The Elephant in the Peace Process by Dave Magee.

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The elephant in the peace process has been mostly ignored, largely maligned, and often misunderstood.  It’s time to talk about Loyalist masculinity.

In her book The Will To Change, the African-American feminist ‘bell hooks’ argues that if we take away the privileges that patriarchy has given men then we would find that they are suffering just as much as women.  In the case of Loyalism, patriarchal masculinity has left Loyalist men brutalised and suffering, with nowhere to go.

The dominant form of Ulster Loyalism that emerged during the period of ‘the troubles’ was defined by heavily militarised notions of masculinity.  In many areas men were often willing to take up arms, of one sort or another.  For some this meant joining the British army, for others this meant joining Loyalist paramilitary organisations.  In the same way that young men are told that the army will turn them into ‘real men’, so too ‘real men’ joined the ranks of paramilitary organisations.  A UVF ex-prisoner told me:

‘Men in this area would still, always down through the history of this area…always want to be in the army of some sort.’

On the walls of public housing estates and inner-cities, the figure of the Loyalist ‘warrior’ became immortalised.  A UDA ex-prisoner recalled:

‘Gunmen in our estates, and the places where we lived, were idolised.  They were heroes.  They were heroes, full stop.’

Young men growing up in Loyalist areas often had to deal with the triple effects of poverty, an education system which rendered many of them second class by the age of eleven, and the wider effects of deindustrialisation and the loss of jobs.  In this context paramilitary organisations provided many men with a story that gave them both meaning and status that was difficult to attain elsewhere.  The UDA ex-prisoner summed up his attitude towards education growing up:

‘When we grew up, ‘Education’s for fruits!’ You know. It was for gays.  You know.   ‘Pffft, don’t touch that, we want guns! Gimme guns, gimme guns!’’

It was while conducting a focus group with Loyalist women that I first became aware of the deep suffering of Loyalist men as a result of patriarchal masculinity.  When asked about men and their emotions, one woman replied:

‘I look at some people now and I think they’re dead behind the eyes.’

Others added that many Loyalist men were:

‘Closed.  Shut.’  ‘Paranoid.’  ‘Switched off.’  ‘Haunted.’  ‘Desensitized.’

Later, a UDA ex-prisoner described to me how this process took place:

‘Everybody changed in so many ways….And you do become hardened.  Death means nothing to you.  Even life itself, you know, the value of life.  You’re prepared to give your life.  You’re prepared to go to jail.  You’re prepared to give up your freedom and your family.  So you go step by step by step, [from]being what you would call normal to being a soldier, or a hard-line paramilitary.’

One ex-UVF prisoner described how this took its toll on family life:

‘If you harden your heart, well that’s gonna be hardened towards your relationships and other areas, whether it be your wife, your kids or even the way you talk and treat your friends, you know. In them days you didn’t wanna show sign of weakness.  Everybody was fucking John Wayne.’

Loyalist patriarchal masculinity has claimed more victims than most of us want to admit.  It crushed the souls of those who managed to make it out alive and exiled them to a land of emotional disconnection.  More than one Loyalist ex-prisoner has told me they are afraid to sleep because they might wake up screaming in the night.  It is common to hear stories of Loyalist men, decades after their involvement in the conflict, dealing with alcoholism, drug addiction, and other mental health issues.  Others, unable to cope at all, have taken their own lives.

Some might argue that these men chose their own path and now they have to deal with the consequences.  Some might say they deserve what they get.  Many people are so enraged by the suffering caused by Loyalist men that they refuse to acknowledge that Loyalist men have also suffered.  And yet, if we are to all move forward together towards a shared future for everyone, we can not afford to ignore the elephant in the peace process.  Acknowledging the suffering of Loyalist men might provide a point of connection that ultimately leads to transformation of Loyalist masculinity.

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  1. ‘Acknowledging the suffering of loyalist men’

    ‘We know you’re suffering and feeling sensitive…’

    I can imagine the reaction such an approach would evince from any ex- or existing paramilitary.

  2. Thomas Russell on

    There’s a right-wing aspect in this masculine loyalist pain. Loyalism derives partly from reactionary notions of superiority, and besiegement by inferiors with whom mutual accomodation is denounced as surrender (of superior birthright). There’s a negativity and nihilism in that approach to ‘the other’. It entails macho anti-intellectualism because exploration of other ideas, dialogue, engagement with ‘the other’, may lead to compromise & loss. Parallels with ’60s Alabama, Afrikaners, BNP (involved in flag protests), & other right-wing mindsets.

    • Hi Thomas – while I agree that we can point to the existence of right wing elements within Loyalism, I would disagree with labeling Loyalism always and only to be compared with right wing mindsets. I would argue that it is misleading to highlight right wing elements without understanding them within the broader context and also mentioning the much larger and influential left wing elements. Loyalism needs to be understood as an umbrella term that covers a range of political and social outlooks. I’ve previously blogged about this here

        • When I say ‘left wing’ I mean most of the main thinkers within Loyalism were not simply concerned with their nationality but also held broader social and economic concerns that would place them on the left of the political spectrum. This is something that most recent texts on Loyalism would suggest.

    • It’s absolutely not purely a Loyalist problem, but my work focuses specifically on Loyalist masculinity. I suspect that there are both similarities and differences to be explored but that will be a job for someone else!

  3. Within republican communities many of the men were “re-deployed” in the political machine, where that never happened in loyalist areas in a cohesive fashion. This was underpinned by the fact that in republican areas education didn’t have such negative connotations… education was always key in Catholic areas… Whereas in working class protestant areas, before the troubles, real men worked in heavy industry…

  4. I am shaking my head incredulous at this.

    I mean, all those wasted years spent on operations simply to satisfy my inner action-hard-man seeking to break free?

    In the specific of Northern Ireland operations who’d have thought we where only holding the line against wee repressed men, flaunting their muscles?

    Had we known the ‘Republicans’ weren’t masculine or hard, just think, we could have given them a Book of Poetry, Cooking, Sewing or Knitting and they’d have merrily embraced their full femininity?

    Seriously, the entry into conflict during the troubles was created from a myriad of political-social-economic conditions that made young men (and women) feel that their only available choice to bring about change was to engage “them ‘uns over there” with bomb, bullet or fists. The first line of defense became attack, and for a few decades size-able portions of the Loyalist and Republican community sought ‘guns’ with only 1 view to internecine violence or attacks on the state.

    Masculinity had nothing to do with the conditions that created conflict and very little to do with the tactics of Urban Policing Operations or Guerrilla Warfare and such sweeping generalizations, as presented, belittle a majority of men (and women) who rightly or wrongly assumed they where completing a service to their community.

    Patriarchal masculinity is a common vein in any working class area where being a ‘hard man’ was kudos. I grew up with tales of Buck-Alec Robinson, Seamus Doyle, Silver McKee, Frankie Drain and Bo Bradley in equal measure. Their sons & daughters became the first generation for initiation to the high alter of violence called ‘the troubles’.

    The only agreement I can have with David’s perception is that for Republicans interned or imprisoned education became the Regimental cornerstone of incarceration for all whereas within Loyalism (in similar circumstances) it was a personal choice. Not withstanding, a great many soldiers / paramilitaries from a Loyalist back ground did empower themselves with education & they play a very positive role in their communities.

    • Hi Glenn – thanks for your feedback. I absolutely agree with you that the conflict came about and was sustained by a myriad of social, political, and economic factors. I’m not suggesting for a minute that the only factor was masculinity. What I am suggesting is that looking at what happened through the lens of masculinity is something that can be useful and is much overdue. It’s something that can add to our understanding rather than totally replacing it, and provide us with an alternative perspective.

  5. Dave,

    An interesting piece but not a hitherto unique perspective. It has been long recognised within the Protestant community that ‘Belfast’ is in many respects a place apart. I think the machismo that you highlight in loyalist paramilitarism is largely a Belfast phenomena that is not confined to Loyalism but in many respects describes the Belfast character across the political and religious divide.

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