In his new book entitled, ‘The State of loyalism in Northern Ireland’,Graham Spencer brings to light an issue that has been largely overlooked in recent years: The post-conflict loyalist community in Northern Ireland. He argues that the Loyalist role in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement was paramount and something that is now forgotten. Spencer also reminds the reader that without this monumental effort by individuals such as David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson, the current power sharing assembly would not be in place today.
Therefore was the great loyalist leap forward of the late nineties all in vain? Are loyalists being over looked my mainstream politics, and could this have dire consequences for the future political landscape in the province?
The conventional image of paramilitary loyalism can be summed up in one word: criminality. Gone are the days of the fearless protestant warriors, defending communities for queen, country and the cross. This kind of rhetoric may have filled the imagination of yesteryear, but as the troubles progressed, gangsterism quickly replaced romanticism.
Over the years loyalism has been the subject of loathing by unionists and nationalists alike. It has propagated an image that appeals to a thuggish, criminal element within Northern Irish society, who wields power with reckless abandon. These shadowy individuals have proven their psychotic and pathological credentials over many years of killing and torturous bloodshed. Levels of violence have been maintained in order to exert status and influence in communities for no other reason that naked self interest.
Spencer argues that the ultra violent tendencies within loyalism make one question the political direction and aspirations of loyalism as a movement. This is an important point when contrasted with the nationalist cause who carved out a niche for themselves in a peace time province, with clear political goals and a more pragmatic approach. Loyalism can be seen to offer little to the non bigot and is quite frankly a thorn in the side of the unionist movement.
Spencer, although very aware of the atrocities committed by loyalist paramilitaries, states that there has been little attempt to include them in the current political battlefield. He finds this paradoxical considering the monumental political contributions by loyalists during the Peace Process. Individuals like the late David Ervine, provided an educated and moderating influence within loyaliam that gave it respect across communities that had been hitherto missing. Ervine and others like Billy Hutchinson provided faces of deliberation that cast aside the mask of terror, and engaged in the politics of reconciliation. It is an inescapable fact that without their contribution, the Good Friday Agreement (1998) would have been an impossibility, and would have remained firmly in the political starting blocks.
Spencer feels that the main problem for contemporary loyalism is finding their feet in a post conflict province. Without the cohesion of a military campaign, many loyalists have turned inwards, embracing gangsterism. This has led to inevitable splits in the movement and horrific killings. It is obvious that following down this self destructive path will lead to political suicide, something that is a long way from the thinking of Ervine and Co.
Spencer makes a distinction between the two main factions within loyalism, the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and UDA (Ulster Defence Association). As he states, the UDA in its modern form have channelled their energies into what he calls ‘Containment,’ with volunteers working in local communities and building up new grass roots support networks. This new face of loyalism can be seen in action with members like Billy Stoker, who has won a 6 million pounds revamp for his native ‘village’, in south Belfast. The UVF on the other hand, encouraged members to re-build their lives away from the struggle. Spencer refers to this as ‘Controlled dispersal.’
The future of loyalism is one filled with a smokescreen of ambiguity. Many members of the various factions feel disenfranchised and perceive the political endgame at Stormount as a let down for their cause. If this is the case all sides will have to reorganise and search for a collective voice, if the legacy David Ervine is to live on.
The Good Friday Agreement era was a golden time for the loyalist movement, but now they see themselves left on the fringes of the political wilderness. Plagued by illegal activity and self interested motives, loyalist’s continue to tarnish the image left by the ‘moderates’ a decade ago, dragging the movement back into the dark ages.
Spencer puts this down to lack of knowledge. He states, ‘There are serious deficiencies in educational attainment existing within loyalist communities.’ Contrast this with the thriving intellectual side of the republican movement, spurred on by its romantic notions of language and history. It seems then, it is time for loyalists to hit the books or as Spencer states, ‘criminality becomes an attractive proposition.’
The media come under some attack in this book for their portrayal of the loyalist movement. Spencer argues that the media’s fascination with ‘personalities’ and not the complexities of the process is cause for concern. Fixating on monsters like Jonny Adair, result in disaffected youth idolising their lifestyles, and missing the point of the loyalist cause. Loyalism will need to find a more mainstream direction or risk having miscreants personify loyalism itself.
In conclusion, Spencer states that the only way forward for loyalism is for those outside its parameters to engage with its most progressive representatives and to develop a strategy for the future. It this does not happen, the future looks bleak for the movement, seeing it sink deeper into political obscurity and risking throwing the country back into an unthinkable past.