Where do we go from here?

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PUP leader Billy Hutchinson pictured at the Progressive Unionist Party annual conference at Brownlow House in Lurgan, Co. Armagh.

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson pictured at the Progressive Unionist Party annual conference at Brownlow House in Lurgan, Co. Armagh.


Between 1969-1972, when Northern Ireland descended into the violence of the modern “troubles” fueled in part by apocalyptic rhetoric of some unionist leaders/politicians an unintended consequence of this violent period was the split that took place within unionism between the unionism working class and “big-house” unionism. This split resulted, amongst other reasons, from the belief that unionism could no longer protect the border, defend Protestant communities from the violence of the Provisional IRA nor fulfill the social contract that promised employment in return for loyalty from the Protestant working class.  A consequence of this “split,” the DUP formed in 1971, ostensibly as the political voice for the ordinary Ulstermen and women. In the same period the loyalist paramilitaries began to defend their communities and to attack the IRA and the nationalist community.

This split within unionism and then the eventual division that developed between the DUP and many of the paramilitaries eventually led to the use of the term “loyalist” when referring to the working class Protestants who took up arms to “defend Ulster.”  This was necessary for both the “Big House” and the DUP, in order to differentiate themselves, the “respectable” elements within Unionism, from loyalism. Interestingly, for purposes of this piece, after the split, the Unionist parties, in particular the DUP continued to be the parties of “No!” whilst some within the loyalist paramilitaries and their working class allies became the “progressive forces” that attempted to engage constructively with politics as a way to end the conflict and create a “just and equitable” society.

Fast forward to 2012 and 2013, the flag protests and the band protests at Twaddle.  We are witnessing the familiar play that I wrote about in January (The Lost Opportunity Redux) once again acted out on the streets of Belfast. The rhetoric and actions of the unionist ‘leaders’ put the Protestant working class on the streets (flag protests).  Then those on the streets, losing faith in the ‘leaders’ who can’t restore the flag nor get the ‘brethren’ home along the “traditional” route, begin to organize and act to defend their “culture and identity.”

Are these events linked and if so do they give us any insight into where working class loyalism will go in the future? An even more important question is “Is it going anywhere?” As some argue, could this really be the last gasp of the loyalist working class, a class left behind by economic, social and political change? Or, could this be the beginning of a working class political movement that can have an impact on Northern Ireland politics?  If it is the latter what will that impact be? Will the working class go down the road of right wing populism, a very real and disturbing possibility?  Can this working class activism centered only on the flag and marching lead, once again, anywhere other than another dead end for loyalism?  Or as, one observer asked can this activism be used “to galvanise populist support for an agenda around socio-economic and political justice?” that will deal with the very real issues of educational underachievement, social and economic deprivation and all the attendant social problems these bring on once they resolve the issues of the “cultural war?”

Faced with these questions, this piece will argue that loyalism is not going away, but where it is going is unclear.  However, whichever way loyalism goes it will have a very real impact on the future of Northern Ireland and its people.  Therefore, it is important to go beyond the sensational headlines, the very real violence of some loyalists in the protests, sometimes silly and naïve actions (See Willie Frazer’s arrival at court as a radical Muslim cleric) and the sometimes unquestioning support for the British flag, the military and the trappings of empire to understand where loyalism might go in the future.

We all know what has occurred as a result of the flag protests and the standoff at Twaddell.  Like the late 1960s and early 1970s, working class loyalism believing that Unionism cannot defend unionist/loyalists interests, in particular its symbols, moved onto the streets to defend its culture and identity.  These protests have ended in stalemate at Twaddell and frustration over not getting the flag back on City Hall.  They have also fueled grassroots political activity and a surprising “success” that points out that the Protestant working class is finding its political voice. This ‘voice’ was a major reason why Peter Robinson and the DUP backed away from their support for the Maze regeneration programme and why a number of Unionist politicians have paid visits to Twaddell.

Since the start of the flag protests in December 2012, we have watched the news, read the pundits, heard the radio programmes and read all the blogs which essentially talked about and at times condemned a community that has “lost its way,” a community more worried about its symbols and identity, a community that often engaged in mindless violence and followed “leaders” who had no political programme (the “anti-Party” is an example of this) and could only lead the loyalist community down a dead-end once more.

Reading Facebook, Twitter and so on, one could very easily be discouraged and despairing about loyalism and where it is going.  One posting that has made the rounds of Facebook pages reads: “I came into this world kicking and screaming while covered in someone else’s blood and I have no problem going out the same way.” Others call Facebook, “Taigbook.” Another posting that appeared on the 29/9/2013 read:  “Fuck Bloody Sunday:  No Apology! No Surrender!” There are references to the PSNI as “PSNIRA/Scum.”  There was joy in stopping the Republican parade in August and doing it in violation of the law and incalculable damage to Belfast and loyalism’s image.  Anti-immigrant feelings, racism, and in particular virulent anti-Muslim sentiments appear on many pages.

Statements appear attacking those from within loyalism who wanted to compromise in the 1970s and 1980s and attacking any compromisers then and now as communists. Some loyalists condemn the PUP, as they did in the past, as “socialists” and “appeasers” because the PUP agreed to the (Belfast) Good Friday Agreement.  Other statements once again link loyalism’s struggle unquestioningly to Israel.  A recent post condemned the PUP for participating in a conference with republicans and argued “No Surrender!” “No Compromise!”  Any outreach from loyalism to republicanism and vice versa, is condemned as “appeasement.”  In essence, what this wing of loyalism wants is a return to the Ulster of pre-1969 where it existed only for the loyal British subjects, not those with a different vision of the future of Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole, be that the republican vision or the liberal, progressive unionist vision of many loyalists.

Even with what political analysts and observers would call regressive and reactionary forces within loyalism emerging over the past year, I would argue that what we are witnessing is the “self –mobilisation” of the Protestant working class.  This mobilisation, in the face of what it sees as weak and appeasing unionist leadership, represents a working class not prepared to follow those it no longer trusts and instead go down its own route.  That route could be the road to nowhere again, just as it was in other times in Northern Ireland’s history when the loyalist working class fought blindly for the cause” but didn’t look beyond that “cause.”

Although much of this narrative is true, like any other story, it is not the whole story.  Yes, there is a very reactionary element within loyalism, as there has always been, and we have seen that over the past year with the element that does not think or act beyond the issue of the “nation,” identity and/or culture. But, as in other periods of Northern Ireland’s history, there were and are elements within the Protestant working class who, while defending the nation, culture and identity of the Protestant working class also have engaged in political action, community organization and empowering the Protestant working class to take control over their lives and communities.

Whilst the self-mobilisation that I outlined above represents the PWC taking control of its own destiny it also represents a step backwards and is self-defeating, (there is no plan for the future) there is another self-moblisation taking place within the loyalist community that we do not hear or know about.  This mobilization could lead to a stronger, more vibrant and politically aware Protestant working class that can represent its own interests and do it in through politics and community action and not through knee-jerk reactions to the provocations it sees directed at it by Sinn Fein.

Before, I continue I must address the fact that this piece cannot deal with what the UDA and the UPRG are doing at this time.  I do know from many conversations on the ground that there is a great deal of positive work being done by both groups and many other groups in those communities. However, I simply don’t have enough information or the space here to deal with them and so will leave that to other writers.


Irish News editor Noel Doran speaks at the Progressive Unionist Party annual conference at Brownlow House in Lurgan, Co. Armagh.

Irish News editor Noel Doran speaks at the Progressive Unionist Party annual conference at Brownlow House in Lurgan, Co. Armagh.


For the purposes of this article, the most obvious place to begin is with the Progressive Unionist Party.  Prior to the move by Belfast City Council to remove the flag on all but 17 days in November 2012, the PUP did not see the flag as in an issue that the Party needed to deal with.  However, that changed, on 14/11/2012 when Billy Hutchinson, the PUP leader, changed the party policy. He did this in the face of what he and the PUP viewed as an assault on the symbols of Britishness, in particular the parades and flags, by nationalists and republicans.  Consequently, when the flag protests began, the PUP and Hutchinson, supported the protestors, but unlike the “anti-party” and the more reactionary elements with loyalism, began to act and organise politically.  Hutchinson, echoing the Principles of Loyalism, stated in a TV interview on 8 December 2012, that the PUP along with the UVF/RHC would use “unarmed (political) resistance” and that they would defeat Sinn Fein politically.  While this caused consternation amongst many observers, those familiar with the Principles of Loyalism would not have been surprised as this is a core principle of the document. (See “The UVF and Political Resistance” in Principles of Loyalism)

In response to the flags issue and protests, the PUP undertook political action and began to recruit people into the party and put them through an education programme once they joined in order to channel people away from the streets and into political action. (The Party now counts 600+ members with “people joining daily.” (Hutchinson))

On the 13 January 2013, Hutchinson made a video for the PUP TV website and that is now on Youtube, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3w-4La_lmgk) in which he called on people to act within the law and to avoid disruption of daily life in Northern Ireland by sending letters of protest to City Hall and making their voice heard on the flags’ issue that way.

The PUP has also organized voter drives with canvassers going to door-to-door to sign people up to vote.  An image has appeared on many Facebook pages that reads “No Vote = No Voice: Register to Vote” superimposed over the British flag.  At the same time, the PUP in Newtonabbey posted:

  • The first electoral registration day is on 27/09/2013. Please try and get your forms returned by then.
  • The electoral office in Glengormley has confirmed that the last day they will accept forms is 19/10/2013.
  • If you need a registration form do not hesitate to pm us and we will get one to you.
  • Remember No Vote = No Voice

Jonny Harvey, the educations director of the PUP on 26 August tweeted: “Good to see so many talking about electoral registration. Goes to show that politicisation in our communities is working!”  The importance of social and economic issues also are important to the PUP project.  Harvey posted on the 21 August, “Busy wee morning in the PUP office. Housing problems still top of the list, however education and employment issues close behind!”

The reason I bring up these facts is to point out the difference between the PUP and those of the “anti-Party” and extreme nationalist wings of loyalism.  Where the reactionary elements have no plan or idea for the future and actually want, I believe, a return to the past, the PUP is engaging politically and attempting to involve the Protestant working class in politics around not just the symbols of Britishness, but in the very real issues that people face every day.  This will go a long way to shaping not just working class politics but the politics of Northern Ireland and the possibility of a shared future for all.

This may seem contradictory given what has happened over the years, but the policies the PUP is following now are identical to those of the “progressive” loyalists in the 1970s and 80s.  That is, the PUP will “resist” Sinn Fein politically as loyalism resisted the PIRA militarily in the past.  And like loyalism after the ceasefires, the PUP, once the “political conflict” ends, would work with any party to move Northern Ireland forward.

Beyond the PUP, the PWC itself, has showed itself capable of organizing peaceful and legal marches since the riots in July and, except for the republican parade in August, has managed to keep them peaceful.  The “Civil Rights” camp at Twaddell represents another step in community organization and peaceful and lawful protest.  Postings have also appeared on Facebook condemning violence and calling on loyalists to make positive contributions to their own communities.  One recent posting (1 September) on Facebook said “A lot off post(s) up this morning about drug dealers. The answer is simple! You CAN NOT be a loyalist if your (sic) a drug dealer! FACT!”

Within the loyalist communities themselves there is important work going on every day.  It would take too long to list or talk about them all, but I will just briefly mention some of them here.  Alternatives Restorative Justice has, for over 15 years, played a role in bringing positive changes throughout Loyalist communities and has done great work amongst young people in particular.  The Action for Community Transformation continues to work with and bring many former loyalist combatants and prisoners into active citizenship.  ACT has also worked to tell the story of those who participated in the conflict.  In one telling example, ACT participated in the West Belfast Festival in 2012 to tell the story of loyalist prisoners to a republican audience.  EPIC works to represent the interests of ex-UVF/RHC prisoners and does a great deal of cross-community work to insure that the violence does not return.

Others have worked creatively to bring people in the loyalist communities together to tell their stories and to develop their capacities as individuals and eventual leaders of their communities. On the Shankill the Shankill Area Social History group has actively sought out many and diverse speakers to address their meetings on the Shankill’s and Ireland and Northern Ireland’s history.  They have done great work to put together, from within the community, a play for the Belfast Festival at Queens called Crimea Square, 100 years Of Shankill Road History.

Robert “Beano” Niblock and William Mitchell, both ex-prisoners and writers in their own right, along with Chris Hudson, Connal Parr, Marie Jones and Billy Hutchinson, have launched a theatre project called “Etcetera.” The goal of this project is to . . .  remedy the disengagement of the Protestant working class from the arts and theatre.”  Those who have launched this see it as “an outlet for specific, underrepresented stories and . . . to redress the perception of a community which feels itself outside the very uneasy tent of the current dispensation.”  (http://www.drb.ie/blog/writers-and-artists/2013/08/21/the-other-side-of-the-story#sthash.6kyRHoxq.dpuf)

These are just some of the examples of the positive actions taking place within the loyalist community.  However, they will suffice to make the point that there is something going on underneath the radar that has the potential to help move the situation in Northern Ireland towards a more positive resolution. In essence, the story is not just about what is happening on the streets.

So, what do we make of all this?  This is a very difficult question.  Many analysts and observers of the situation in Northern Ireland have called on or wanted the Protestant working class to find its own voice and to act in its own self-interest for years.  Now that it is doing just that, many of these very same people stand watching awkwardly and uncomfortably as the PWC has begun to take control of its own destiny.  This is disconcerting for some as these pundits cannot control where loyalism and the Protestant working class goes, only the PWC can control its own destiny.

However, as this piece points out, loyalism is on two different paths right now.  Yes, it is united right now over the symbols, the flags and the parades, but there is a very real split emerging on what the way forward is for the Protestant working class and Northern Ireland has a whole.  As illustrated above the path of the “anti-Party” camp definitely leads towards the past and I would argue marginalisation and powerlessness once more if it becomes ascendant.  Yet, the other path, of real and full political engagement, while promising, does not guarantee success either.

The PUP’s attempts to channel the very real frustrations of the Protestant working class into political action, while necessary and commendable, is fraught with political danger.   Can the PUP move those who have entered the party towards progressive political action and real engagement in the political life of Northern Ireland, including compromise with republicanism once this political conflict is over?  Or will those entering the party now shift the PUP to the right and make the party a working class version of the DUP? Will these new members leave the party once the flag and marching issues are resolved?  Can the self-organisation and the self-actualisation now taking place within the Protestant working class communities lead to a confident working class able to stand on its own two feet and chart a new way forward?

We do not have the answers to the many questions outlined above nor can we provide the PWC with those answers.  Only the PWC, the PUP, and those active in the PWC community can respond to those questions.  How they do answer may well decide the course of unionist and Northern Ireland politics as well as the future of Northern Ireland itself.

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Tony Novosel is a senior lecturer in History at the University of Pittsburgh. He is involved in 'common history' projects in Belfast.

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