Loyalty under duress in Northern Ireland – ISN


As Northern Ireland’s majority British-Protestant community struggles to come to terms with a peace process it views as offering more to the Irish nationalist-Catholic minority, it lashes out – not against its old tribal enemy – but against its own internal rivals and the British government under which it seeks to remain governed.

BELFAST — Since late 2004, after the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) allegedly stole €33.5 million from a Belfast bank and IRA men murdered Belfast Catholic Robert McCartney,  the world has once again turned much attention to the Northern Ireland peace process and the activities of the IRA and Sinn Féin, the political party linked to the group.

This attention increased after 28 July, when the IRA publicly called an end to its war against British sovereignty over Northern Ireland, and on 26 September, when the group appointed to oversee the disarming of Northern Ireland’s paramilitaries said the IRA had given up all its weapons.

But another community in Northern Ireland has recently gained much attention, as well. The Protestant community, though arguably less prominent internationally than its Catholic nationalist counterpart, makes up 56 per cent of the region’s population.

Largely descended from Scottish Presbyterian and English Anglican settlers in the 17th Century, this majority seeks to remain part of the United Kingdom rather than see Northern Ireland become part of an all-Ireland state by merging with its economically more successful neighbor, which takes up five-sixths of the island.

There are two collective names for the political expression of pro-British identity in Northern Ireland. “Unionist”, the best known and all-encompassing, refers to those in Northern Ireland who wish to retain the “union” with Britain, as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. “Loyalist” denotes loyalty to the state of the UK. To simplify, all loyalists are unionists, but “loyalist” is also a sociological term referring to working-class Protestant areas and people and to Protestant paramilitary groups.

The largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), was deeply suspicious of the peace process and opposed the 1998 Good Friday or Belfast Peace Agreement, while parties affiliated with the loyalist paramilitaries supported the peace agreement, and officially still do.

The main unionist political parties have almost always distanced themselves from political-paramilitary loyalism. However, speaking anonymously, a former loyalist paramilitary-turned-community worker told ISN Security Watch that mainstream unionist politicians have consistently and simultaneously manipulated and neglected loyalist groups and working-class Protestants.

This has compounded the alienation felt by loyalists, he says, as the perception remains that “nationalist areas get all the peace dividends,” particularly in terms of socio-economic investment.

It is clear that many Protestant inner-city areas have declined in recent years with the closure of many factories that once were bastions of Protestant employment. Loyalist community representatives feel they cannot compete effectively in a post-industrial economy, which fuels anger at a peace process they feel is weighted towards Catholic Irish nationalists and republicans.

Mainstream unionist politicians – apparently moderate and pro-peace process – share loyalist anger at this. “Unionists are unable to see how a peace dividend is benefiting them,” Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) representative David McNarry told ISN Security Watch.

This confluence of loyalist-unionist anger was seen over the weekend of 9-12 September. Loyalists and Orange Order members rioted against the police in response to the re-routing of an Orange Order march – which adherents regard as an integral expression of Protestant-unionist culture – away from a Catholic section of west Belfast.

Hundreds of Protestant members of various unionist-loyalist organizations took part in anti-police violence, injuring dozens, bringing much of Belfast to a standstill, and raising questions about the complex relationship between the police in Northern Ireland and loyalists-unionists.

Police caught in the middle

Police reform was – and remains – a contentious issue in Northern Ireland. Unionists promoted resistance to reforms outlined by former EU Commissioner Chris Patten. Then, a diluted reform package was opposed by Sinn Féin, which essentially refuses to recognize the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and to take its seats on the policing board.

Relations between loyalists and the police in Northern Ireland are complex. The street violence has been exacerbated by loyalist anger at police attempts to end the feud between the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF). However, allegations of police collusion with loyalists in the killing of Catholics remain unexplained, with pressure on the British government to hold public inquiries into a number of controversial assassinations in the 1980s and 1990s.

Now, as David McNarry told ISN Security Watch, while the PSNI cannot go into republican (IRA) areas – the worst outcome of the recent events is that the PSNI now might not be able to go into loyalist areas either.

The exclusively Protestant Orange Order leadership seems to be divided on how to react to the police, placing the blame for violence on them, with contrition being expressed by parts of the leadership. Dawson Bailie, the head of the Orange Order in Belfast, denied any wrongdoing by the organization, instead blaming the police, the Parades Commission, and the Northern Ireland Secretary of State for the mid-September violence.

Unionist political shifts

Less closely observed over the course of this year have been two manifestations of ongoing change within political and cultural unionism. The DUP, led by the outspoken and controversial Presbyterian Reverend Ian Paisley, took nine out of ten unionist seats at Westminster, and half the Northern Ireland total, leaving the once-dominant UUP with only one seat.

In March, the Orange Order, Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant civil society organization, severed its formal links with the UUP – a move that reflected its growing disenchantment with the party’s embracement of the peace process, as well as the Orange Order membership’s increasing affiliation with the ostensibly more hard-line DUP.

While these changes are essentially internal to unionism, they have not developed in isolation from what has occurred within Sinn Féin-IRA since late last year. Intra-unionist and intra-nationalist developments take place within a context of a stuttering peace process, which has been, to many unionists, driven by the demands of a politically astute and media-savvy Irish nationalism.

For loyalists – those connected to paramilitaries – the link is an obvious one, as outlined by Sammy Duddy of the Ulster Political Research Group, a think-tank linked to the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

According to Duddy, “de Chastelain [the retired Canadian general who heads the disarmament commission] would not see loyalists disarm if he lives to be 100”.

Perhaps ominously, Duddy said the IRA had come to have such influence due to the threat it posed to British interests. Moreover, he said, unionist fear of a united Ireland would force loyalist groups to maintain their weaponry.

Loyalist vs. loyalist

Recently, however, these loyalist weapons have been used on other loyalists. The feud between the UVF and the LVF claimed four lives in this summer. The UVF drove dozens of “LVF families” from their homes in Belfast, with the police unable to intervene.

These events, together with the riots of 9-12 September, led the Northern Ireland Secretary of State to declare the UVF ceasefire invalid. However, as outlined by the Independent Monitoring Commission, the agency set up to report on paramilitary activities, this feud has apparently more to do with a drugs and racketeering turf war than any internal loyalist ideological dispute.

The UDA is the largest loyalist paramilitary group and is heavily involved in the local drug trade. On 4 October this year, Jim Gray, a former brigadier in the East Belfast UDA, was killed over a personal dispute with rival UDA figures and fears in the UDA that Gray planned to testify against them in a looming court appearance.

Loyalists do not always work well with unionists. Class and socio-economic divisions have long placed working-class loyalists, from areas where paramilitaries have thrived, at a distance from the more affluent Protestants and the mainstream unionist political parties. This is in contrast to the Catholic-nationalist-republican side, where the largest party, Sinn Féin, is linked to the IRA. The loyalist political parties remain small, tainted by their links to the paramilitaries and unable to draw votes away from the two larger unionist parties.

For example, one of those parties, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), whose leader David Ervine is an ardent supporter of the peace process, has lost much of its electoral support since 1998.

Not all working-class Protestants are linked to loyalist paramilitaries, and perhaps not even all those that are vote for parties such as the PUP. A recent University of Ulster survey suggests that around 70 per cent of DUP voters consider themselves “working class,” which in turns suggests that the DUP is the party of choice for Protestants who live in areas where paramilitaries are prominent.

Perfidious Albion?

Following the IRA’s 28 July declaration, the British government announced its decision to demilitarize Northern Ireland and disband the British Army’s Royal Irish Regiment (RIR). Unionists viewed the move as yet another concession to Irish nationalist sentiments and evidence of London’s questionable commitment to maintaining Northern Ireland’s position as part of the UK.

Moreover, to unionists and loyalists, this is a continuation of policies promoted by various British administrations since the 1990 statement by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Brooke that Britain had no “strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland and would accept unification of Ireland if that was the wish of the people there.

To unionists, this logic of British detachment from Northern Ireland has accelerated since the political victory of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour Party in 1997. The UUP has close ties with the Conservative (Tory) party in Britain.

In contrast, the Labour Party, historically receiving strong support from working-class Irish immigrants in the UK, has adopted a more critical view of unionism, with former British prime minister Harold Wilson describing unionist-loyalist strikers protesting a 1972 attempt to resolve the Northern Ireland conflict as “spongers.”

Under David Trimble, the UUP supported the Good Friday peace agreement and with varying consistency, remained supportive of the ensuing peace process. The DUP opposed both and capitalized on, if not encouraged, growing loyalist-unionist disenchantment with both in recent elections, culminating in the May rout of the UUP and Trimble’s loss of both the UUP leadership and his Westminster seat.

Dissatisfaction with the post-1998 order in Northern Ireland has seen Protestant support for the peace agreement fall to around 40 per cent by late 2003 – according to the best available surveys and sources – from its 1998 high of 57 per cent. A University of Ulster survey published in 2003 showed that Protestants felt their culture was not protected by the post-peace agreement order. At the same time, the survey showed a simultaneous and inversely proportionate rise in Catholics who felt their culture was being protected.

McNarry echoed those sentiments, saying: “Protestant confidence in the peace process is waning. I am a moderate, I voted for the [Peace] Agreement, but would not now.”

Although unionist-loyalist disaffection with London is nothing new, the level of suspicion toward London, which it seeks to remain governed by, has increased, with most unionists now deeply skeptical of the current phase of the peace process.

“We see Irish republican pursuance of a united Ireland being facilitated by government,” McNarry said.

Speaking on Irish radio on 12 September, David Ervine said: “We condemn the British PM because he is a betrayer.”

McNarry reaffirmed this view, telling ISN Security Watch: “We do not see our government in London standing up for the Union. Unionists longer see Tony Blair as a unionist.”

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