by Jamie Bryson
In recent days we have seen significant attention on ideas previously put forward by the Independent Reporting Commission (‘IRC’) in regards transitioning of conflict-related groups.
I thought long and hard as to whether to write this piece, given the inevitable misinformed commentary it will generate and deluge of abuse, and contrived efforts to equate providing a considered view on a embedded societal problem with somehow “defending criminals”. But I feel the point needs made, so make it I will, regardless of what response it generates from orchestrated online/political actors.
The IRC’s reports are nuanced, carefully calibrated and have arrived at thoughtful solutions as to the means by which to deal with the post-conflict problem of the continued existence of proscribed organisations.
The panel of Monica McWilliams, John McBurney, Tim O’Connor and Mitchell Reiss have explored the problems, and brought all their expertise and experience to bear in presenting proposed ways forward. I don’t agree with everything they say, but their reports come from a place of having undertaken painstaking work, exploration and engagement with all stakeholders in society.
That stands in stark contrast to the hot-takes we hear from the likes of Stephen Farry, Claire Hanna and Simon Hoare, the Chair of the NI Affairs Committee who (clearly regularly wound up by messers Hanna and Farry) appears to make ever more outlandish and unhelpful contributions. His latest was a direction to “annihilate” groups which continue to exist. I wonder what the tactics will be?
Internment? Shoot to kill?
He then clarified on the Nolan Show that the annihilation was a criminal justice response. What precisely does he think the Paramilitary Crime Task Force has been doing since 2016?
Whilst a whole other subject, I can tell you what they certainly have not been doing: pursuing PIRA crime and terrorist activity. A search last month was the first time PIRA has been targeted in almost a decade.
Unlike the hot-takes from political actors, none of whom have any experience or knowledge of working-class loyalist communities or the post-conflict socio-economic difficulties experienced therein, the IRC understand and have sought to grapple with what is a complex problem, particularly in loyalist communities.
Post 1998, there was not the same transitionary pathways for loyalist organisations as that which was created and continually replenished, in order to facilitate- and legtimise- the IRA.
Whilst the ‘system’ set about legitimising the IRA and ensuring their members and supporters had a stake in society (including, for example, convicted bombers on the Policing Board), loyalism was left to rot and be criminalised. This, in my view, wasn’t an accident, but a deliberate tactic.
A vibrant, educated, and socially cohesive loyalist community would have been contrary to the actual objective of the Belfast Agreement ‘process’, because it would have been an impediment to the incremental dismantling of the Union.
Therefore, loyalism was criminalised, demonised and caricatured. That is not to say that loyalism covered itself in glory; plainly it did not. But we have had twenty five years of loyalism being judged and labelled by the lowest common denominator. Whilst the IRA were presented as smart, educated political peacemakers, loyalists were held up as drug dealing criminal thugs. This was achieved by focusing and elevating in the eyes of the public a small unrepresentative minority who were, undoubtedly, often drug dealing criminal thugs.
But why should the entire loyalist community, and those ex-combatants who had, in their view, become involved in defending their community for the right reasons, be judged by reference to the actions of a small minority whose status was more often derived from the prominence given to them by Sunday tabloids (who for twenty-five years have relentlessly mocked, derided and demonised loyalism corporately) than from any contribution they made to the loyalist cause either during the conflict, or politically thereafter.
I should say, that the Sunday tabloids have played a major role in the demonisation and criminalisation of loyalist communities. There is a whole other piece of work to be done around that.
In any event, the position is, and should be, clear: those who are out-and-out criminals should go and be criminals, and the PSNI should deal with that. Asking loyalism to ‘deal with it’ in terms of criminality, is somewhat contradictory. How is it supposed loyalism would do that without engaging in the very coercion and violence that we all want to be a thing of the past?
I want to (again) say really very clearly (because, inevitably, by engaging with this subject it will ignite the usual deluge of misinformed commentary): drug dealing, intimidation and all criminal activity is wrong; it is the anathema of loyalism and far be it from advancing the cause, it actually fatally undermines it. Young people should not be lured, or coerced, into such activity and I am happy to say this as many times as needs said. There is no justification for crime, particularly the nefarious drugs trade, and all those with the strength and capacity to do so should stand up and say this clearly.
Those within loyalism who remain part of the organisations perhaps as a legacy of the conflict, as part of a social identity, or out of a genuine political belief, should be afforded the opportunity- and given the assistance- to transform those organisations, and themselves, to a better place whereby a positive contribution can be made to society.
It should be noted that the IRA were afforded such pathways, and through them have been integrated into every aspect of civic, community and political life in Northern Ireland. Those who demonise loyalists and say they should have no place in society ought to pause and look around them.
The hot-takes that loyalist organisations, and thus all those within them, should “go away” or be “annihilated” doesn’t appreciate that some people only remain within those structures in order to retain the ability and influence to actually prevent entirely criminal elements from bullying and intimidating people using the organisations as a badge of convenience. That isn’t true in all cases, but it certainly is in some.
In the real world, the actual challenge around transition is how the influence and social structures (and, at their core, all organisations are social structures) of conflict-organisations can be transformed and utilised to exercising exclusively positive influence, without crossing over into coercive control or criminal activity.
If the legacy structures of the organisations can- through transition- get to a place whereby the activities undertaken are lawful and a positive contribution (i.e., encouraging young people into education; building community cohesion and capacity), is that not the true endpoint of ‘transition’, rather than “annihilation”?
The constant demonisation, misrepresentation and criminalisation of an entire community (and whether people like it or not, there are many within working class loyalist communities who were involved in the conflict for as they would see it the right reasons, are nevertheless tarred and demonised due to the actions of an unrepresentative minority) is something which some people really ought to reflect upon and ask themselves whether they are really trying to assist in solving a complex problem, or whether they are simply looking to batter a community seen as an easy target, either for political kudos, or for social media likes.
This is a complex problem, and- in my view- the IRC have made the best effort as yet in regards potential solutions. That is whose analysis should be given credence and credibility.
Finally, I note in recent days we once again have witnessed a ramping up of the SDLP and Alliance campaign to have ‘loyalist community voices’ deplatformed from the media, and in truth exorcised from society per se.
The agenda is clear, but multifaceted. Some of it is just a snobbishness from a new supremacist nationalist elite, sneering at working class loyalists who dare to speak for themselves, and worse still express views contrary to nationalism, whilst other parts is a more sinister agenda to shut down alternative viewpoints and thus enable the self-appointed nationalist elite to dominate the public arena and thus exercise maximum influence in determining the prevailing societal and political trends.
Loyalists will not be silenced, demonised or put another way, sit quietly at the back of the bus. We will be heard, we will speak up for our rights, identity and the aspirations of our community. If that makes Claire Hanna, Stephen Farry, Matthew O’Toole etc., and the civic nationalist elite (Chris Donnelly, Colin Harvey, Patricia MacBride, Andree Murphy et al) uncomfortable, then tough.