Reality, Realignment & Restoring Equilibrium

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The recent Sinn Fein statement, urging the necessity for increased dialogue with Loyalism, may represent another important milestone within our peace-process; and yet it will be how it is received, heard and responded to in particular; that may indeed mark the beginning of the development of a new phase within that peace-process.

If we have learned anything; it is only through the process of dialogue, that new understandings can emerge, which can allow a space where our various issues/problems can be aired, explored and ultimately resolved.

Loyalism itself has done its share of the heavy lifting within our peace-process, and has never run away from the challenges of peace building.

Yet clearly there are still huge challenges that lie ahead…

Many would acknowledge that mainstream Republicanism has long been concerned with the residues of their former armed-campaign, which have increasingly begun to express themselves through various dissident factions.

Whilst there is no doubt that Republicanism has been quick off the mark to stand up both publically and privately to this threat against a post-conflict society, many feel that they have often been less than generous with their assessment and accuracy of the level of threat actually posed by these groups, or indeed the impact on the Loyalist community.

Republicans would previously have applied terminology like ‘micro-groups’ to these factions, playing down their threat to wider society, and more importantly to themselves.

There are indications that these groups have now moved into a space where the assessment has dramatically changed, to one where these dissident groupings represent a ‘real and sustained threat’ to our emergent post-conflict society and the new political dispensation.

The reality of the dissident threat has remained all too real for the Loyalist community, with under-car bombs and mortar-firing tubes discovered lately within predominately Loyalist areas. This placed a local civilian population at extreme and unacceptable risk, with a Protestant primary school and highly populated residential areas on more than one occasion exposed.

It has been increasingly obvious for some time, particularly within Loyalist communities, various chunks of the Republican movement have become sliced off the seemingly once Republican monolith, albeit without having yet gained the necessary community traction required to intensify or popularise that campaign.

It is also clear that these dissident relics in our midst continue to cling to a militant ideology, with the haemorrhaging of members, expertise and munitions a feature of the transitionary process itself that Republicanism has undertaken.

This is in itself a measure of how far Republicanism has come.

However, many would argue that any reconciliatory message invariably gets diluted by the high-resolution image of young kids dressed in paramilitary uniform, the presence of a masked man firing a volley of shots at a Republican commemoration, as well as the backdrop of bombings/shootings that have been a recurrent feature of the ‘forever war’ concept.

From a Loyalist perspective, the aggregated de-construction happening within the Republican Movement has occurred over a period of time, as that movement signed up to historic and important societal developments such as supporting policing and ending their previous policy of abstentianism within the ROI. Some splintering has taken place at each key juncture deemed a step too far.

It is clear these groups are now engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of Republicanism itself.  This is something that has kept Sinn Fein increasingly focused on looking over their own shoulder and playing to that parochial audience, with the intention of placing a sticking plaster over what is becoming an increasingly fractured form of Republicanism.

Calls for a ‘border-poll’ and ‘national-reconciliation’ are playing to a parochial audience, seeking to repair a fractured edifice. This is designed to convince dissidents of an achievable goal without violence at the same time as attempting to re-house all republicanism under the one roof.

There is a concern this is in danger of turning the peace-process into an ‘appeasement-process’!  In doing so, they must realise that for every action there is also a reaction, and their actions will contribute to the reactionary growth of dissidence in the Loyalist community as a by-product of any appeasement-process.

Indeed, many would now reflect, that in looking exclusively over their own shoulder, that we have failed to look over each other’s shoulders, and that we now require a renewed urgency to move beyond parochial approaches to what are increasingly becoming collective and complex problems.



However, within any wider problem solving framework, parochial approaches should still have an important role and function, such as the Unionist Forum, or indeed Sinn Fein’s offer to talk to Republican dissident groupings (which in itself can be interpreted as the initial seeding of a Republican Forum).

Holistic problem solving requires both an inward looking focus as well as an external and systemic one.

Many would point out that the scales of our peace-process have become imbalanced lately. Indeed, within this context, it is now becoming increasingly obvious that dissident voices, and actions, have now appeared over the Loyalist shoulder, which itself has begun to re-animate conflict-mindsets within our own community. This invariably began to play out on our streets.

That the recent violence failed to migrate across the Province, is itself evidence of how far Loyalist communities and their associated leaderships have come in holding that line. However, it must be said that Loyalism itself has not remained immune or insulated from the fracturing-edifice effect.

Yet it is important to reflect that this has often happened at a much slower pace and to a lesser degree, in comparison to the Republican example, and hasn’t of yet, formed itself into or expressed itself as, an entity that constitutes a serious and sustained threat to society or the peace-process.

We ought not be complacent or take that for granted either.

The existence of expressions of dissidence and a clear undercurrent of anti-peace process sentiment, as well as the physical force out-workings of this, threaten to pull us all back into the abyss of our past.

We cannot afford to underestimate or ignore the extent of the problems and challenges ahead of us as a society, which has given genuine concern about the possible unravelling of the peace-process itself, and the divergence from what were, and still are, hard won dispensations.



Whilst we would agree that much progress has been made within the peace-process, the political-process itself remains locked in abject failure when it comes to addressing the social-injustice experienced, which is felt more acutely within those working-class communities. Those were the same people who found themselves at the coalface of that conflict and who still endure the harsh socio-economic realities. Those people feel the political process is not working as intended or designed for them.

The Good Friday Agreement raised community expectations, linking the onset of peace with increased prosperity. In many ways, the imagery that sold the Agreement and which won the people’s vote, in particular that of a family, backlit by the dawn of a new tomorrow, promised much. If people had to vote now for that Agreement, in hindsight, many believe a resounding NO would be the likely outcome.

Whilst we undoubtedly live in an infinitely better place than the one we left behind, the lives of those working-class communities that bore the brunt of conflict, have not really changed that much.

That itself is part of the un-finished business of our peace-process.

Indeed, other undelivered aspects of the Agreement, around a proposed Bill of Rights in particular, may have created a framework for securing the inclusivity of social, cultural and economic rights across society. Likewise the Civic Forum may have been a useful mechanism to begin to hold our politicians accountable for delivery on their commitments. They both represent parts of the socio-political architecture that have been left neglected and discarded.

Indeed, the introduction of a rights-based approach, as insurance for ‘inclusivity’, is itself an issue which Loyalists have been advocating for numerous years, and thus is not a concept exclusive to the Republican community.

A bill of rights was first proposed in 1975 by the Ulster Civil Liberties Centre based at 275a Shankill Rd, within a document entitled ‘a proposed bill of rights for the United Kingdom’.

Whilst it is perhaps unfair to highlight any one particular incident, within what is a significant and extremely emotive back-catalogue, nevertheless it may be necessary to allow us to grasp the scale of the challenges ahead, without intending to elevate any incident above another or give an apportionment of blame.

One of the main architects of the proposed Bill of Rights, Sammy Smith (UPRG) was killed the following year at Alliance Ave in North Belfast by the IRA. Despite Sinn Fein’s current insistence that they wish to ‘uphold the rights of all’, many within our community would still interpret this as a deliberate attempt to quash the emergence of a rights-based approach within the Loyalist community.

Likewise other events would still be interpreted as attempts to kill off the development of a Loyalist political project intended to benefit all.



Make no mistake, there is still a lot more ‘convincing’ required (on all sides) as well as yet unchartered depths of feelings and interpretations to navigate, and we must not underestimate this psychological journey either.

Behind the mere words of ‘convincing’, clearly there is much more spadework required!  No doubt there are many challenges ahead that face us all, yet with any challenge there are also opportunities.

We need to restore an equilibrium to the new society to which we are committed to building, and with which we have charged our political representatives.

The core failure and inherent fault-line in terms of politics is expressed as a basic lack of understanding around how the big-picture invariably plays out locally within Northern Ireland politics. In effect there are two distinct processes, a political process & a peace-process, and the two have become somewhat detached recently with their linkage weakened.

In moving forward and building this future, it is imperative that we begin to understand how our macro-level political decisions impact on the grassroots based peace-process itself.

In this context, we particularly welcome how the emphasis has been placed on the centrality of the local, in terms of community processes, as the essential cement for building that new society on a solid foundation, within which there must be a ‘bottom-up development’.

Indeed, we begin to see an acknowledgement from Republicanism, though still somewhat reticent, as to how that big picture plays out locally, in the references made around the concerns relating to the erosion of culture and identity that exists within the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist section of our community in particular.  These are concerns that emerged due to macro-level political decisions not taking account of local impact.



Such decisions have undoubtedly  impacted on the local processes that they now profess to value. This itself, would lead many to the assumption that at the macro-political level, politics in itself is no longer earthed to the peace-process.  However, this statement does present an opportunity to explore how we deal with the residues of conflict that have become lodged within both our respective communities.

The existence and growth-rate of these residues particularly highlight the need to move away from a framing where that Agreement is presented as some sort of ‘irreversible done-deal’, to one that requires a lot more consideration, care and effort to get it right, lest it unravels.

It may also open a useful space to begin to focus on addressing the socio-economic deficits that exist and particularly how these are experienced within the restless undergrowth of our new society.

To continue to play the parochial politik in this, will only serve to consolidate, strengthen and polarise society further down strict Republican/Unionist lines, rather than realigning it down pro-peace/anti-peace ones that cross those traditional boundaries.

We must begin to re-earth that peace-process through realigning the positive currents.

In this regard, it is important to stress that there is still an inherent responsibility on both the British & Irish Governments, as guarantors and persuaders, to become a part of this positive realignment, with many of the opinion that they have ‘left the stage too early’.

This itself opens up the debate to the need for International-reconciliation within our peace-process.

The challenge will be to align the pro peace-process diaspora across all our communities.

Now is the time for a more co-ordinated and joined-up approach.

It is imperative for us all to become advocates within this, to defend the peace and secure the future for our next generation.

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About Author

John Howcroft is a former life sentence Loyalist prisoner, community development worker, and North Belfast UPRG representative.


  1. Excellent article John. Certainly gets across the complexity of the ‘peace’ process. Recently I’ve listened to a number of politicians and parties talking about shared future. The pro-peace diaspora you refer to needs to create methodologies for dialogue in the here and now and not be too fixated with the ideal society we’d all like to live in. I actually see a real change politically occurring and that process of re-alignment starting to shape up. I listened to George Mitchell a few days ago on TV and he said that as far as the party political system is concerned, history often leaves behind the very parties who have brought about progress and change. The key trick will be to manage this change process as the party political system alters but the difficulty will be in the extremes – the paramilitaries inputing into the equation. Will be inevitable. I see the ‘process’ more important than the imagined end game. We can get there. Creating value systems of openness, fairness, etc and building trust in discussions is a great step forward. Onward to the new Enlightenment!

    • johnhowcroft on

      We have to remember that our politicians are only themselves learning governance post decades of direct rule, and whilst it is one thing sitting on the sidelines promising much, delivery is a whole new ball game.
      especially in the context of diminishing budgetary constraints, beurocratic red tape, and the continuance of traditional games of ‘poking the eyeball’ of your political opponents.
      We need to up our game!
      Our votes will not be sold as cheaply as they once were…

  2. Words fail me (and that’s rare). A concise, well presented thesis for anyone genuinely interested in the evolution of the process, and the peoples in this North East region of the Island.

    I was writing yesterday an article to share with a former enemy, and I recollected a poignant (given the recent passing of Margaret Thatcher) statement that former PUP Leader Hughie Smyth said in 1994: “Thatcher got it so wrong in stating Northern Ireland is a British as Finchley. While we are under sovereignty of this United Kingdom en-par with Scotland, England or Wales the reality is that a sizeable portion of society here are not British, don’t care to be British and who as a people reject UK Nationality. British sovereignty holds no sway over such minds and when the shooting stops there has to be a greater understanding of what actually separates us in being Irish or British. This is no Finchley”

    I am also minded of my grandfathers words to me in 1972 when after walking me to our yard toilet in Ainsworth Drive off the Woodvale Road, he pointed to the many slugs proclaiming: “Ya see them slugs on our wall? Well them slugs aren’t Protestant or Catholic; they’re not even Irish or British. You go down the Falls Road and you’ll see the exact same slugs in a similar damp infested yard toilet in an ill equipped terrace the same as ours. As a people we’re no different and there’s the tragedy in all off these shootings and bombings because we’ve forgotten our similarities. The cloaks of ideology and flags hide the fact we’re the same”

    Trust takes time, and talking with positive action helps. Onwards with eyes to the horizon.

    Sound analysis John.

    • johnhowcroft on

      the question of whether there is indeed a ‘shared Ulster heritage’ is something that the UPRG published in a series of pamphlets under the CTI (Conflict Transformation Initiative) a few years back.
      Clearly from a socio-economic perspective we have many similarities in terms of experiences, yet many would still deny and even subvert the idea that these experiences extend into the cultural realm.
      The centrality of relationships in peace building is certainly an important and necessary consideration.
      Being blessed with familiarity with your own personal journey, I know that your contribution extends far beyond words…

  3. An outstanding critique and analysis, breathtakingly frank and level headed. An important contribution to the continuing work of conflict transformation and community cohesion. Congratulations John.

  4. John – there is much unfinished business and far too much playing to a small crowd in both communities. The not so fancy dress that kids were paraded in at Easter, and the appearance of a gunman firing shots into the air, were reminders of old days and old ways. And, in another community, this notion that you need a band and a drum to be heard is just nonsense. Speaking, writing, words and paper are the tools that we can all best use to express ourselves. The armed dissident republican groups do not pose a threat to the new political dispensation – they pose a threat to life, but have not the wherewithal to force the ‘Brits’ out or to bring about a re-writing of political agreements. The threat they pose should not be overstated. And the loyalist organisations need to think about their contribution to the problems in their communities. How many young people were recruited after the ceasefires and the political agreements in a safety-in-numbers-game that was linked to internal feuding, and how are those ‘ceasefire soldiers’ now re-directed along some safer path? All of this is part of the unfinished business. There was nothing romantic about the wars of this place – and we all need to stop shovelling our experiences on top of another generation. Toy/wooden guns should have no place in commemoration, ‘sniper at work’ badges should be put in the bin as should all of the military-type dress that we still see when the different sides march. It’s not always somebody else’s fault. We all need to look at ourselves. The peace process is not unravelling, but we do need to pick up the dropped stitches.

    • Barney
      I agree that ‘we’ have all, in some way or another, been a part of the problem, and must thus also become a part of the solution.
      I am reminded of the words of the late John McMichael on this;
      “there is no section of this divided Ulster society that is totally right, or totally wrong, totally innocent, or totally guilty; and we must all share the responsibility for the maintenance of good governance”
      However, we do need to find new ways to express ourselves and alleviate our many concerns, which for those at the coal-face are not just real but also pervasive.
      The old ways have gone, but they do still lurk within the memory, and have always managed to recreate themselves as we have traditionally lurched from periods of war to periods of peace.
      No doubt those that intend to do just that lurk dangerously in our midst.
      we cannot allow their ‘counsel of despair’ to destroy us!
      They are a threat, but only if we allow them to be.
      you are right to suggest that we need to ‘stop shovelling our experiences onto our next generation’, thus leaving a conflict inheritance for that next generation.
      That itself highlights the importance of the Prison to Peace project, where ex-combatants have done much highly valued work in de-glamorising conflict, and assisting that next generation to navigate the gap between the reality and romance of conflict, and thus make more informed choices than many of us have made.

  5. John, I really enjoyed red this an excellent analysis of the current context in terms of presenting a Loyalist interpretation of the situation and the issues undermining one’s collective ability to move forward and away from the entrenched positions people have found themselves in. It is also interesting that you draw attention to the growing disconnect between the peace and political processes, and makes me wonder whether different actors are now, unlike in the past, responsible for the successes and failures of the processes and are not interconnected. As for the terms ‘Loyalism’ and ‘Republicanism’ do you think they are becoming more and more complex in terms of defining what they represent? this must have implications in how we attempt to define and understand the current quagmire in which we find ourselves in. Finally, you discuss the topic of ‘reconciliation’ and the challenges associated with this emotive subject. From a Loyalist perspective, what does ‘reconciliation’ look like and what form should it take, and how would you define it?

    • johnhowcroft on


      Firstly, I think we approach any available issue from different ideological and cultural perspectives.
      Unionists (or Loyalists), being from a liberal protestant tradition of thought, which particularly embraces the concept of the individual, would tend to approach
      reconciliation with an individual focus firmly in mind; whereas Republicans would approach the issue from a constructed perspective that highlights the particular societal conditions as the backdrop.
      These different cultural/ideological perspectives do appear somewhat incompatible in the reconciliation debate, as they give us different starting points and trajectories.
      This gives us an Individual V Societal
      incompatibility running through the debate as a cultural starting point.
      Thus Republicans would tend to talk about the need for National-Reconciliation on a societal level, whereas Loyalists/Unionists would more emphasise an individual reconciliation process, where it is the handshakes, understandings and honesty between people themselves that is not just most important, but also most real and authentic.
      A particular difficulty is Republicans typically do ‘engagements’ well but ‘relationships’ poorly, and it will be relationships that are key within the individual reconciliation approach.
      Republicans have furthermore, through their calls for national-reconciliation, conveniently left out a key relationship on the societal level.
      National reconciliation itself is an exclusive North/South concept, something they are keen to embrace, and Unionists less so, whereas International-reconciliation, that would include an East/West strand, would be something more aligned to not only Unionism, but also the GFA, where the 3 strands of relations were central.
      This particularly highlights the difficulties and challenges ahead, and in essence is at the core of our failure to obtain a vision of what it looks like.
      talk to you more when you call in for that chat and coffee. (your shout)

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