What is Loyalism?
Ulster Loyalism is most simply defined as being, loyalty to Ulster. Not loyalty to the institution of monarchy, not loyalty to any government or party, not loyalty to England, but loyalty to Ulster. Having Ulster’s best interests at heart and working to ensure that Ulster, as an entity, both literal and abstract, is not harmed or destroyed, and the willingness to use any and all means to prevent any such possible harm or destruction. It can also be described as loyalty to one’s community. Of course, there are those who would vehemently disagree with my definition of what Loyalism is, they will insist that Loyalism means loyalty to the British Crown and constitution, as revised after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-90. Or that Loyalism is merely a misplaced sense of loyalty to the British state. That is their prerogative. I have self-identified as being a Loyalist since I was in my early teens. In the years since I have examined and re-examined the defining characteristics of Ulster Loyalism. I have had many, many conversations with others about what they believe Loyalism means, about what it means to them to be a Loyalist. I have studied the history of my country and the history of Loyalism. I live and work within a predominantly Loyalist community. Those who know me personally, know my ‘credentials’. Forgive my arrogance but I am of the firm belief that those best qualified to define Loyalism, are Loyalists themselves.
That the very definition of Loyalism is a matter of debate says much about the Loyalist community. We are a ‘broad church’, welcoming of dissenting voices. Often divided on specific issues and seemingly content to tear each other to shreds over those issues. But all Loyalists (and indeed the vast majority of Unionists) share a sense of common purpose. From the upper echelons of mainstream political Unionism, to the ordinary woman or man on the street, from the Loyalist/Unionist ‘moderates’ to the former POWs, all have one thing in common. The sincerely held belief that Ulster should never enter into any form of political union, or be annexed by, the Irish Republic. Beyond that point though, Loyalism begins to diverge from Unionism, at least in terms of terminology. There are many Unionists (I use the term here to denote those who would self-identify as Unionists but not as Loyalists) who hold the view that this country, the land of their forebears, is not worth the shedding of even a single drop of blood. To many no doubt, this would be an admirable quality, from my point of view however, it is a naïve rejection of the political and intercommunal realities of life in Northern Ireland. Anyone who describes themselves as a Loyalist should, as a point of principle, defend the right of any (and every) free people to resist, by force of arms if necessary, that which they cannot tolerate politically.
Are Loyalism and Unionism the Same?
Not all Unionists are Loyalist. Not all Loyalists are Unionist. Many self-styled Unionists disagree fundamentally with some of the core principles of Loyalism. Some Loyalists lean more towards Ulster nationalism than support for the Union. Indeed, there are many Loyalists, myself included, who support the Union only for as long as the Union is beneficial to Ulster. For me, one of the central tenets of Loyalism is the principle of self-determination. Historically the Ulster people have exercised that inalienable right, choosing to remain within the British family of nations. There is, however, nothing which precludes Ulster from exercising her right to self-determination and choosing independence, in some form or other. If, for example, some future Westminster government was to display more than the usual level of obsequiousness towards Irish nationalism and declare that Ulster would cease to be part of the United Kingdom from such-and-such a date, some form of independence would be Loyalism’s only viable option, at least in the short to medium term.
The media and others used to use the terms ‘Unionist’ and ‘Loyalist’ interchangeably. Today they do not. Is this a recognition of the clear distinctions between the two, or perhaps merely a ploy to aid in their further demonization of Loyalists? I am prepared to, grudgingly, give the media the benefit of the doubt and say it is the former rather than the latter. The issue of Loyalist identity is an extremely complex one. It would be perfectly acceptable for one to proclaim that all Irish republicans are also Irish nationalist, but that not all Irish nationalists are republicans. One could also state that, for example, all members of the Tea Party in the United States are conservatives, but not all American conservatives are Tea-baggers. The same idiom cannot be employed when discussing Loyalism and Unionism. Although one could perhaps get away with using the phrase “most Loyalists are Unionists but only some Unionists are Loyalists”. That may well be as close as we can get to a succinct summation of the relationship between the two.
Aside from the pragmatic view that many Loyalists have of the Union, there is one other important issue where Loyalists and Unionists differ significantly. The issue of armed resistance. As I have already said, there are some within Unionism who are completely pacifistic. There are many more who seem to have no problem with armed counter measures, but only if and when such counter measures are undertaken by the forces of the state. For them the idea of citizen soldiers engaging in clandestine warfare is anathema. Yet a century ago even ‘Big House’ Unionists were prepared to engage militarily to defeat the 3rd Home Rule Bill, or at the very least, to ensure Ulster’s exclusion from any quasi-independent state arising out of it. It is bordering on the hypocritical for some Unionists to commemorate the use (and threatened use) of armed resistance 100 years ago, and yet totally condemn it in the context of the more recent conflict.
The People’s Right to Defend Themselves
Loyalism, in both principle and in practice, has always asserted the right of the Ulster people to defend themselves. In April, 1689, the representative of government in Londonderry, Governor Robert Lundy, attempted to surrender the city to the forces of King James II. The people of the city, no doubt inspired by the Apprentice Boy’s shutting of the gates the previous December, paid no heed to Lundy’s orders and, under the leadership of Col. Adam Murray, began a fierce attack on King James’ besieging army. Technically, the citizens of Londonderry were, in disobeying Lundy’s orders, acting illegally. They were however, morally justified. If they had not resorted to armed resistance, King James’ army of French and Irish cut-throats would have entered the city and slaughtered the inhabitants. It would have been an extermination.
In the early 1970s many Loyalists felt that they too were facing extermination. The Provisional and Official IRA were detonating no-warning bombs all over Ulster. Outside pubs, shops, offices and restaurants. In town centres and outside police stations (often in built-up residential areas). Meanwhile, Irish nationalist death squads roamed the streets looking for potential victims and IRA snipers (both ‘Pinhead’ and ‘Sticky’) created panic in the terraced streets of Belfast and Londonderry. The ‘authorities’ seemed powerless. The Army seemed either unable or unwilling to fully engage the republican gunmen and bombers. With little or no other option, the Loyalist people once again had to rely on themselves. To arm and organise themselves as best they could and begin to fight back. The Ulster-Scots, as a people, had an undeniable right to self-defence. A right to armed resistance. I will never, ever, condemn any Loyalist who took the momentous decision to disregard their own safety and take up arms in defence of their country and their community. In fact, I would commend anyone who took that decision. In the face of a ruthless, barbaric, genocidal enemy, armed resistance is a necessity. Indeed, in such circumstances, armed resistance should be regarded as a moral obligation.
We Oppose Only One Thing
Those who make it their life’s work to attack Ulster Loyalism often say that: “loyalists know what they are against, but they don’t necessarily know what they are for” I fundamentally disagree. Loyalists know exactly what we are for. We are for full and equal citizenship. We are for civil and religious liberty for all. We are for integrated, secular education. We are for an end to discrimination in education, housing and employment. We are for a better standard of living for all the people of Northern Ireland. We are for an end to the cultural Apartheid that has seen one community lay claim to certain areas (in some cases whole towns and villages) to the exclusion of all others. We are for an end to Irish nationalist/republican terrorism. We are for normality, peace and conflict resolution. We are for justice. For peace with honour (not peace at any price). For an accurate and truthful account of our country’s recent past. For our children and our children’s children. We oppose only one thing. We oppose the childish, reductionist, arrogant idea that our country ought to be politically, economically and culturally unified with the other country with whom we share this island.
At it’s very core, that is the only thing that Ulster Loyalism opposes, as an ideology. We will oppose this or that, in the course of normal daily political life, but fundamentally, ideologically, we oppose only that one nefarious notion. Loyalism does not have to work to change the status quo. Loyalism won when we achieved separate status for Ulster in 1921. The vast majority of Loyalists (those who, at least tacitly, support the Union) have what we desire. We are not working towards the fulfilment of a pipedream. We are not trying to subvert and overthrow the state. At times I think that it is to our detriment. Perhaps the Loyalist community would have more cohesion, more purpose, if we were working to achieve some romanticised ideal, rather than simply working to maintain what we already have. I shouldn’t covet the attributes of other communities though. For we, as Loyalists have different, but equally advantageous attributes. Our sense of self-reliance. Our indefatigability. The very fact that we, the Loyalist people, are not a single, homogenous, tightly controlled group, which is far more of a strength than a weakness. Something we should perhaps, be quicker to recognise.
Is Loyalism Reactionary?
For Irish nationalists this is almost a rhetorical question. “Of course loyalism is reactionary” they’ll say. “After all, loyalist violence was a reaction to the republican armed struggle”. For Irish nationalists and republicans this is one of those unquestioned truisms that their political doctrine clings to like a drowning rat. It is also one of the politically immature responses which makes one further question the ‘merits’ of a segregated/sectarian education system. For just because Loyalist violence was, some of the time at least, a reaction to republican violence, does not prove that Loyalism, as an ideology, is reactionary. On the contrary, throughout the conflict now known as ‘The Troubles’, it was Ulster Loyalism that provided the only real political innovation. As far back as the mid-seventies, David Trimble, then of the Ulster Vanguard movement, was writing eloquent and scholarly articles and theses on how the Conflict might be brought to a close. In the 1980s, the UDA, through their political wing, the Ulster Democratic Party, produced ‘Common Sense’, a document at least a decade ahead of its time. ‘Common Sense’ was itself the successor to that organisation’s earlier thesis, ‘Beyond The Religious Divide’. The Progressive Unionist Party had also contributed much to the debate about how Ulster might move beyond conflict, sectarianism, social exclusion and ‘zero sum politics’.
Any objective observer may well conclude that, in response to such Loyalist thinking (for instance- ‘Common Sense’), Irish nationalists and republicans seemed unable to even garner an articulate response. Absolutely unable to come to any new conclusions themselves, or even re-examine their own ‘sacred beliefs’, Irish nationalism could do only what it knew how to do best- reject any innovation. The accusation that Loyalism is reactionary is, in light of the evidence, not only patently untrue, but also absurd. When the UDA produced ‘Beyond The Religious Divide’ and later, ‘Common Sense’, Irish nationalists were forced to react, but were unable to do anything more meaningful than sit in the corner, their fingers in their ears, whistling ‘A Soldiers Song’. When the armed wing of Loyalism escalated it’s military campaign, from about 1989 onwards, PIRA/SF, INLA/IRSP and the IPLO were forced to react. When the CLMC talked of “abject and true remorse”, for the killing of innocent people during the Conflict, Irish nationalism/republicanism was again forced to react, their reaction was a deafening silence!
Loyalism as a Catalyst for Social Change
Arguably, working class Loyalist communities are the most tightly knit of any communities in the British Isles, with the possible exception of the Traveller Community. Close bonds were forged during the long, weary years of bitter, internecine conflict. In the last few years, with the increasing demonisation of working class Loyalists, those bonds have become stronger still. We, as Loyalists, know what community means, what it is. Loyalists have always had a deep, indeed profound, social conscience. It is that social conscience, and that feeling of being a part of something greater than the individual, that inspired many Loyalists to become politically, and/or militarily, active in the first place. Loyalism is primarily a working class, community based, ideology. Can Loyalism therefore act as a catalyst for social change? The answer seems obvious to me. Yes, of course it can. Loyalist communities the width and breadth of Northern Ireland face numerous complex social issues. Poverty, lack of social housing, educational under achievement, social exclusion, drug abuse etc etc. Loyalist communities are though, I believe, uniquely equipped to deal with such challenges. Loyalist marching bands and Lambeg drumming clubs are not only overt expressions of culture, they are also a fantastic way to occupy young people, to keep them from loitering on street corners or engaging in antisocial activity, encouraging them to be more physically active and expanding their minds through music. Loyalist communities also have other unique aspects which can be utilised for the benefit of the whole community. Orange Halls can be used for a multitude of purposes beyond that for which they were originally intended- crèches, slimming clubs, evening classes, community meetings, cultural events etc etc.
Not only can Loyalism can be a catalyst for social change, I would contend that it already is! In the future, the role of Loyalism in social change will only expand. The recent resurgence of the Progressive Unionist Party is a clear illustration that many within the Loyalist working class are sick and tired of the right-wing, economically conservative, socially inactive parties in the Unionist ‘mainstream’. ‘Joe Public’ has had a belly full of the vague and diffuse promises of the DUP. Most ordinary people in places like Rathcoole, Ballykeel, Ballysally or Tigers Bay, can see with their own eyes who the politically and socially active people in their neighbourhoods are. They’re not the property speculators and businessmen of the DUP. They’re the former combatants, the ex-POWs and the activists of the PUP and UPRG. People who have a vested interest in seeing improvement in those communities because they live in those places too. Loyalism has always been socially aware, today however, Loyalists are fast learning how to get things done, how the ‘system’ works and what needs to happen for Loyalist communities to get their fair share. Loyalists have always striven to fix the problems in our communities, now though, we have the tools at our disposal to do the job right.
Loyalism and Feminism
One of the core principles of Loyalism is civil and religious liberty for all! So to exclude women from any aspect of political, social or cultural life would be an absurdity. Any man who calls himself a Loyalist needs to recognise the vitally important role women have played in the Conflict. I can think of no greater example of courage than those women POWs incarcerated in Armagh gaol, outnumbered by their enemies but never outfought! Enduring all manner of hardship and indignity but never allowing themselves to be broken. All men need to also recognise that gender equality is a necessity in any democratic, free and egalitarian society. As a man, I feel slightly uncomfortable speaking on behalf of women, after all, women need to be able to speak for themselves. We men though have a role in providing an environment within which women and girls feel confident enough to express themselves freely.
If civil and religious liberty for all is not just rhetoric, then it must be our guiding principle as we go about our daily lives. We must think before we speak, before we act. The task of transforming communities and attitudes is an arduous one. Loyalism is not a part-time political philosophy, it is an ideology which can be applied to almost every aspect of our lives. That includes our relationship with the opposite sex. I would like to believe that working class Loyalist communities have never been especially patriarchal, but then again, I’m a man, my experience and the experience of my mother, sister, aunt, daughter etc are no doubt very, very different. I do know one thing though, as an Ulster Loyalist I have a great desire to see equality and fairness in all aspects of society and in every community!
Loyalism and Intellectualism
If one assumes that ideology is, in general, a mask for self-interest (whether personal, national, ethnic or religious), then it is a natural presumption that intellectuals, in interpreting history or formulating policy, will tend to adopt an elitist position, condemning political mass movements such as Ulster Loyalism. Throughout the years of conflict, Pseudo-liberal intellectuals have often dismissed Loyalism as if it were an irrelevant nuisance, if they bothered to offer comment on Loyalism at all. The self-appointed ‘intellectual elite‘ have come in for almost constant criticism from elements of Loyalism, but there is no real reason for such antagonism between intellectualism and Loyalism. Unlike Irish nationalism, with it’s over simplification of historical issues and it’s obsessive mysticism, Loyalism is rational, pragmatic and stoical. As an ideology, Loyalism has it’s basis firmly in the real world. Whereas other ideologies, Irish and Scottish nationalism for example, are an appeal to the heart, Ulster Loyalism is an appeal to both the heart and head.
Perhaps it is because of the ingrained, phoney Leftist agenda prevalent in most British university faculties, perhaps is it because intellectuals view Loyalism as being inextricably linked to violent street protest, paramilitary activity and counter insurgency, but whatever the reason, many intellectuals see Loyalism as anathema. Certainly there are some within ‘intellectualism‘ who are, at least, closet Loyalists, but there are many others who have decided, for whatever reason, that they must attack Loyalism at any given opportunity. It is imperative that Loyalists challenge the perceptions of the intellectual class. Loyalism, as an ideology, does not have to make itself answerable to anyone, but it should seek to redress the misconceptions of certain sections of society, especially those sections of society that have no automatic reason to harbour any antipathy towards it.
To determine the nature of man, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proceeds to compare man and animal . Man is “intelligent, free….the sole animal endowed with reason”. Animals are “devoid of intellect and freedom”. Do the intellectual class not view Loyalists as men (and women)? Are we not endowed with the reason that Rousseau spoke of? It is time for intellectuals to step out into the real world, to engage with Loyalists (and others), so that a more comprehensive and inclusive view of Ulster politics emerges. The intellectual class do themselves, and the communities in which they live, a great disservice if they refuse to re-examine their opinions and prejudices. Intellectuals, and everyone else in Northern Ireland (and beyond) need to recognise that Loyalists are people too!
To be continued…