Billy Hutchinson – a British Loyalist in Dublin

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I’ve felt green of late. Not a political conversion, rather, the green of envy.

Jealous of the energy, vision and action of the Irish unity lobby. The unionist caucus by contrast is inert and anaemic. Unionism is now the politics of Ourselves Alone, endlessly playing the grievance card.

Unionism is reclusive. Unionists exhibit the traits of a barbed introvert. In many aspects the pro-Union mind in Ireland is agrophobic. Unionism might hold long time adherents with this conduct, but it won’t win new subscribers with it.

I’m not sure what rankles unionists more, physical force republicanism or up close physical contact with affectionate republicanism.

Breaking this unionist habit the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party Billy Hutchinson made a trip to the Irish capital to speak at Liberty Hall to an audience of Irish nationalists and republicans. His address looked at how the loyalist community view the Republic of Ireland. This was the first in a series of lunchtime public talks, ‘Our Friends From Belfast‘, organised by trade unionists, community and peace workers from Dublin

The purpose of the series is to break stereotypes, increase an understanding of one another, and to build relationships. The chair reminded us that Irish loyalists are “almost unknown” in the south. And then some humour: Billy Hutchinson comes from a mixed marriage, one between a socialist and unionist.

Billy began by looking at the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. 1966 was the year of the Malvern Street murder; the year of the Lemass-O’Neill summit; and the year of fierce Paisleyite backlash to reform.

“The thing I remember was smuggling.” In Billy’s childhood everyone had a “Free State lighter”. A metal contraption with a fabric wick.

As a child Billy remembered O’Connell Street, but not much else about the south. As a returning adult he expected a hyper-gaelicised used city. “I expected it was going to be fiddly-dee music.” His understanding of Dublin was way off, he confessed.

“Dublin was so American. I couldn’t believe it. It was Coca Cola culture. U2 were described as an Irish band but they were inspired by America. It would have been hard to find a fiddly-dee bar. American influence was all around the world.”

With the ceasefires and accompanying dialogue with TDs from the south, the tensions began to defrost. But he reminded the room of the starting point and the mindset with which the peace makers had to work.

“It was just thought by loyalists that Dublin supported the IRA.”

Billy’s understanding of Ireland was helped by a chance and inauspicious meeting with a lady in Cork. He retold the story of how hearing his Northern accent the Cork cashier asked if he was Dundalk. He corrected the lady and said he was from Northern Ireland, to which she responded that she thought Dundalk was part of the North. This told him that it wasn’t a matter of the south being collectively hostile and against the North, but that many people were indifferent and oblivious to the state of affairs.

“It was funny but refreshing. Not everybody from the South knows and cares about the North. It’s the same for Northern prods. It was a lesson I learnt very quickly. I was told the Cork and Kerry mountains was IRA territory.”

Billy then stated his avowed constitutional allegiance: “I am British and my political ties are to England.”

The former combatant called for the continued construction of relationships, personal, political and economic. And not just North-South but East-West also. “There are a lot of similarities between the North and South and the more cooperation the better.” He continued:

“We may be two nations but we are one island. It’s a bit like Belgium and France, we should cooperate.”

He said that the government faces the same challenges – housing, health, education – and the people face the same challenges. “From my point of view the people are the same and should be treated the same.”

Billy moved to take questions from the audience which added insight and context to the loyalist viewpoint of the South.

Asked about a potential Brexit Hutchinson said he opposed it. For reasons of trade principally, for which Ireland and Britain are deeply and critically tied. It would also trouble the issue of the border.

Asked about the spectre of Scottish independence Billy responded that the referendum of September 2014 was resounding, settling the matter. This line rings of the corpulent complacency of leading unionism in Northern Ireland. The SNP represents a formidable challenge to the constitutional status quo, a challenge that requires the display and deployment of every bit as much energy and enthusiasm from the pro-Union lobby.

Asked why Northern protestants would want to stay with a county that is becoming an increasingly difficult in which to live, Hutchinson said that Great Britain is not unique in confronting the troublesome issues of migration and integration, these are EU wide. He took this moment to reaffirm and reiterate his ties to England. Expressed by his love for cricket and rugby league, making Yorkshire and Leeds a regular destination.

Asked if it was time to drop the designated titles unionist and republican Hutchinson said Northern society is not ready for it, nor are the parties who have engineered “institutionalised sectarianism” in the Assembly.

Asked about racism and a racist event loyalists were tied to Hutchinson said:

“The message is we don’t want to get rid of sectarianism and replace it with racism, and we have been using World War Two to explain how different people come here. Racism has no place in Northern Ireland society.”

The loyalist leader reminded his seating audience that the south has a bad history of discrimination and racism towards the traveller community.

Asked about the GAA Hutchinson said he admired the institution and what it has achieved on a social and cultural level. For him it is a model that needs to be applied to Irish League Football. However on loyalists playing GAA it was a firm no. He explained that the Troubles saw republicans take ownership of everything that was Irish, from the language to Irish dancing.

“The GAA is Irish so it is seen as republican, and so it gets lumped in with everything that happened during the Troubles.”

Billy Hutchinson closed the discussion by restating the many similarities that exist between Britain and Ireland. “Driving around Dublin it’s like Leeds. It’s all English architecture. The links between Dublin and London are stronger than ever.”

David Ervine said republicanism is not contagious. Many within unionism seem to think different. David Ervine said he was British and Irish, just as Americans can be Irish and American. For many in unionism, and even republicanism, this is simply not possible.

People rightfully continue to mourn the loss of David Ervine. Many lament and decry the absence of leadership within loyalism. This talk was only a minor act, but in symbol and example it is large.

Our only fate is what we make for ourselves. Loyalism can continue to ask for help or it can choose to help itself. Please may we see more positivity and courageous activity like this.

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Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.

5 Comments

  1. Interesting piece, though I think Billy H is seriously misreading the issue of Scottish independence, the matter is far from over. Post indyref has seen a massive surge in SNP membership, there is a rising and dark mood over the high handed way in which Cameron with his party and the Lab party moved quick on English votes for English laws, contrast the obstructionist approach of the same lot when delivering on the so called vow, stymying amendments, various other parliamentary tactics to delay progress. Along with some pretty condescending remarks by certain English MPs that came close to Scotophobia. Scottish Labour are in tatters. With the renewal of trident and the pending in/out euro referendum on the cards where it looks like Scots will vote for in while England may well vote for out, the political gap is widening. Also the younger voters in Scotland seem to trend towards a confident aspiration of a hopeful and energised independent nationhood so the tide is shifting fast. Anyone who thinks the issue is settled has not been following the story. Unionists in NI really need to take account of this as being a distinct possibility as it would seem that beyond these shores to the east there is a lot of redefining of cultural and constitutional identity going on, and like it or not it will impact upon the future of the UK as a whole, and fundamentally the long term status of NI. If the union here in NI is to survive then arguments need to be developed now for why, in the context of such a scenario. It’s only a matter of time.

  2. Nothing new here. His 2 Nations remark totally ignores that there are 2 Nations in the 6 Counties. That is where Billy`s problem is. Billy now exemplifies a sort of patronizing 1960`s O`Neill type Unionism. But unlike O`Neill Billy has moved backwards.

  3. Loyalists are a lost people. I say that as a former Loyalist who wised up.
    All Loyalist views & actions demonstrate this. Billy Hutchinson says his political allegiance is to England. What a pity England doesn’t reciprocate and that’s the nub of it. Loyalists are in a dysfunctional relationship where their abusive partner barely gives them the time of day. They hang on to a ‘British’ identity that does n’t exist any more. Even the British Conservative Party don’t believe in it.Their cousins in Scotland have woken up to this reality.
    This unhealthy relationship will cause any partner to lose any sense of self-esteem & self-confidence.
    The only thing that has prevented Ulster loyalists being subsumed into the Irish republic so far has been the incompetence of the Irish republican movement led by Sinn Fein, but sooner or later Loyalists will find themselves in an Irish Republic & their opinion as always won’t matter because they lost their way in the world a long time ago.

    • hi Cushy Glen, don’t know if you’ll see this reply as I’ve only just read the article. However, thankfully, a loyalist who is seeing the break of dawn. What annoys me so much about Unionists, is that they are like relics of the past, brain dead – and no-one cares about them. Mr Hutchinson gives us several examples of this. He loves to see the Republic as another country because it gives him an excuse to promote his “cause”.
      He is clearly racist as he is afraid of “diddle-dee-dee music” – what type of music therefore does he like? What is his problem with Irish Trad? He adores England – a country, if ever there was one, which is completely devoid of any culture and identity whatsoever! English people also laugh at Irish Trad, but they have no music/instruments of their own!
      He doesn’t like the GAA – yes, it had its roots in a Renaissance-like resurgence of all things Irish – that happened because the Irish were fed up of having our culture stamped out by the Brits – but Sam Maguire was Protestant! Lots of Protestants at home (Donegal) play GAA. Donegal fans have been on the receiving end of Protestant bigotry and violence for years, when our buses get stoned returning from matches, going through New Buildings every year – but there is no mention of that in the press!
      Unionists have such a rare culture – the OO – which are simply anti-Catholic. And by God, if they do not get their way, there is hell to pay – which, of course, you’ll know yourself!
      I feel that your predictions will ring true. Unionism will die a slow death, but remember, that Catholics and Protestants share so much history together – only most Protestants don’t know this because in the British education system, they are not taught this, and a lot of them simply don’t educate themselves. Some Irish Republicans were Protestant, but all this went by the wayside when the Act of Union was brought in in 1800. Before this Presbyterians were badly treated like Catholics through the Penal laws – probably not as badly, but still a bit like second class citizens.
      So those are some of my reasons why I don’t really listen to Unionists rambling on about their “culture”, as most of it is based on bigotry and hatred and a bit retarded.
      Yes, they won the battle in 1690 – but who is winning the war?

  4. I think there are alot of positives about his speech.deep down he means well.he’s been down the wrong road and now he’s trying to build bridges within the two communities.

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