Growing a political project out of the seeds of discontent – Brian Rowan on what’s going on within loyalism…

Social share:

(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

In recent months the PUP leader Billy Hutchinson has been sketching out a kind of cultural battleground – the street stage on which he says loyalism will reassert itself and its Britishness.

His plan comes with a collection of new buzz phrases; revolution with a small ‘r’, unarmed resistance and re-Britification.

Written into the narrative you will find a whole range of emotional issues – marching, flags, identity, cultural expression, the anthem and, now, the Maze ‘shrine’.

Sinn Fein is painted as the bogeyman, and the developing story includes a focus on voter registration and on politicising a disconnected community.


PUP leader Billy Hutchinson

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson


As the pages are turned, the message is fight back.

So, we are watching another attempt to grow a political project out of the loyalist grassroots, and we are seeing the ground being sprinkled with the seeds of discontent.

It is a scenario in which it seems some loyalists have deliberately chosen to present themselves and their communities as the losers in the peace and political processes.

You read it in the magazine THE LOYALIST associated with the UDA and the UPRG.

“Sinn Fein play a dirty game where they extend the hand of friendship publicly claiming peace yet in the background continue to agitate on the streets with opposition to parading a massive policy of theirs,” a recent article reads.

The City Hall flag decision in Belfast is described as a move that “has set back the real quest for peace by years”, but in the loyalist script many lines are excluded – written out.

How, in an internal coup, the UDA stood down its political party – the UDP – and how the PUP lost its political representation at Stormont as a result of internal squabbling and in the headlines of loyalist feuding.

Loyalists were once at the heart of this process.

So, in the analysis of what went wrong, they need to look at themselves – into their own mirrors.

Would David Ervine have played to the flag protest – to that mood and crowd? I doubt it.

Is the Maze really going to become an IRA ‘shrine’?

Only if loyalists allow it to be, and that is why, on this website, others such as Tom Roberts and William ‘Plum’ Smith have argued for an approach that balances the narrative.


William ‘Plum’ Smith, Brian Rowan, Sean ‘Spike’ Murray and Roisin McGlone of Interaction Belfast. Image courtesy of Sean Murray


Earlier this week, in west Belfast, Smith shared a platform with Sean ‘Spike’ Murray as they told their stories of being born into conflict and of then becoming part of a developing peace.

They showed us that different perspectives and different truths can be heard within the same space – that one story won’t dominate if others are prepared to tell theirs.

Loyalists aren’t going to take votes from Sinn Fein, so another part of their narrative is how the unionist parties have failed working class communities.

Again, it is somebody else’s fault, and there is no critical self-analysis; no acceptance that part of the damage was as a result of self-destruct.

If ‘cultural war’ is talked up as part of a political project then it will eventually play out on the streets and someone will be hurt or worse.

So, it is time to step back and to address these issues not in a one-community conversation but across the communities.

This month, off-stage and privately, there will be a dialogue about parading and protesting.

It should be happening here and now, and should involve those at the highest tiers of leadership.

If as much effort was put into 2013 as 1913 or 2016 rather than 1916 then we might all be in a better place.

The elections that are ahead will be how the PUP political project will ultimately be judged, and Billy Hutchinson knows this is a last chance both for himself and his party.

In the here and now it is time to take a deep breath – time for grown-up dialogue, time for a political/community conversation and negotiation on unfinished business.

It’s not about buzz phrases, but rather the type of calm conversation that was able to happen in west Belfast earlier this week.

(You can follow Brian Rowan on Twitter by clicking here)

Social share:

About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.


  1. Fine words barney and even finer words from billy h.Truth be told there are only two words the pup need worry about come ANY election…..BOBBY MOFFAT.

  2. It is very hard to disagree with Barney Rowan and therefore I will not even attempt to. I would like to add a little to his discourse in the form of a psychological analysis.

    For many years Loyalists were told by Big House Unionism that they needed no one but them for their political well-being. They would be looked after from the cradle to the grave and will never need to worry about politics accept on polling day. This arrangement was backed up by big industries being located in Loyalist areas and very little in the way of education was required in order to secure a job in those companies. Shipyard, Shorts, Mackie’s, Sirocco Works to name but a few. In the good old days of Big House Unionism the arrangement worked well – jobs for father and son almost at will.

    The political conflict that ravaged this country created a new political arrangement that needed Loyalism to help bring about. Those new arrangements seen the demise of Big House Unionism, the rise of education as a passport to work and a recognition that people can be British, Irish or both. Trying to adopt to the new political reality is proving difficult for Loyalism. Education was not really on their radar for many years and having to change your attitude on a long term project is not an instance solution. Going back to school, getting GCSE’s, A Levels and then a degree is a ten year project in anyone’s life and that is a price that many Loyalists do not want to pay. Their old political masters instilled in them a belief that they did not need a 3rd level education and A Level’s were a non requirement for heavy industry – the problem is therefore an historical one.
    Loyalism needs to educate itself, speak for itself, represent itself and have confidence in itself. It is a ten year project and taking to the streets will only delay the day when it can do all these things for itself. Their argument is not with Sinn Fein, the SDLP or any other manifestation of Catholic/ Nationalist/ Republican representation. Their argument is an internal one – they were let down by their own political masters of yester year who removed self confidence from them. Blaming an external force is only reinforcing denial. The external force has no votes in Loyalist areas – but there are votes in those areas for Loyalists as long as they can demonstrate they can improve the lot of the people who live there.
    Nationalist parties have improved the lot of their people and education helped them to sell their people as a valued commodity; employable people – a settled and confident people. I would urge Loyalist leaders to do the same and let education be your passport – even if it is a ten year programme. In ten years time if two people go for a job and one has A Level’s and one has not I think we know the likely winner. Education, Education, Education. Now where have we heard that before?

  3. Great stuff. Two points speak a lot to me and need to be made clear:

    1. ‘Would David Ervine have played to the flag protest – to that mood and crowd? I doubt it.’

    Agree wholly

    2. ‘Again, it is somebody else’s fault, and there is no critical self-analysis; no acceptance that part of the damage was as a result of self-destruct.’

    Again I wholly agree. Where’s the personal responsibility, self-drive and initiative. It’s not about what government can do for them. The big bad world is out there and a bit of gumption and a good education and there are real opportunities. Unfortunately education is a devalued currency in many estates and households…

  4. ‘They’re getting more sweeties than we are, so we’re not going to play any more’ seems to be the limit of loyalist thinking.
    Time for them to grow up and realise how much they have to learn about politics. Success is not just handed to you because you murdered and terrorised in the recent past.
    Old UVF, today’s UVF, no difference!

  5. EamonnMallie on

    Dr Francis Teeney and other contributors obviously view
    considerable merit in Barney Rowan’s analysis of differing opinion in
    Loyalism. In recent times on this website I advised Billy Hutchinson
    “choose causes like educational deficits, social deprivation and
    unemployment in Protestant Loyalist areas and we will all be morally
    obliged to march with you.” I haven’t changed my view.

    • Eamonn,

      Why should Billy Hutchinson’s position on British identity diminish any moral obligation you would otherwise feel in supporting the causes that you list?

Leave A Reply