By Billy Hutchinson
On Sunday the PUP published a considered response to the letter I received on behalf of the Loyalist Communities Council (‘LCC’), a number of coalitions and other advocacy/cultural groups prominent within the grassroots unionist and loyalist community last week.
As the leader, I did not make a knee-jerk reaction unlike some others in receipt of the letter, rather I considered it in consultation with party colleagues, and we collectively formulated our response which has been published by the party.
In this article, I want to offer a personal rather than a party-political analysis. I feel compelled to do this because of my increasing concern about the direction of travel, and I want my message to reach all parts of my own community, but also those in power in the British and Irish Governments, and European Union.
The perspective I bring comes as someone who was there as part of loyalism in various roles from the 1970s until the present day, when I am currently an elected representative leading the PUP.
I was there during the ceasefires, the Belfast Agreement and tumultuous bedding in period that followed.
I am deeply concerned that it seems elements of the media, and particularly nationalism, simply want to disregard and castigate all loyalist voices. Any messenger which brings a message from unionism or loyalism that nationalism or the new ‘establishment’ finds unhelpful, is immediately subjected to demonisation and orchestrated demands they be de-platformed.
This concerns me because it demonstrates that they simply do not want to hear the genuine views of unionism or loyalism, particularly from working class communities, unless such views are politically palatable to nationalism. Loyalism will not allow anyone to isolate or demonise voices from within our community.
Ironically, many leading the charge demanding loyalist voices be silenced are people who have no right to talk down to loyalism about the peace settlement and 1998 Agreement. I speak directly to those who have come on the scene in recent years, and who now purport to patronise our community, and seemingly think they have the right to decide which loyalist voices or views will be heard.
Those opponents of unionism and loyalism to whom I refer weren’t there in 1994 or 1998, they played no role. I, and many other loyalists, were there. We helped shape the peace; we took risks in our own community to deliver a difficult carefully balanced compromise.
I am angry, and many other loyalists are angry. We are angry that the EU, the Irish Government and a new generation of nationalists have so flagrantly and arrogantly dismantled that which so many of us- on both sides of the divide- painstakingly built.
At a time when tensions and anger are high- as high as I have experienced since before the CLMC ceasefire of 1994- everyone must be careful as to their use of language and tone of contributions. I do not think Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance have done so; rather they have inflamed tensions with their blatant disregard for the foundational principles upon which peace and our political process rests.
That is not to ‘sabre-rattle’, but rather to state as a fact that as far is loyalism is concerned, the core promises which led to the 1994 ceasefire and support for the Belfast Agreement have been shredded.
How that betrayal of the basis upon which loyalism’s support for peace and the Belfast Agreement is dealt with is another matter. I hope calm heads prevail, that is certainly what I will be arguing for.
But I can not ignore the depth of anger and resentment. It is palpable. I live in loyalist areas, engage with loyalists every day of my life. I can feel it, almost touch it lingering in the air.
Those outside don’t understand the pressures of maintaining peace in a post conflict community, especially when the peace is built upon such a delicate balance. The leaders of loyalist groups will be getting berated in the streets by their own community (from angry young men to pensioners) saying they have had enough. I know they will because I have seen it and moreover as a PUP negotiator in 1994 and 1998, I have been there. I have been subjected to rooms of loyalists and our own community shouting us down urging against compromise.
We managed to win the ideological argument, because we could point to some fundamentals- such as, for example, the principle of consent to secure no diminution of Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom.
In a CLMC statement of principles prior to the ceasefire, number (1) stated as follows:
“There must be no diminution of Northern Ireland’s position as an integral part of the United Kingdom…”
The principle of consent is what we were promised, and in turn on that basis we persuaded others, satisfied that fundamental bedrock for securing loyalist support had been enshrined.
It is obvious to point out that belief has been shattered. The Protocol has “subjugated” Northern Ireland’s place in the Union (the Act if Union is the Union) and disapplied the key cross community consent safeguard; and now we have nationalist parties and the Irish Government talking up joint-authority and majority rule which would dismantle the whole basis of the Agreement.
Is it any wonder there is unprecedented anger in loyalist communities?
I have been around loyalism my whole life. I think I have earned the right to express a view with a little credibility attached to it.
I plead with people in positions of power, particularly the two governments, to listen to what I am saying: this is serious, it isn’t a vacuous bluff. I am deeply concerned about the direction of travel and an anger which is rapidly rising to a point whereby it will beyond the control of those working tirelessly to redirect it in productive ways.
And I also want to personally urge everyone in loyalism to remain calm. I understand the provocation and the anger. I share it. But lashing out violently is not going to change it or remove the injustices, it will just perpetuate them.
I lived through the worst of the troubles. I don’t want to go back there, and I don’t believe loyalism wants to either, but there is a feeling of angry desperation and of there being nowhere left to go.
But my message is increasingly falling on deaf ears. When the sole basis upon which we (as in pro agreement loyalists) won the argument in 1994 and 1998 has been cut away from beneath us, we can no longer influence or persuade our own community. They can justifiably point to the broken promises, the deceptions, the subjugation of the Union diminishing Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, and the constant demonising of unionism and loyalism and ask: what does this process deliver for us?
These concerns have been raised for years and been ignored. I implore people to please listen now before it is too late. Restore the delicate balance to the heart of our political and peace processes, and give our communities a chance.
It may be popular now to trample all over the unionist and loyalist community, but in the long run pushing one community so far into a corner will be do the detriment of us all as a society.
Finally, I want to emphasise this article is written as a personal effort to use whatever influence I have or credibility which my voice carries to urge people to listen and take the concerns being raised seriously.
I have been around long enough to know a ploy or an effort to sabre-rattle for leverage when I see it. Trust me, that is not what you are seeing coming from loyalism.