke the loyalist tiger with a stick to make it angry – only to quickly abandon it again once it has served its purpose. This is what has happened yet again with regards the NI Protocol – only this time unionist politicians were blind-sided by the depth of loyalist anger they provoked, and are in real danger of losing control of the tiger’s tail.
So that well-spoken grey-haired lady interviewed in Newtonwards last week – has got it all wrong. Republican violence has NOT worked in NI. If it had they either wouldn’t have abandoned violence, or we’d all be sitting in a 32 county socialist republic by now. Unfortunately, loyalism has yet to accept the futility of violence in pursuing political objectives – despite repeated failures whilst using it against the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Drumcree and in the flags protests. And far from needing inspiration from anyone else to resort to force, unionism and loyalism have its own century-long tradition of regularly using the threat of violence to pursue political objectives. It has never worked for them in the past, and it is even less likely to do so over the Northern Ireland Protocol now. A well-spoken grandmother from North Down giving up her life needlessly for that would therefore be the ultimate example of futility.