The Remains of Loyalism. Can dissidents spark a return to Conflict?

Recently former British Prime Minister and one of the chief architects behind the Peace Process in Northern Ireland Tony Blair claimed that terrorism has little support in the communities of Northern Ireland. However Blair warns politicians not to drop their guard as segregation in certain areas still poses a threat to peace, albeit a small one. With segregated communities and grassroots levels still politically voting for "their own" candidates, there is still the odd chance for politics to break into sectarianism, according to Blair.

Interestingly, the Good Friday Agreement (Belfast Agreement), signed eighteen years ago, took for granted that peace had to be guaranteed by keeping the antagonists apart, in other words segregated. In the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement, nearly fifty so-called peace walls were built to keep certain areas of Belfast and (London) Derry segregated. Nearly two decades later, it is precisely this «peacekeeping» move of segregation that has ignited a small if not insignificant threat to the province’s peace and stability as there are still groups of dissident Republicans and Loyalists in these areas who try to destabilise the Peace Process. On the Loyalist side, there are fringes who operate within a sectarian mind-set, feeling a vivid threat from Republicans and indeed feel a need to protect their estates, their people and their legacies both culturally, politically, socially and religiously.

In post conflict Northern Ireland, Loyalism has attracted lots of negative media attention. Loyalists are often seen as thugs and criminals who have not sufficiently enough left the old schisms of conflict behind, and they are often regarded as a homogenous group of brutal male criminals engaged in activities hostile to contemporary society. Moreover, some of them are frequently blamed for still possessing a romantic mythic vision of terror and violence and the longing back to the days of violent conflict is present. An often seen stereotypical image of Loyalism is a tattooed muscular man walking his dog in a bare sleeveless shirt. However, this repetitive use of stereotypes blurs the picture and somehow restricts nuances from theses communities to emerge, as is in fact the case with Loyalism. Even though there are still Loyalists who would wish to return to war and who feel betrayed and embittered about the Peace Process and developments in post conflict Northern Ireland, there are a number of transitional and transformative Loyalists who have made and are making positive contributions towards peace and stability with changed lifestyles, refreshed mind-sets and new ways of viewing the world.

Hence, it is important to recognise some of these progressive elements of Loyalism before assessing whether the regressive and sectarian elements threaten the current peace. Ultimately, positive Loyalist shifts have contributed to conflict transformation, and in many of the former sectarian areas Loyalists are pursuing alternative goals such as human rights, education, social services and job creation rather than those of conflict, war and terror. Notably, that means that many Loyalists are finding that a shift of focus, into more meaningful activities, creates positive outcomes and attracts political attention to what their needs are in their deprived communities. With the threat of Republicanism more or less removed, the success of St Andrews and Northern Ireland’s, at least for the time being, secure place within the UK, transitional Loyalists embrace community/voluntary work addressing social and political exclusion in order to create safer and more prosperous communities. Keeping the narrative on these issues will prevent many Loyalists from dropping back down into the sectarian mind-set and thus stabilise many of the former war-torn areas. The next step on this path would gradually be to loosen up on segregation policies.

There are nevertheless some dissidents falling outside the Loyalist conflict transformation and who still believe that violence and terror is the way to solve differences. The penetrating question is to what extent these dissidents may be viewed as a threat to the peace and the power sharing set up in Northern Ireland and whether the de-stabilising elements can reignite the old sectarian rhetoric and lead to actions threatening the Peace Process.

There is no doubt that there are still regressive elements within Loyalism who have not left their old agenda behind and who attempt to increase tension by maintaining the discourse from the Troubles. Members of such groups like the Orange Volunteers and Red Hand Defenders are few, but count some dozens of Loyalists who do not believe the struggle to be over and see the need to protect their own communities, their people and not least the doctrines of Protestantism. Both the mentioned organisations are regarded as Protestant fundamentalists who still see themselves being in the middle of a holy war, using religious rhetoric in the fight for Protestant domination. Looking back to the early phases of the Troubles, it is not difficult to locate the sources of this rhetoric and how it had been maintained in some of these Loyalist sectarian areas. Current and former leaders of political parties, people like Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson, were part of Ulster resistance movements in the 1970s and 80s where they gave inflammatory speeches designed to stir up Loyalist action through the preservation of their own culture, religion and identity.

Many studies have blamed Paisley for violent and militant Loyalist resistance in the way he fused religious and political discourses. He was the founder of both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Free Presbyterian Church, and notably, it seems to be in the intersection point between Protestant fundamentalism and «the-no-surrender» politics that his urge for action and mobilisation came through, awakening loyalists to fight for Ulster in the early 70s. Traces of Paisley’s discourse can clearly be found in some of the dissident groups in today’s Northern Ireland. Even though the image of the «other» - the real or assumed threat from Republicanism - has diminished, these Loyalists still feel under siege, directing their narrative towards a defence of Ulster, their own culture and religion and indeed their identity. Loyalist informants, in numerous interviews with the author, have revealed the sense of betrayal at a variety of levels and that their own leaders led them up a «golden path» just to desert them «when the going got tough».

Among dissidents a common view is that Loyalists have lost out on all fronts and that there exists a need to assert their own identity and existence, as Unionist politicians do not do that for them. Feeling let down by the likes of Paisley and Robinson in the DUP adds to the perception of Loyalist marginalisation and disillusionment. Dissidents view the political door to be closed and hence, they need to continue to fight in order to be heard, seen and taken account of. Demonstrations, marches and other street activities á la the 70s, are reminders that loyalists have not disappeared and that some of them are still willing to use violence and terror to show that.

Another predominant notion in these groups is that the Peace Process was Republican dominated and driven, and that British governments would sacrifice everything, even the people loyal to them, in return for a Republican cessation of violence. As the zero-sum game attitude still prevails among members of these groups, Republican concessions happen at the expense of the loyalists, and consequently, Loyalism must fight for their existence. During the Troubles, Loyalist resistance was seen as a response to Republican threats linked to the imposition of Irish hegemony, while currently, the latter argument is still being used. Seeing themselves as victims of the political Peace Process, the political transformation has left behind and slowed down the social transformation. A few decades ago, unemployment, poor housing, social deprivation and low economic performance were associated with Republican urban areas. Lately, these conditions have been transferred to the loyalist areas and poor social conditions have ignited much anger and frustration among Loyalists.

Even though the Loyalist picture is nuanced, internal feuding has contributed to the public idea that they are groups of thugs and criminals. In fact, several of the transformative Loyalists have blamed regressive elements to still possess these outdated traits and generally give Loyalism bad publicity and a bad reputation. The low number of dissidents are not looked upon as a threat to power sharing and the political Peace Process by Northern Irish authorities, but there is a fear that continued segregation will groom more anti Peace Process Loyalists and make them even more hostile the province’s political set-up. One should not though underestimate the progress being made in many of these communities, trying to reinterpret the relevance of Loyalism in a wider communal sense. By and large, this interpretation revolves around a change of attitude from protecting their environments to renewing them, acting against social educational and other forms of injustice. Such transformations will improve their public image and begin a new phase of Ulster Loyalism.



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