Lost in translation
I was born in 1993, into an area called Kells in County Antrim.
I would be told as I grew up that Kells was a ‘loyalist area’. What ‘loyalism’ means as opposed to ‘unionism’ has become more and more confusing for me in recent years, and I think it lies at the heart of issues resurfacing now.
While studying at Cambridge nearly a decade ago, I found myself having to explain Northern Ireland a lot.
My first article for Varsity, the student newspaper, was about the flag protests that erupted across pockets of Northern Ireland at the start of my second year. I wanted to contextualise what was happening for my peers; to explain the anger but to also explain that this was a young minority who were failed by society and manipulated by tribal politics.
‘Explaining us’ would usually involve trying to translate our spectrum of political terms. On Loyalism, I’d simply describe it as unionism, but more intense – often associated with more working class areas. I’ve since realised that that’s not a good enough explanation, and that we urgently need clarity and transparency around what key figures in media and politics consider ‘Loyalism’ to mean; I believe its mischaracterisation is having real impacts.
An inaccurate umbrella
In the media and politics, Loyalist appears to mean working class Protestants. Yet, it is simultaneously used to mean what I’d term ‘militant unionism’ and ‘extreme unionism’. The idea that Loyalism can mean those three things at the same time is extremely problematic: it presumes that working class Protestants’ prioritises are the same as two ideologies that are inherently extreme. This not only squeezes out from political discourse actual representation of working class Protestant aspirations and problems, when they don’t align with militant and extreme unionism, but it allows the exponents of those two ideologies to illegitimately ‘speak for’ a whole working class community and enjoy the kind of airtime and weight that doing so would bring.
Defining its strands
Extreme unionism is – with a commitment to entirely peaceful and democratic means – opposing the Good Friday Agreement and anything but cultural and political supremacy over nationalism.
Militant unionism incorporates everything from extreme unionists who support making threatening references to 1912 and who want to plaster their area in gang flags and murals, to those who are members, spokespeople or sympathisers of current gangs like the UVF and UDA, and their regional drug dealing associations.
Using loyalism to mean working class Protestants and simultaneously to mean extreme unionism and militant unionism, implies that they are all one and the same, when they are decisively not.
Working class Protestants’ interest lies in direct economic investment into their areas, their training and their jobs. It lies in breaking the inequality enshrined in our education system, which is so distinctly harmful to Northern Irish Protestant boys on Free School Meals. It lies in breaking the impact and stranglehold that gangs are allowed to maintain over estates across Northern Ireland. It incorporates a desire to see Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom, and to be able to express their identity. It requires its concerns to be heard, respected and engaged with (all the harder if those concerns are clouded by the voices of extreme unionism and militant unionism claiming to incorporate it).
Those interests are diametrically opposed to those of extreme unionism and militant unionism.
Extreme unionism is the strongest force driving Northern Ireland towards a United Ireland. Its refusal to accept parity with nationalism (for instance a demand that no unionist party works with a Sinn Fein First Minister out of principle) reflects that this strain of “pro-unionism” is actually about being “anti-Irish” or “anti-nationalism” (also demonstrated through an ardent opposition to any advancement of Irish language, despite it being heavily interwoven historically with Ulster Presbyterianism). They peddle the self-defeating idea that any dilution of unionist and Orange dominance is a slippery slope to a United Ireland, when the exact opposite is true. By compromising, you make Northern Ireland a place that can embrace, facilitate and empower Orange culture alongside Irish culture, Northern Irish culture, our LGBT+ community and our burgeoning broader multi-culturalism. That compromise makes Northern Ireland sustainable within the UK.
Extreme unionism also preaches that devolution is best torn down unless it’s a vehicle for maintaining that unionist dominance, even if the vast majority of the electorate opposes any such supremacy. They direct working class anger and fear not at society’s abandonment of their children’s educational and economic opportunities, but at red herrings. The red herrings evolve, but the narrative is always the same: be it the Parade Commission, a union flag on top of the City Hall, the introduction of a diluted Irish language Act, regulation of bonfires or the Protocol. Each we are told is an existential threat to unionist identity and way of life, each is part of that ‘slippery slope’, each is a reason to become extremely angry and each is a reason to give some kind of relevance to spotlight grasping rabble rousers and local gang influence. It is a populism that does not necessarily align with the betterment of working class Protestants and their communities. However, each red herring does catch hold not just through persistent repetition of it as a problem, and a lack of DUP bravery to deal with the reality of issues rather than their perception, but because it builds on the fact that Protestant working class communities are being let down; by political misrepresentation, by economic under-investment and by being failed by the state’s education system. It is also true that they were persistently lied to about the Protocol; by the British Government, by the Prime Minister, by the Secretary of State and initially by the DUP.
It goes without saying that militant unionism actively harms working class Protestant communities. In a direct sense, they are the victims that the gangs leach off; extort, threaten, attack and drug. They seek new young members by targeting the community’s most vulnerable; those suffering school exclusion and care leavers. Indirectly, gang flags and murals ward off investment into areas that need it.
As such, it is damaging to place militant and extreme unionism under the same umbrella as working class Protestants, with the idea that their goals and interests all lie in the same direction. The opposite is true.
Platforming Loyalist voices
It is crucial that we now start to urgently separate the three distinct things that ‘loyalism’ supposedly incorporates. The BBC shouldn’t bring someone on air, to be a ‘spokesperson for loyalism’, when they are there only to articulate militant unionism, or extreme unionism. It allows those ideologies to claim a monopoly over working class Protestant views and priorities which does not exist.
The idea that all working class unionists naturally endorse extreme and/or militant unionism is a fallacy and a damaging one. It allows their real concerns and priorities to be overshadowed and continues a sense of voicelessness by being politically misrepresented. Listening to working class Protestants isn’t a box ticked by giving airtime to Jamie Bryson. Doing so is of course still valid, but only to the extent that we recognise the limits of what Bryson or anyone else is the spokespersons for; the working class community, extreme unionism or militant unionism – not all three simultaneously. The lack of a People Before Profit political voice emanating from Protestant areas may make it harder for the media, but it can still platform those who are working tirelessly within the communities themselves for its betterment, fighting educational under-attainment, economic inactivity and food poverty. There are two clear examples within the Panel working on educational under-attainment, and Dr John Kyle is another perfect advocate.
Using Loyalism as an umbrella term for three distinct things is no longer good enough. With tensions getting higher, misrepresentation will only worsen the problem and obscure those seeking to understand it. The onus has to be on the media and politics to stop lumping all three together; we need to do better.
Michael is from Kells, Ballymena, and began writing comment pieces alongside his job following graduating in law from Cambridge. In particular, he has written for the Independent (UK); one of these featured on the The Times Red Box and several of which were republished by the Belfast Telegraph. He has also written for Legal Cheek. He is a commercial litigator at a London city law firm.