Fodor’s Sectarian Folly

A few days ago the so-called ‘renowned travel guide’, ‘Fodor’s’ published a blatantly sectarian and dehumanising guide to political murals in Northern Ireland, lavishly praising Irish republican murals making the ludicrous assertion that such murals “often aspire to the heights of Sistine Chapel-lite, whilst the cretinous author compared Loyalist artwork to “war comics without the humour”.

Not only are such assertions insulting and offensive, they are also completely without basis in fact. The author of the lazy, pernicious and prejudiced piece in question is allegedly a veteran ‘journalist’ and ‘historian’!

Professor Peter Shirlow, head of Irish Studies at Liverpool University, expressed shock at the content-

It represented them as Bible-bashers, against liberalism and it evoked an idea that on the other side there was humour, a capacity for art and also evoked the idea republican violence was something to be glorified and where it represented the unionist community, it is not, if it was the Catholic, nationalist, republican community (being lampooned) I would say the same thing. It is just ultimately wrong and gave an incredibly unfair representation of murals in the city.”

Professor Shirlow added-

The academic issues with how the story of Northern Ireland is presented to visitors need to be addressed.”

Clearly Prof. Shirlow knows what he is talking about. Indeed, it is abundantly clear that the academic is everything that the hack journalist is not; knowledgeable, impartial and not prone to lazy sectarian stereotypes.

“Sistine chapel-lite

Kenny Donaldson of ‘Innocent Victims United’ said the language used on Fodor’s Travel website was-

“…..sectarian in nature” and sought to “castigate a section of the population based upon their ethnic and religious background,”

A Loyalist mural in Derry (in memory of Cecil McKnight of the Ulster Democratic Party)

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Unfortunately this incident is symptomatic of a much wider problem, i.e. the constant and absolutely relentless denigration and dehumanisation of the Unionist and Loyalist community, particularly the working class element of that community.

Historically illiterate Irish republicans feel enpowered to repeat the most ridiculous ahistorical nonsense because their so-called political ‘leadership’ regularly spout such nonsensical fairytales and are rarely challenged for it.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling, Rome.

Irish republicanism in general, and the Provisional republican movement in particular, has carefully constructed an utterly, utterly toxic narrative in which Loyalists and Unionists are depicted as being less than human. This Nazi-esque propaganda is constant, unsophisticated, crude and laced with sectarian euphemisms. The anti-British racism is as overt as it is nasty. The infantile stereotyping as unintelligent as it is unsubtle.

Irish republicans have been constantly, unrelentingly, told that they are ‘oppressed‘ and discriminated against. The message that they are perpetual victims is reinforced over and over and over again.

That narrative though is hugely undermined by the contrary and simultaneous narrative that the so-called ‘Irish gael’ is resilient, smart, capable and in every possible way superior to the ‘Protestant planters’.

Another view of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

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Handily though, republicanism has a kind of ‘get out clause’ in order to lessen the cognitive dissonance among it’s adherents; the carefully spun message that yes, indeed, nationalists and republicans were (and are) the poor oppressed but it wasn’t (or isn’t) the ‘planter’ doing it, it was the ‘evil Brits’. The British Empire, the British State, the British Army. According to the propaganda of Irish nationalism it was/is the ‘big bad Brits’ that kept them down, discriminated against them and victimised them.

Loyalists and Unionists are presented as mere hapless proxies of the British State. A confused and stupid people who have been duped into doing the bidding of ‘imperialist’ England.

“err da stoopid Loyalists can’t even do a mural”

Loyalist armed groups are presented by republican extremists as being nothing more than criminals- armed, organised, trained and directed by the Army, MI5, Special Branch, GCHQ, MI6, etc etc etc. The far-sighted and sophisticated political contribution of militant Loyalism is conveniently forgotten. ALL effective operations against republican terror gangs are dismissed as having been the work of secretive special forces units of the British Army.

Politically, Loyalism and Unionism is dismissed as backward looking, old fashioned, innately negative and ardently right-wing. Irish republicans attach themselves to whatever causes they think will help them appear ‘progressive’, ‘liberal’ and forward looking.

It is totally predictable. It is also something which Loyalists can, and must, seriously combat. Republicans have weaponised their vocabulary, especially online. It is high time more Loyalists did the same.

It takes time to build up a negative stereotype of an entire community but it is not difficult. Repeating the same old tropes ad nauseam may be mind numbingly boring and repetitive but it is hardly neuro surgery.

Definitely no paramilitary imagery on any republican murals. Nope. None. Zero.

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It would be exceedingly easy, for instance, for Loyalists to continually link Sinn Fein, as a party, with the deeds of their terrorist wing, the Provisional IRA. Not in the way that some Loyalists do at present, but to do so in a more organised and unrelenting way.

It would also be relatively simple to push the narrative that Irish republicanism is inherently a Far-Left ideology, one which is economically unrealistic and forever tainted by the horrors and atrocities, not only of republican ethno-nationalism itself, but also by association, of Marxist and Communist regimes such as the USSR, DDR and the Khmer Rouge. After all, there are many examples of republican murals which are overtly Marxist and, of course, republican murder gangs have well documented links with extreme Leftist terrorist groups such as the ‘Red Army Faction’, ‘PFLP’, ‘Red Brigades’ etc.

Behold! the sophistication of republican Wall art.

Far better though for ALL stereotypes to be dropped. For our divided society to heal, ALL unhelpful and toxic narratives must be sidelined, without exception. Reconciliation can never be achieved when one community regards another as being lesser than themselves.

The obvious arrogance and sense of superiority within Irish republicanism is a virulent poison, a corrosive and devastating toxin which is destroying community relations, heightening tensions and, if unchallenged, runs the very real risk of sectarianising yet another generation of our young people.

Therefore it must be challenged and challenged effectively. In short, the dehumanising rhetoric of Irish republicanism is a cancer which must be excised.

Unfortunately, it would seem that this particular cancer has spread throughout the body politic of Irish nationalism as a whole and is, as evidenced by this latest ridiculous episode, extremely deep rooted.

Time then for the leadership of nationalism, such as it is, to accept responsibility for the outgrowth of this malignancy and to begin to tackle it. Time for those most active in perpetuating these iniquitous stereotypes (‘Ladfleg’, ‘Themmuns’ et al) to permanently leave the stage, and time, most of all, for Loyalists and Unionists to begin calling out this repugnant, dehumanising narrative every single time we encounter it.

To do otherwise is to condemn our community, and society as a whole, to even further division, conflict and unnecessary pain. Something for which future generations will, quite rightly, condemn us.

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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.

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.

Leading Not Following

Real Loyalism vs. Pantomime Loyalism

Who really represents Loyalists? Is it the likes of Wully Frazer, Jim Dowson or Jamie Bryson? Or is it ex-combatants, the UPRG and the Progressive Unionist Party? I can tell you who is doing valuable work in working-class communities, who is striving to improve the lives of ordinary people. But if I really have to tell you then this blog is probably way over your head anyway. Only an absolute imbecile looks at people like Frazer and Bryson and assumes that they are representative of Ulster Loyalism. An imbecile or someone with a pernicious, dehumanizing, hateful agenda that likes to portray Loyalism and Unionism as some sort of extremist fringe.

Anyone with an ounce of sense, with any political maturity, can see that the Loyalist community has many genuine grievances, any many genuine concerns. Loyalists do not follow demagogues anymore. We do not allow ourselves to be lead by 3rd rate Carsons, or at least most of us don’t. “The Troubles” have taught both Loyalists and republicans some harsh lessons. One lesson it taught Loyalists was to be wary of those who shout loudest but rarely get their hands dirty.

Real Loyalists can see straight through the hysterical rhetoric of these reincarnated Hugh Hannahs. We are not obsessed with the issue of flags and emblems, we do not wrap ourselves in the Union flag. Modern Loyalism is typified far more by people like Izzy Giles or Cllr. Russell Watton than by anyone from within the ranks of ‘Prod Co.’ or the UPV (although let me be clear that I harbour no hostility towards such groups)

Loyalism is not the stereotype some would like to portray it to be. For the time being, Loyalists are content to take a back seat, applying political pressure as and when needed. The Union is secure. Irish nationalist terrorism has been defeated. Those who maintain that Loyalists are running scared or that we feel our ultimate defeat is imminent, are foolhardy and naïve. Real Loyalists are leaders, not followers. We are content to work quietly, in the background if necessary. We sometimes shun the glare of publicity, nonetheless we will always be ready, always patient, always vigilant, always thinking ahead. Leading, not following.