Are Loyalists like ‘white trash’ in the eyes of middle class Unionists? Paul Hagan-Rea asks

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The American Crisis of 1776 and the Flag Protests – A Lesson from History:

Today Loyalists across Northern Ireland have concerns, that their own government is threatening their rights as British subjects. Over 230 years ago a similar argument was being presented in London, by a delegation of British subjects from the thirteen North American colonies. They viewed the taxation and trade laws being imposed on them by the Parliament as an infringement upon their rights as British subjects of the crown. The rights they believed had been guaranteed as a result of the Revolution of 1688.

There is a Loyalist feeling of abandonment deriving from the lack of political representation and reality that Unionist parties are more concerned with issues that affect the middle class voters, rather than problems and fears which are rife in working class Protestants mind-set.


Loyalism and the north American colonist from the 1760’s may share some common ground. The colonists of North America had no way of influencing the laws and policy being produced by London as they had no direct political representation in Parliament. Fuelling the middle-class American frustration was the view that Parliament would only favour policies which lined its own pockets at American expense. Legislation such as the Sugar Act 1764, Currency Act 1764 and Stamp Act 1765, had provided the evidence needed to confirm colonial fears that Parliament was indeed acting in its own interest, giving British companies the advantage over colonial ones.

With no political representation and George III’s determined conviction that America should be brought to heal (by force if necessary), the thirteen colonies were left with little alternative but to protest. The colonies formed a Continental Congress  (excluding Georgia which eventually sent a delegation to the second Continental Congress),  raised a continental army and eventually declared their independence from Britain on the 4 July 1776.

The colonists viewed themselves as Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen and before 1776 did not wish to part company with their mother countries but rather secure their rights as British subjects.

Much like the colonists, modern day Loyalists have turned from peaceful protests to violence.  With the tension building on the streets between British troops and the colonists it was only a matter of time before violence erupted. This occurred on April 19th 1775 at a place called Lexington, where British Regiments and Colonial Militia’s opened fire on each other.  To this day it is unknown who fired the first shot, but that shot was heard around world and would change the course of British history.

The thirteen colonies would eventually gain their independence from Britain and take the ideas of the 1688 revolution to the next step, building a new form of government and developing the idea of   citizens’ rights. However the colonists of 1770s differ greatly from today’s Loyalists, their fear for their British rights was a reality. They had no directly elected representation in their Parliament because British law did not permit it.

Secondly the majority of Loyalist protests are led by working class Protestants and the overwhelming majority of participants are also working class Protestants. Although the American protest movement was directed by Protestants, they were far from working classes, rather a group of landowners, merchants and lawyers,  such as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson , John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. These were men who  were educated and could clearly articulate their grievances.

Finally the British subjects in America would not have understood how disrupting the businesses within their own community would have strengthened their position against the government. They primarily focussed on targeting businesses which profited Britain, such as the East India Company in an event known as the ‘Boston Tea Party’

Loyalism continues to see itself as under siege and has entrenched itself on the battleground of British identity. The Union flag protestors viewed the change in Belfast City Council’s flag policy as the final straw in a continual retreat in which their British identity is being chipped away. This current campaign has no strategy or tangible objectives by which they can aim to achieve or measure their success. This is partly due to the lack of experienced leaders and the differing views held within the Loyalism. If you asked a Loyalist flag protestor in East Belfast about the aims of the protest, and compared them to the protestor in Carrick it is highly unlikely they would be singing from the same hymn sheet.  On the other hand if you asked a regiment in the American Continental Army why they joined and what motivated them, they would state to gain independence. Without a solid goal which can be clearly articulated, understood and measured, motivation within the ranks of flag protests ranks will decline. This will give Unionist parties the opportunity to restore the status quo, by absorbing those disaffected by the lack of progress within flag protest campaign.

In short, there are similarities between those within Loyalism and the aforementioned American Continental Army – they both at one time valued their British Identity. Sadly it stops there as our American forefathers adapted to the new political realities.

Present day Loyalism has failed to do so and in doing so, create a further divide between themselves and Unionists. (It is strange that Unionists deliberately do not call themselves Loyalists for fear of being associated with the working classes and their problems over identity). Indeed it could be argued that a snobbish attitude is taken by middle class Unionists towards their co-religionists who call themselves Loyalists – almost a white trash attitude. And therefore the comparison between our American cousins of yesteryear and our Loyalist brethren of today starts well with both keen to preserve their identity in the face of political change. Both even resorted to acts of violence and demonstration.

Our American cousins learned a lesson 200 years ago – when the political reality changes then you must change too. Loyalists protesting over flags in Belfast, over identity in Carrickfergus, over a non-existent peace dividend in Lisburn and any other grievance elsewhere should take note of this lesson from history.

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About Author

Paul Hagan-Rea was born in 1986 and lived in Crumlin, County Antrim. He has had a passion for military and political history from the age of 16. This passion led him to study a B.A. in history and heritage management at Chester University. On returning to Northern Ireland he joined the family timber business which has been established for over 50 years. To further his knowledge he studied a PGDP in Business at the University of Ulster. He has always been a strong supporter of equality for minority groups. He came out at the age of 18 to his family and friends and married his partner Samuel Hagan in October 2013. He has recently started researching the lives of the ordinary Irish soldiers who fought in the British army during the American War of Independence. As a member of the LGBT community he keeps a watchful eye over the issues and events which affect the LGBT community and the impact they have on that constituency’s lives.


  1. Mr Hagan-Rea puts forward a valid arguement sadly it is unlikely that the people who need to hear it will. The problem lies with the lack of intelligent leadership within the Unionist community, the Unionist Party is dead but hasn’t realised it yet. The DUP still is, whatever the appearence, a one man party filled with selfserving oppertunists, which consider the working class as so many sheep.

  2. Glen Beckett on

    A completely different look at the flag protests and I agree. Loyalism is continually fighting the battles that have already been lost. Instead of have a long term strategy they just react by destroying their own community.

  3. Paul Hagan- Rea puts forward a lesson from history and dares people to deny it. Provocatively he asks why the distinction between Loyalists and Unionists and provides an opinion that many would be outraged by in public but behind closed doors in the safety of their own kind would agree with. Middle class Unionists abandoned working class Loyalists long ago – looking down their noses at the flag waving proletariat who were only useful as political muscle in times of negotiations. Perhaps Paul Hagan-Rea has opened a Pandora’s box and will force Loyalists to rethink their relationship with their Unionist co-religionists. Better still he may even cause the Middle class Unionists to declare once and for all what they really think of Loyalism. For all the cries of loss of British identity I have not witnessed many petty bourgeois Unionists joining the ranks to protest at the flag being flown on designated days. That is beneath them and that is a political reality.

    It is this same politcal reality that Loyalism needs to confront. Like their American forefathers, Loyalism needs to recognise the politcal change that has taken place in Northern Ireland. Not only should they feel abandoned by their own government but also by those who they depended on for politcal represenation for so many years. The disconnection occurred in America over 200 years ago and in truth it has been happening here for years – only some were too blind to see it.

    Being thought off as ‘White Trash’ should not come as a shock to Loyalists – Peter Robinson cannot even bring himself to go and meet them in his own constituency. Surely Loyalist leaders have known for some time that they were a people set apart and that they could not depend on Middle class Unionism. The political reality has changed dramatically – especially in Belfast – the ballot box has seen to that. Political number crunchers have been aware of the demographic time bomb for years – and marching on the streets is not going to change were people put an X on polling day.

    As Paul Hagan -Rea points out our American forefathers wished to remain British but were forced into a rethink when the politcal relationship began to fail. However, there is not only a political relationship to consider but a religious one as well.

    Like it or not we are still divided by religious headcount and our religion tends to define the range of parties we can vote for (mostly). We mostly marry our own kind; mostly play our own sport and mostly live beside our own kind. And this is not a class issue. Not so long ago the Malone Road was a place where the Protestant/ Unionist elite lived – insulated from the great unwashed. However, when Catholics began to access high paying jobs they too sought sanctuary on the Malone Road. The Unionist elite moved out in droves and set up in leafy surburbs in North Down. They were not going to share their Xanadu with neither Loyalists or ‘uppity Taigs’ (I was part of a conversation one evening when a prominent Protestant businessman used this phrase). Today the Malone Road is populated mostly by wealthy Catholics, a huge Chapel adorns the road and each Sunday morning the Mercs and BMW’s are crammed outside it. Another politcal reality!
    And so our Loyalist fellow citizens have a choice to make just as our American forefathers had to make. Do you recognise that the political ground has shifted and what do you do about it? Do you think that Middle class Unionists are going to come and rescue you or do you think you will have to speak for yourselves? Have you considered any new tactics – this present one is not working. Einstein said that the defintion of insanity was to keep on doing the same experiment but expecting a different result. Sadly the result is going to be the same – insanity; jail, alienation, social deprivation, poor educational standards etc – and this is a lesson from history only it is not 200 years old but rather less than 20.
    Paul Hagan-Rea has only asked the questions in the context of history – a history which fought over the same dilemma of British identity. He has used some of the same language, similar examples and identified the same changing politcal problems. History has shown us how America finally sorted the issue with a politcal elite declaring ‘that all men are created equal and that they hold these truths to be self evident’. Now I wonder how many of our political elite would be prepared to say that about their fellow countrymen and women?

    • “Uppity taigs”; a charming expression, it would have resonated with the late Dr M.L. Klng, no doubt. defines it thus:

      1. affecting an attitude of inflated self-esteem; haughty; snobbish; or:
      2. rebelliously self-assertive; not inclined to be tractable or deferential.
      I wonder which your interlocutor had in mind? I rather like the second one.
      Rory McIlroy is from up around there somewhere, isn’t he?

      • Many thanks for your dictionary defintions. Alas I have no idea which of the two defintions my hosts had in mind that evening. I was merely a bystander in a conversation that rendered me speechless – unusual for me I might add.
        As for Rory McIlroy I have to confess that I know next to nothing about golf (swimming is my sport). As a consequence I know precious little about Rory McIlroy but I am sure there are many people in Northern Ireland who do. You know the people of Northern Ireland – everyone has an opinion and everyone is a clairvoyant.
        Nonetheless many thanks for your comments

  4. All very “Dramageddon: an action film coming to your living room soon that delivers jobs and investments…… not”

    The article presents a very alternative comparison to the ‘flags protest’ but neglects 3 realities:

    a) Unionists (and Loyalists like the PUP) endorsed or had as party policy a designated days program for the flying of the Union Flag.

    b) Unionist Councillors on Belfast City Council (the DUP and UUP) instigated an anti-APNI pogrom heightening an issue (that was either party policy or in practice in other council boroughs) in the Belfast City Council jurisdiction that brought people (from all unionist quarters) onto the street in protest action which their ‘parliamentary diplomats’ could never keep controlled.

    c) Violent action is not solely in the domain of ‘loyalists’.

    Add to that a reality that the UUP is living in denial, fighting for it’s political & financial survival against a DUP politburo whose policy is agree to conquer leaves for a complete frustration.

    Some Loyalists (and I am of the tribe) scream how the flag is the last nail in the coffin to a process that alienates and deprives? Yet only investment, social, economic or welfare reform will end such deprivation or alienation.

    Rather than conspire to mobilize ‘the people’ they purport to represent by devising an agenda or manifesto to constructively bring about end to end agreements of investment, social & economic benefit they resort to decades old failed tactics of street politic and the deluded belief that he who shouts the loudest must be heard.

    Being a devils advocate there is also another perspective to this: that ‘sinister elements’ (by that I mean intelligence wings close to HMG or criminals fearing a judicial process) are manipulating the street play (both loyalist and republican)?

    The only answer is a complete public commitment to the Mitchell Principles (no street violence) followed by a reconnection to deprived areas with community engagement by the Political Establishment who must quickly gain a compassionate listening ear and hands deliver investment, social & economic reform. Sectarian ‘we are the people’ attitudes are wrong and someone in loyalism needs to be simply forthright & honest by stating that blood flows red – loyalist blood is not superior to republican, British blood doesn’t flow different to Irish.

  5. Very interesting article and a fresh perspective. The parallels raised are fascinating. The comparison of the treatment of Loyalists by Unionists with ‘white trash’ is insightful and wholly accurate (although like any comparison if we look closely there will be differences). Unfortunately I don’t think Loyalism and Unionism enjoy the same range of political possibilities as the colonists did. One other important aspect of both situations is how the working class were used as cannon fodder while the political elite sat back and called the shots. Valuable lessons here.

  6. John D Brewer on

    Historical parallels ought not to be stretched too far – and Paul Hagan Rae is rightly careful not to do so. The American colonists had not political representation – the same can hardly be said of Loyalists. Here’s another historical parallel. The importance of cultural symbolism was recognised at the very beginning of South Africa’s conflict transformation – and we can only rue the failure here to deal with changes to cultural symbols ten years ago. The paralles abound though. Afrikaners were amenable to the development of a pluralist approach toward the cultural symbolism of the new South Africa because they retained their cultural symbols and kept the right to honour them, while accepting the rights of others to do likewise for theirs. Is what is lacking here then the essential willingness to compromise?

  7. According to John Bew in his book Civic Unionism, the difference between Loyalism and Unionism is this: The former is based upon adhering to 1690 and loyalty to the British Monarchy while the latter is based upon 1801 and loyalty to Westminster.

    • Paul Hagan-Rea on

      Completely agree. Monarchy is such a fundamental part of
      Loyalist identity with an almost mythical status.

  8. There’s also a world of cultural difference between the generally can-do attitude, national self-confidence and collective self-belief of Americans on the one hand and the largely constipated, beggar-my-neighbour, resentful and begrudging attitudes of Irish people, north and south, nationalist or unionists, on the other.

    The predominance of these attitudes in Ireland is surely a topic worthy of a couple of meaty theses. If someone hasn’t done one already, that is.

    If they haven’t, and one appears in due course, I shall naturally be consumed with the acceptable and appropriate degree of malice, envy, etc. etc.

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