Prisoners of Conscience

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

Ordinary killers

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.

Looking inward

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.



That’s lose it not ‘loose’ it (sorry but that really winds me up).

Ok, a lot is written about culture in Northern Ireland. Most of it is not exactly complimentary towards Ulster-Scots culture & Unionist/Loyalist/Orange traditions. Indeed, some quarters would have you believe that there is only one culture on this island. The Orange Institution is vilified & criticised from every angle, whilst the toxic NI media perpetuate the stereotype of working class Loyalists as being flag obsessed, kerb painting, tyre burning louts. We can complain about it until the proverbial cows come home. We can shake our fists at the TV screen or shout obscenities at the Biggest Ego in the Country (aka Nolan) whenever he’s on the radio, but where will that get us? How will that help? We (Loyalists & Unionists) need to become pro-active. We need to learn the lessons of the past & come up with new strategies for the future.

Can anyone seriously deny that Loyalist/Unionist/Orange heritage is under sustained attack?

Can anyone seriously deny that Loyalist/Unionist/Orange heritage is under sustained attack?

I’m going to shock you here. I was not born an Ulster Loyalist. It was not drummed into me at an early age. My father was in no way political until late in life. My mother was/is a Loyalist, though in what I’d describe as a cultural sense, rather than a political sense. Loyalism was not taught in our house! I became a Loyalist as a teenager, only after long & careful analysis of the situation in Ulster. I became a Loyalist because I believe that my homeland, Ulster, is separate to & different from the Irish nation. Because I believe that the people of Ulster, my people, have an inalienable right to self-determination, exercised in 1921, when Ulster (albeit with redrawn borders) decided to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the British Family of Nations. I became a Loyalist, rather than a Unionist, firstly because I believe Ulster to be a nation, not a Province nor some colonial outpost of the British Empire. Secondly, because I believe that, in the absence of adequate defence (as provided by the UK government) the people of NI have the right to defend themselves, by any means. Something that Loyalists have done many times in the past.

It was that, that quality of self reliance, that my teenage self saw as one of the finest attributes of Ulster Loyalism. If no outside help is forthcoming, then we’ll damn well help ourselves! And it is that quality that we need in abundance today. It’s all very well ranting & raving about the ‘cultural war’ being waged against us, but what are we going to do about it? What are you going to do about it? There are more Loyalist bands now than ever before. That’s great, but how about we tell the world how bands give young people in our community a sense of purpose, teach them musicality & discipline, get them out being active & keep them away from drugs, crime & anti-social activity? While we’re about it, let’s open up Orange halls to community groups, youth groups, senior citizens clubs etc. Some halls already do this, but sadly, in many parts of the country, Orange halls are empty & unused apart from hosting Lodge meetings once a month. Orange halls are a fantastic resource. We need to utilise them far, far more.

There are so many things we can do to promote & protect our culture & heritage. Lambeg drumming clubs are flourishing in rural areas, there’s no reason why that success can’t be replicated in the towns & cities too. Street parties to mark important national occasions are another way to promote culture/heritage, with the bonus of being a great way to bring the community together & foster good relations. There is absolutely no reason why, for example, a street party to mark VE day, could not become a ‘cross community’ event, especially in areas where community relations are something approaching normal. I also believe that the OO, Somme Associations & bands should do more to encourage everyone to take part in commemorating the Battle of the Somme. The Imperial German machineguns didn’t discriminate between Protestant Ulstermen & Catholic Ulstermen. We as Loyalists have a duty to remind people of that fact. To remind people that we, as Ulster Loyalists, remember with pride, all of the Ulster Division’s fallen sons, regardless of creed, class or political persuasion.

Lambeg drummers in the United States

Lambeg drummers in the United States

Last but by no means least, let’s get serious about our mother tongue, Ullans (Ulster-Scots). Oft lampooned by those who oppose us, Ulster-Scots is the language of our ancestors & unlike many other (now sadly extinct) minority languages, it is still alive in the mouths of thousands of our people. Some people like to criticise Ulster-Scots, saying that it isn’t really a language because it, in terms of vocabulary, it is close to English. Indeed, many will tell you that it is just bad English. Really? Because Ullans is mutually intelligible with Scots & English? If that’s the case, then half of the languages of Europe will have to be written off. Norwegian? Swedish? Nah, just bad Danish. Dutch? Just bad German. Bosnian & Croatian? Just bad Serbian. Ukrainian? Ha! Don’t make me laugh. The sad thing here is, that those who use this argument are embarrassing themselves in the eyes of every person who knows anything about linguistics. English, Scots & Ulster-Scots share a lot of words (albeit spelt slightly differently) because they are from the same language group! Just as Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Manx etc are all Celtic languages, so English, Scots & Ulster-Scots are all part of the Anglo-Frisian branch of the West Germanic language group! Norwegians can understand most of what a Swede says (in Swedish) & almost all of what a Dane says (in Danish) so does that mean it’s open season to take the piss out of the Norwegian language? C’mon all you cultural fascists, lets hear you tell a Norwegian or a Bosnian or a Slovak (Slovak having far more mutual intelligibility with Czech than Ulster-Scots has with English) that they don’t really have a language. Better still, try explaining to a Scandinavian or someone from the Balkans, why you cling so bitterly, to the childish notion that Ulster-Scots is not a language because “its nat different enough from English”.

'mutual intelligibility' it's not rocket science!

‘mutual intelligibility’ it’s not rocket science!

I’m sorry if I’m labouring the point here, but this fallacious, infantile ‘argument’ that Ullans is not a language, is so stupid & so easily refuted that it makes my blood boil that so many of the enemies of our culture still cling to it like drowning rats. That they get away with using their kindergarten tactics is a mark of shame on all of those who call themselves a Loyalist or an Ulster-Scot (for the benefit of Irish nationalist readers: Loyalist & Ulster-Scot are not mutually exclusive terms. Despite what you’ve been told) It is time for us to collectively call bullshit on our hatefilled opponents & take pride in our mother tongue. Perhaps countering the close-minded, moronic, spiteful ‘argument’ of Irish cultural fascists should be lesson one in any Ulster-Scots language class. We Ulster-Scots, (Protestant, Catholic, Atheist or whatever) have a rich & diverse cultural heritage. Music, dance, food, language, poetry, mythology etc. But that culture will disappear unless we make a conscious effort to keep it alive. The world becomes a smaller place each day. Globalisation has done tremendous damage to many cultures around the world. Ulster-Scots face these problems and the strenuous efforts of bitter & bigoted people who have a vested interest in denying the very existence of anything on this island which is not Gaelic/Celtic.

Take pride in the Ulster-Scots language. Take pride in your heritage

Take pride in the Ulster-Scots language. Take pride in your heritage

Certain people want to perpetuate the stereotype of Loyalists as jeering, drunken, sectarian thugs, wrapped in a Union flag. Are we going to allow them to do that? Are we going to whine & complain? Or are we going to take up the challenge before us & destroy the pernicious lies of the cultural chauvinists? I hope that Loyalism has not lost it’s sense of self-reliance. I hope we have not lost that precious attribute which served our forebears so well (& in much more serious circumstances). The Brave Thirteen, who slammed shut the gates of Londonderry, had that sense of self-reliance. Carson’s Volunteers had it in 1912. Is it still part of our ethnic makeup in 2014? Only time will tell. Either we take a stand now, do something to preserve & promote our age old heritage & culture, something positive, creative & meaningful, or we will lose it forever. We can wait no longer. We can no longer allow the agenda to be set by others. If not you, then who? If not now, then when? It is the responsibility of all Loyalists & Unionists to ensure that our heritage & traditions are still here when we are not. It’s your culture, use it or lose it!

I leave you now with a few words of verse ben Ullans (in Ulster-Scots)

“Ir ye strange, frightfu’ chiel, auld Nick,
Tha’s come tae herd für Charlie,
Tae hiner thá smaa bürds tae pick,
Thá corn that ripens earlie.
Ir some vile wretch claad ben disguise,
That swings fowk i’ a tether;
Whá at Doonpatrick last assize
Did toom three aff the liéther.
Ir are ye jist a true scarecraa,
Wi’ clout an’ auld sca’t caster,
That’s come tae flie the bürds  awa,
Für pickin aff yer master.
The darna luik ye in thá face,
Nor yet aboot ye prattle;
Ye’ll save poor Charlie mony a rase,
That he ran waé his rattle.”



In Ulster, murals are more than just a creative way of covering up unsightly graffiti, they are a means of political & cultural expression. Some would argue that it is time for murals to be ‘decommissioned’, I would argue that they are a fantastic visual representation of local politics, history & heritage, & furthermore, a very fair & impartial way for communities to voice their opinions, since for every Loyalist mural, there can be an Irish nationalist/republican response (& vice versa) in the form of another mural. But maybe that’s why most in the media & the ‘lets-all-just-forget-and-hold-hands’ brigade are so opposed to working class communities (especially Loyalist communities) expressing their traditions, opinions & aspirations through murals?

Anyway, I’m not going off on a rant today! So instead I’m just going to present a few (Loyalist) murals from across the country that I find interesting, well executed and/or thought provoking, so here ya go!




"Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed"

“Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed”

Another excellent East Belfast mural, entitled 'War & Peace'

Another excellent East Belfast mural, entitled ‘War & Peace’

Shankill mural, honouring the contribution of women to the Loyalist cause

Shankill mural, honouring the contribution of women to the Loyalist cause


UVF mural, Portadown

UVF mural, Portadown


UDA mural featuring Finn McCool, Bushmills

UDA mural featuring Finn McCool, Bushmills


Memorial mural, dedicated to UDA volunteer William Campbell, Coleraine

Memorial mural, dedicated to UDA volunteer William Campbell, Coleraine


Mural dedicated to the memory of Cecil McKnight, a member of the Ulster Democratic Party murdered by republicans. Emerson St, L'derry

Mural dedicated to the memory of Cecil McKnight, a member of the Ulster Democratic Party murdered by republicans. Emerson St, L’derry


UDA/UFF mural, dedicated to the memory of two fallen UDA volunteers. Monkstown, Newtownabbey

UDA/UFF mural, dedicated to the memory of two fallen UDA volunteers. Monkstown, Newtownabbey

I intend to post quite a few more photos of murals from across NI. There are some fantastic murals around. Any suggestions or contributions would be very welcome, so if you know of any good Loyalist murals in your area, don’t hesitate to share them with me.