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.

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Do Not Become That Which You Despise

We have written much, mainly on social media, about the dehumanising rhetoric of Irish republicanism. About how republicans have carefully crafted a malignant stereotype of the Loyalist and wider Unionist community in Northern Ireland, reducing an entire people down to a grotesque caricature. That pernicious and nakedly sectarian narrative has now become so deeply entrenched within the republican and so-called ‘nationalist’ community that it is now almost ubiquitous. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find any Irish republicans, at least any under the age of 50, who are not firmly convinced that the ‘PUL’ community are a shambling, Ill-educated, ignorant and backwards people, obsessed with flags and marching.

“Dehumanisation is a first step towards genocide

The stereotype was carefully constructed and like all stereotypes it has, at it’s core, some kernel of validity. Irish republicans have, however, taken every negative aspect, every questionable facet, of the Loyalist/Unionist community and exaggerated them, twisted them beyond all recognition, creating a kind of Frankenstein’s monster from the rotten pieces of a cadaver that has never really existed.

The Twilight of the ‘Superprods’

Loyalism could stoop to the same odious, contemptible depths as republicanism, that however, would be both morally and politically wrong. In the 1980’s and 90’s Loyalist leaders, especially within the Ulster Democratic Party (and its predecessor, the NUPRG), worked tirelessly to eradicate the kind of narrow sectarian attitude which had existed within certain elements of Loyalism in the 1970’s, the sort of retrograde attitude typified by Paisley and the various ‘movements’ and ‘forces’ he and his fellow travellers headed from the mid 60’s onwards.

The ‘superprod’ segment of Loyalism, which was already very much a fringe element, was well and truly marginalised. Policy documents such as Beyond the Religious Divide (1979) and Common Sense (1987), made it abundantly clear that there was no room, at least within the Ulster Defence Association and its satellite groups, for the sort of lazy sectarianism purveyed by the ‘superprods’.

Common Sense; the brainchild of John McMichael

That is not a denial of the, sometimes overtly, sectarian actions of the UDA/UFF. It must be remembered however that “two eyes for an eye” was a military tactic. A brutal and callous tactic but one that nevertheless proved effective in the long term. The dual strategy of targeting republican activists and those who afforded them logistical, financial and moral support ultimately forced PIRA/Sinn Fein to the negotiating table, no longer able to ignore the pressure being exerted upon their movement and the community which provided the support and backup necessary to sustain their terrorist campaign.

Comparison of Ideology

Loyalism cannot be allowed to go backward. We cannot, and will not, stoop to the level of our opponents. We must recognise the humanity of our enemies. We must not allow ourselves to cultivate ignorant and dehumanising stereotypes about the Irish republican community, even though that is precisely what republicans have done in regards to our community. Loyalism is not a corrosive ideology, it is not seditious or insurgent. Loyalism does not have to dehumanise others.

At its core Ulster Loyalism is about reforming and maintaining the state and it’s institutions, Irish republicanism is about subversion, insurrection and the overthrow of the state. Rather than alienating and ‘othering’ people, Loyalism will profit infinitely more through inclusion and respect. At the very least we must remember that our opponents, even those who were formerly engaged in terrorism and those who act as apologists for that violence, are still human beings with genuine aspirations and fears and concerns. We are not Nazis, Communists or Irish republicans. We must retain the dignity, the core values and the integrity of our ideology. To do otherwise would be to betray the legacy of McMichael, Barr, Smallwoods et al.

Fight the Stereotype

The toxic narrative of Irish republicanism will never be challenged from within. The cult of violent failure allows for little in the way of dissent. Therefore it is incumbent upon Loyalists to undermine and destroy the malignant, repulsive myths spun by Irish republicans about our community and to challenge the stereotypes so carefully constructed about us.

Irish republicanism; the politics of violent failure

Challenge those who purvey these pernicious lies. Dispel their hateful mythos but do not lower yourself to their level. Conduct yourself with self respect and dignity. Never forget that you, as a Loyalist, seek to maintain and to protect, whereas those who oppose us seek to destroy, subvert, undermine and usurp. Remind yourself that Irish republicanism has been trying, and miserably failing, to attain its nefarious objectives for over 100 years and that for 98 years they have tried to destroy the state of Northern Ireland. Without success.

Perhaps such abject and abysmal failure is a motivating factor in the republican movements efforts to dehumanise and degrade the Loyalist and wider Unionist community. Perhaps it is a side effect of the cognitive dissonance caused by constantly being told that they are, at the same time, both a race of “gaelic supermen” and the world’s most victimised, oppressed and downtrodden people. Whatever is behind it, their wretched narrative will be demolished. It is a weapon which Loyalists can, and should, use against them.

In Proud Memory: Cecil McKnight

Cecil McKnight was a dedicated and highly motivated man. Cecil was a true Loyalist, an erudite and articulate community activist, and an honest and forthright man. Active within Loyalism for many years, he had risen to become leader of the Ulster Democratic Party in the City of Londonderry. Cecil was active in the Orange Institution (LOL 1866), and worked tirelessly, not only for the benefit his own community but also, as a senior member of the Ulster Democratic Party, in an effort to deliver a viable political process which would finally bring the internecine conflict in Ulster to an end.

Cecil McKnight

On the 29th of June, 1991, Cecil McKnight was murdered by the enemies of Ulster. Shot dead at his home in Melrose Terrace. Incredibly, an RUC inspector and a constable were in the house when the attack happened, having earlier arranged to meet Cecil there to discuss some unspecified issue. Contrary to some reports, the two armed policemen did not pursue the two men who had just murdered Cecil McKnight.

The fact that an Irish republican murder gang knew exactly where Cecil would be, the fact that two police officers were present at Cecil’s home and the fact that those police officers did nothing to challenge the republican gunmen, or to afterwards apprehend them, has lead many Loyalists, in the North-West and beyond, to believe that Cecil McKnight was ‘set up’ and that his killers acted in collusion with an agency (or agencies) of the state, most probably RUC Special Branch.

The republican terror gangs of the time were absolutely riddled with informers and paid agents, the former ‘Officer Commanding’ of PIRA/SF in Derry being one such example. Irish nationalist/republican paramilitary groups also have a long history of collusion with- An Garda Síochána, the Libyan government, Colombian drug cartels, the East German government, the Dublin government etc, etc. To suppose that such groups would not have acted in concert with, or at the behest of, a branch of the Security Services, or elements thereof, is naive in the extreme.

To his credit, the then Catholic Bishop of Derry, Dr Edward Daly, described the killing as a wholly sectarian murder, adding: “May I say on behalf of the Catholic community that we do not want anything to do with this type of sectarian conflict“. Cecil McKnight’s murder was also condemned by all of the mainstream political parties, with only the lunatic fringe- Provisional Sinn Féin and the IRSP- refusing to condemn what had been a vicious and blatantly sectarian attack upon the entire ‘PUL’ community in Derry/Londonderry.

Loyalists in the Londonderry and North Antrim area, and indeed throughout Ulster and the rest of the UK, remember Cecil McKnight with pride and affection. A fearless and determined Ulsterman, Cecil McKnight lead by example. Remembered by his comrades for his courage, intelligence and honesty, Cecil McKnight will never be forgotten, nor his legacy tarnished.

“NOT GOLD BUT ONLY MEN CAN MAKE, A NATION GREAT AND STRONG. MEN WHO, FOR TRUTH AND HONOUR’S SAKE, STAND FAST AND SUFFER LONG. MEN WHO WORK WHILE OTHERS SLEEP, WHO DARE WHEN OTHERS SHY, THEY SET A NATION’S PILLARS DEEP AND LIFT THEM TOWARDS THE SKY”

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them”

Quis Separabit

In Proud Memory: Benny Redfern & Gary Lynch

At this time of year the minds of many Loyalists in Co. Londonderry are cast back in memory of two brave young men from that county who made the ultimate sacrifice. Benny Redfern and Gary Lynch. Benny and Gary were two dedicated, courageous, hard working Loyalists who were prepared to do anything and everything necessary to defend their country and their community. Both were to die tragic deaths. Both cut down in their prime, but their sacrifice will never be forgotten, they will live on in the memory of all true Loyalists.

Vol. BENNY REDFERN

Benny was from Desertmartin and was prepared to do whatever it took in the defence of his community and beloved Ulster. Benny was a well liked and respected member of the local community whom he strived to protect. Like many around South Londonderry and East Tyrone, Benny saw first hand the suffering being inflicted upon the Protestant community. Such incidents shaped Benny’s thinking and led him to become an Ulster soldier, joining the local brigade of the UDA at the age of 21. Benny’s fearless and loyal nature made him an excellent soldier and one whose memory will live forever. His excellence and great soldier like qualities quickly allowed him to rise up through the ranks of the UDA as a young man.

Vol. Benny Redfern. Sadly missed by all who knew him.

Vol. Benny Redfern. Sadly missed by all who knew him.

In 1977 the Londonderry and North Antrim Brigade lost a fine man when Benny was interned in Crumlin Road Prison and later charged in connection with the death of 3 Republicans, namely Joe McAuley, James Chivers and John Bolton. He was sentenced to 18 years in Long Kesh where he was also held in high regard by other Loyalist POWs. It was not in Benny’s nature to be locked up and he yearned to once again take the war to republicans, as he had so successfully done before his incarceration, which is why on the 10th of August 1984, Benny tried a daring escape from Long Kesh. Coming up with a plan to escape from the prison concealed in the back of a bin lorry. However, when he jumped into the back of the lorry, a tragedy occurred, the bin lorry was activated and Benny was crushed. Sadly he passed away the next day at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Many people lost a great friend and relative that day, but all of Ulster lost a true son and valiant defender. His death shocked and saddened so many in this local community and further a field where Benny was held in high esteem. Benny has since always been remembered as a great man of the local community and a brave soldier who took the war to violent republicans. Vol. Benny Redfern will be remembered always by the Loyalist community in South Londonderry.

GARY ‘LOFTY’ LYNCH

Gary Lynch was a steadfast and dedicated young Loyalist, a member of the Ulster Democratic Party’s Londonderry Branch, and a popular and well liked member of his community. As a member of the UDP, Gary worked to try and bring about peace and reconciliation. Gary was also working on a number of community projects at the time of his death. An articulate and erudite young man, politically astute beyond his years, Gary was part of brilliant generation of young Loyalist politicos, alongside people like Gary McMichael and Ray Smallwoods. No doubt, had he not been cut down in his prime, Gary Lynch would have gone on to earn a senior position within the Ulster Democratic Party.

'In Honour of Fallen Comrades'. A mural dedicated to the memory of those men of L'derry & Nth. Antrim UDA/UFF who died during the long years of Conflict.

‘In Honour of Fallen Comrades’. A mural dedicated to the memory of those men of L’derry & Nth. Antrim UDA/UFF who died during the long years of Conflict.

On the 9th of August 1991, seven years after the tragic death of Vol. Benny Redfern, Gary was murdered by an Irish nationalist death squad. The cowardly gunmen waited for Gary to arrive for work at Foyle Meats, in the Lisahally area of Londonderry, and as he parked his car the PIRA/Sinn Fein terror gang opened fire, hitting Gary a number of times. It is widely believed that he was targeted simply because he had attended the funeral of his party colleague and friend Cecil McKnight, who had been murdered on the 29th of June that year, and acted as a pallbearer at his comrades funeral. Throughout the year the UFF had been successfully seeking out and killing high ranking republicans and the Provo murder gangs were struggling to hit back. In County Londonderry they were unable to hit back at a military target so instead chose to target the UDP, considered the ‘political wing’ of the UFF/UDA. The callous murder of Gary Lynch was a cowardly act. The actions of men who were deeply fearful of the rejuvenated Loyalist resistance. Those responsible probably thought that they could defeat the Loyalist people, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Loyalism will never be defeated and true Loyalists will always remember our honoured dead. Brave men like Gary Lynch and Benny Redfern. Men who gave their all for their homeland;

“They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them”

QS