I had intended that this piece would be an examination of how the political centre, namely the UUP and the SDLP, seem to understand, or at least seek to understand, physical force Loyalism far more, and far better, than the extreme Liberal fringe, epitomised by the Alliance Party and the Green Party.
I had intended to clearly demonstrate that the DUP does not, and has never at any time, clearly understood or sought to understand the driving forces which motivate militant Loyalism. However, as I began to think about this piece, I began to realise that it was always going to go in a very different direction.
For in the process of considering those themes, I was (reluctantly) forced to re-examine the War which was wasn’t a War, the role of Loyalists within that conflict and, on a more personal level, my own role in it and the pseudo war which has been fought since.
A re-examination of my own conscience which has neither been easy nor comfortable but which, on reflection, has been a long time coming. Not that I shall be making public much, if any, of that ‘soul searching’, but I will examine the outlines of the thought processes which were involved in my own introspection.
I sincerely hope that this piece will serve some purpose and that, at least, some of those who were most deeply impacted by the ‘Troubles’, both victims and participants alike, will derive something from it, however small.
Crossing the Rubicon
I will begin by stating something which I feel should be obvious to anyone seeking to understand the Ulster conflict; i.e. that within the working class communities of Northern Ireland, on both sides of the divide, violence is not, and was not, viewed as intrinsically evil or immoral. Both communities had men made notorious for being “street toughs”, both communities believed firmly in corporal punishment, and both ‘sides’ very firmly believed in the biblical concept of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, even before the advent of the 2nd ‘Troubles’ in 1969.
The idea must seem utterly foreign to the contemporary middle classes. Indeed, it may seem somewhat odd even to the younger members of some working class communities, but it is the fundamental starting point of this analysis. Violence, in one form or another, was part of our lives from a very early age. It is unsurprising then that when NICRA provoked the crises of the late 1960’s, that violent interaction between the two opposing factions would soon follow. The only real surprise was the level of violence which was to follow.
It is a truism that violence begets violence but it is worth bearing in mind. Once one rubicon had been crossed, it became easier to cross another and another. No tactic became ‘off limits’, nothing became unjustifiable. The two communities became ever more polarised and ever more entrenched in their respective positions. Good men did bad things and bad men did even worse.
Loyalist barricade, Belfast circa 1972
It is my personal opinion that some men are indeed “natural born killers”. As far back as Socrates and Plato it was postulated that some men felt driven to kill; that some men subconsciously saw in the act of killing, a sort of natural counterpart to the act of giving birth, which of course men cannot do under any circumstances. This theory of “birthing envy” is an intriguing one and one which is deserving of far more attention.
For every born killer however there are many, many more who are driven to kill. Driven to kill by rage, by circumstances, by a need for revenge, or, as incredible as it may seem, by fear. It is these men, those driven to kill, that constitute the vast majority of the killers, the gunmen and the bombers, of the Ulster conflict, and it is these men (and women) who would go on to perpetuate the violence, not for their own gain, not for their own twisted pleasure or some sense of divine purpose, but for reasons which will seem utterly alien and incomprehensible to those detached from the War, by distance, by time or by virtue of social class.
I recognise, as I have always recognised, that there were those on both sides who were not motivated by soaring rhetoric, or by idealism, but were driven instead by their own psychosis. By a deep seated, guttural and irrational hatred which moved such people to commit the most heinous and barbaric atrocities. Things indefensible and unconscionable.
What, in the process of my own individual reflection, I am forced to acknowledge now, perhaps for the first time, is that there were men and women “amongst the ranks of the enemy” who were people of integrity and of undoubted courage. Such people, whom in my opinion were motivated by an acutely skewed reading of history and who had scant regard for democracy, were nevertheless, decent people with real concerns, real grievances and genuine aspirations, however far those aspirations were from my own.
Prisoners of history
It is an undeniable truth of history that a war between two nations, separated by great distance, or even between two neighbouring states, is invariably less bitter, less savage and less brutal than a war between two peoples who share the same piece of territory. When one also factors in the long and complex history of Ulster, then it is unsurprising that the ‘Troubles’ turned out to be one of the most dirty wars ever fought in Europe.
It is also unsurprising that we have become prisoners of history. Prisoners of our own times. We will never be set free. For us, every generation born into the conflict, it is already too late. Our lives have been irrevocably altered by the war we were born into. The ‘Troubles’ are a millstone around our necks from which we will never be unfettered. We deserve sympathy that we will never receive. We deserve a respite which will never come. However, we can, and must, tell our story. We have a burden of responsibility to the younger generations to ensure that we never again slide headlong into a situation in which ordinary people are forced to become killers, ‘intelligence officers’, bomb makers, gun runners and ‘spotters’.
I genuinely fear that we will not be up to the task. There is too much malice, too much distrust and animosity on both sides. If the generation that fought the Second World War are remembered as “the greatest generation”, then perhaps those 3 generations or so who fought the ‘Dirty War’, might well be remembered as the worst generations. One generation who began a war they could not possibly win (and that applies to both sides), one generation who continued that war because they had no idea how to stop it, and one generation who continued it because they could not imagine life any other way.
We should nevertheless tell our stories. Although it would be infinitely more helpful if we, ‘the worst generations’, were to explain to our young people that we were motivated far more by what we thought was going on, rather than perhaps what was really happening. Suspending, as it were, the historical narrative as we understand it and instead relaying the personal narrative.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1994 CLMC ceasefire, militant Loyalism underwent a period of deep introspection. Such a period of introspection is once again required, and this time Irish republicans must include themselves, if indeed there is any real desire from that quarter for real reconciliation (which I, personally, very much doubt). Those who participated in the Conflict must also free themselves from the constraints of moral recrimination; that is, we must abandon objective moralism and, taking into account the circumstances of the times, must not be afraid to see ourselves as sometimes having been the villians, those who were clearly in the wrong, if only on certain occasions or in certain situations.
“We must share the responsibility of maintaining good government” – John McMichael
Unlike Irish republicanism, Loyalism does not need to portray itself as whiter than white. True patriotism is not tarnished by the occasional uncomfortable truth. We are, along with every other Briton, the inheritors of the legacy of the British Empire. We recognise the moral ambivalence of that situation. That is perhaps why Loyalists have no fear of a critical analysis of the past and of their role therein.
Where to now?
What Northern Ireland needs now is for republicans to engage in the same kind of soul searching. To admit the immorality of at least some of their actions and, furthermore, to admit freely that the motivation for many of their actions was, at the very, very least questionable. What we also need is for the ‘3rd party’, the extreme Liberal fringe, to end their illegitimate occupation of the moral high ground and recognise, if they are capable of doing so, that there are those in Ulster who do not share their pacifistic and utopian ideals.
In particular I would appeal to the members and supporters of the Alliance Party, Green Party etc to stop the politics of wishful thinking and to acknowledge the very real and very deep divisions within NI society. To stop the utterly ineffectual lecturing of the working class Loyalist community, especially in Belfast. As I, and others within Loyalism, have stated repeatedly since 1998, peace and reconciliation cannot be imposed from the top down but must instead be built from the ground up. Indeed, my own opposition to the ‘Good Friday Agreement’ stemmed primarily from my view that the Belfast Agreement was the very epitome of a ‘top down’ peace. Something that we, all the people of Northern Ireland, have a chance, however slim, to change.
Such change is however very unlikely unless or until all parties to the Conflict have the courage to admit our own past failings, recognise our common humanity (which applies even to those who have committed violent acts), fully recognise the intolerable hurt of innocent victims and resolve to never again allow our communities to be held to ransom by our inescapable past. In short, any real and just peace can only be achieved once we, the very people who, one way or another, created the Conflict, have all admitted that we are prisoners of conscience and that that is what we will always be.