By Jamie Bryson
Sorcha Eastwood has been in the headlines this week, having claimed she was the subject of a “sinister” campaign.
Instantly the narrative was accepted, without any critical analysis of the claims been advanced, and everyone- in order to demonstrate their morality- had to get onboard and join with the Orwellian two-minutes hate against, in this instance, ‘The Loyalist’ magazine, and by extension the DUP, unionism more generally and loyalism.
The first person, as ever, to endorse the narrative was Doug Beattie who appears to scour social media for any opportunity to attack his own community and win the plaudits of the twitterati.
The Loyalist is a magazine that traditionally reflected the views of the UDA in South Belfast, but- as with that organisation in that area- has transitioned into more community focused activity and lobbying in the political arena through their lawful vehicle of the South Belfast Ulster Political Research Group.
Anyone with any knowledge of loyalism would know that the South Belfast UPRG could hardly be described as hardliners.
The magazine carries a monthly column by Jackie McDonald, a self-confessed former UDA prisoner who has appeared regularly at public events with former IRA prisoners such as Sean Murray, and worked on cross community ‘prison to peace’ projects.
That column is a world away from the type of views I would express or endorse: it is conciliatory, it is strongly pro-Agreement and has often criticised the political activism of persons such as myself. If Alliance want to find loyalist voices the opposite- in some respects- of the anti-Agreement views I express, then they would find it on the pages of ‘The Loyalist’.
That makes their campaign against what is truly a moderate loyalist ‘peace process’ publication more perplexing. Is the true position that Alliance want to shut down not only anti-Agreement loyalist voices they dislike, but also pro-Agreement conciliatory loyalist voices as well? Precisely what kind of loyalist view is tolerable in the minds of Alliance?
‘The Loyalist’ is, in truth, a less polished version of An Phoblacht which was the IRA’s ‘war magazine’ and which continues to glorify the actions of the IRA. That republican publication has recently platformed fringe academic figures such as Colin Harvey, the inflammatory and divisive nationalist activist who may be known to those who frequent twitter.
Of course, following the unparticularised and broad claims by Ms Eastwood not only was everyone expected to promote and endorse the victimhood narrative, but indeed Alliance, and particularly Sorcha Eastwood herself, had prescribed the form of words which should be deployed by those she had ordered to ‘speak out’ in support of her.
And so, when the DUP, in general terms (most likely simply feeling compelled in some respects to play along with the contrived narrative) made clear (rightly) that they condemned all threats, intimidation and paramilitary activity, this generated a new grievance for Ms Eastwood.
The DUP had defied her instruction as to how they should respond to her claims. This too became part of the “sinister” plot.
Those of us who refused to play along at all (and, in my view, the DUP should have called out the attention-seeking for what it is rather than giving it any credence) were extra “sinister”.
Stephen Farry decreed that anyone who associated with me needed to “reflect on their values”. Put simply, I had not reacted to the claims of Sorcha Eastwood in the prescribed Alliance-approved manner, so therefore I must be shunned from society.
This is nothing new, Alliance once boycotted a Westminster committee because they may have passed me in the corridor as I was giving evidence before them. Mr Farry further fumed when Linfield Football Club dared to have a purple and orange football kit; “why risk offence” was the dressing down given to Linfield by Fuhrer Farry.
In April last year, Alliance further demanded that unionist/loyalist voices be banned from the media. The views being expressed were, again, disliked by Alliance, and so- it follows- that such views must by default be heretical and the public must be shielded from them.
On Monday when I saw the Belfast Telegraph about the “sinister intimidation” of Sorcha Eastwood, who- apparently- had a “target put on her back” by loyalists, my first reaction was to think that was awful, but rather than merely accept as gospel the claims of Alliance, I decided to look for myself.
I obtained a copy of ‘The Loyalist’ magazine. As already alluded to, this publication would rarely reflect my views, and indeed it has criticised me robustly in the past, and me it. However, it has always been willing to afford anyone subject of critical commentary a right of reply, (as I understand Mike Nesbitt availed of on occasion when he had been criticised), and in any event, why shouldn’t the loyalist views it represents have a right to have their voices heard and to contribute to public debate?
A few pages in, I found the “sinister UDA intimidation”. Here it is:
It turns out that the publication had said that Sorcha Eastwood had refused to engage with the local Lodge members (not UDA, but the Orange Lodge) over a parade being organised to commemorate a Lodge member (who had no criminal record and whom was murdered by republican terrorists).
I then found the “sinister calls” to the office. It turns out the local Lodge members had reached out to all politicians in the area (including Sinn Fein and the SDLP, with whom they had engaged), and as part of this they had rang Ms Eastwood’s office to seek to speak to her, and presumably query why she was leading a campaign against their parade.
This was “unwanted” contact Ms Eastwood told BBC Talkback who were, as ever when there is an opportunity to demonise the unionist community, delighting in platforming and amplifying the increasingly ridiculous claims.
It is now, it seems, the case that an elected politician is allowed to condemn and criticise a whole section of the community, but if persons within that community seek to contact their public office to seek a conversation (Ms Eastwood herself had to concede there was “no threats”), then that is “unwanted” contact and intimidation.
I am sure the hate-campaign being whipped up by Ms Eastwood against a local Orange parade is equally “unwanted”.
We also heard Ms Eastwood had reported “repeated defamatory statements” to the PSNI. This is even more confusing; since when do the PSNI deal with civil matters such as defamation?
This is probably more reflective of the muddled Alliance mindset whereby they think the criminal law should punish anyone who express views Alliance does not approve of.
It is also of note that ‘The Loyalist’ was no more (and indeed a lot less) robust than the type of bile regularly spewed in a Brian Feeney or Susan McKay column, or indeed whipped by Alliance on social media. They aren’t known as the ‘nasty party’ for no reason. Why is it that nationalist commentators and contributors can repeatedly mock, deride and spew bile about unionism and loyalism without attracting the wrath of the Alliance thought-police?
The PSNI’s statement was telling. They did not say they were “investigating” or “enquiries were being carried out”, rather they simply noted the concerns.
It seems they have perhaps learnt the lesson from the way by which their communications were weaponised by nationalist extremist Colin Harvey who had whipped the media into a frenzy claiming he was subject to “harassment” and “intimidation” (he was not, he was criticised for his divisive and inflammatory rhetoric, and challenged on his refusal to condemn the IRA).
It is notable that now the PSNI have told Mr Harvey to basically wise up, that there is no harassment or intimidation, this hasn’t received the same attention as the initial victimhood.
We then heard from Ms Eastwood that ‘The Loyalist’ should no longer be in existence. The arrogance which gives rise to a belief that Alliance will dictate who can have free speech is mind boggling. Simple question: does Ms Eastwood call for An Phoblacht to be “put out of existence”? The answer will, I am sure, be illuminating.
Too often when particularly nationalists and Alliance make these outlandish claims, they are instantly supported by the civic and media elite, and therefore the truth or credibility of the claims become irrelevant. They take on a life of their own and everyone is compelled to play along.
Unionism and loyalism shouldn’t play along because social media or the self-appointed ‘elite’ say so.
In this instance there is, in truth, no substance to the claims made by Sorcha Eastwood. It can properly be described as attention-seeking.
Of course Sorcha, like ‘The Loyalist’ and every other citizen, has the right to express her views and, as an elected representative, discharge her functions, without any intimidation, harassment or threats. I would be the first to defend her if she was indeed subject to such disgraceful attacks.
But criticism and challenge, even robust challenge such as expressing the widely held view that Alliance have become republicanism’s ‘little helpers’, is not unacceptable. Indeed, in a democracy such speech is healthy.
So too is it right that we all make clear that any form of criminality or intimidation, by any person or group, regardless of background, is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. It is to be condemned in the strongest terms. I want to reiterate that point, lest there be any effort to mislead as to the content of this article.
If the world was as Alliance wanted it, then the only public platform afforded would be to persons who think as Alliance tells them to think. All dissenters would be dispatched to a metaphorical ‘Siberia’, and anyone who engaged with them would be subjected to an Orwellian two-minutes hate for the crime of failing to display the correct values.
The Loyalist has a right to exist. It has a right to express the views of those it represents, and to operate as a vehicle for contributors to engage in the public arena. If those views are unpalatable to Alliance or Sorcha Eastwood, then tough.
They don’t get to decide how unionists and loyalists think, and nor do they get to act as the arbitrators of public speech. That they think they can is what is truly sinister and chilling.