With intense focus on the loyalist community in recent weeks due to serious discontent around the proposed Betrayal Act designed to create an economic United Ireland, the mainstream media has predictably turned to some academics, semi-retired security journalists and commentators who would have traditionally, in the minds of some, been able to offer an accurate insight into the current loyalist thinking.
We have regularly seen Professor Pete Shirlow appear on the BBC in recent weeks, and also in recent days writing in the Irish Times. Pete has used these platforms to offer his analysis that there isn’t really the level of anger within loyalism that people like me has said there is.
One would have thought that the public meetings across NI, social media and the banners and boards appearing throughout the country would have amplified the message that loyalism has had enough. Not so it appears.
Professor Shirlow for many years had a unique insight to current loyalist thinking, especially it seems (judging by his commentary over the years) in relation to the UVF. His analysis, it appears, could be previously trusted to provide an accurate assessment of the current positions and feelings.
However, his recent pronouncements do not come from such an insightful position. His analysis is not based on credible loyalist briefings or a proper understanding of the current position, but rather appears to be concocted from his own utopian vision of all-Ireland harmonisation within the context of the ‘peace process’.
It is a basic starting point, even by turning to its very definition, that any ‘process’ has a beginning and an end. So, ask yourself the question, if the beginning was the Belfast Agreement, then what is the end? Turn then to the only referendum allowed for in the agreement; it is one on whether NI should be subsumed into a United Ireland- with the question asked every seven years until the answer is yes. That is a pretty good clue as to the envisaged end of the ‘process’ that Professor Shirlow extols.
In an Irish Times article Pete robustly made the case for the ‘peace process’. I struggle to understand why one as intelligent as Pete would continue to repeat this anti-oppositional linguistic jingoism. It is designed to create the narrative that you can not oppose the process without opposing peace; in other words, the Belfast Agreement and the absence of violence go hand in hand and you can not have one without the other. It is a moral blackmail designed to force silent compliance with the ‘process’.
What an intellectually absurd position to take; such an approach creates precisely the environment we now find ourselves in whereby nationalism has talked up threats to the peace for 3 years in order to extract political concessions in relation to the Irish border. The supposed moral basis of this strategy was that they were “protecting the Belfast Agreement”; somehow this meant it was justified to threaten peace, because in the ‘peace process’ narrative nationalism must be appeased in order for there to be a ‘process’.
Once the political concessions had been extracted around Brexit the pretence of protecting the Belfast Agreement nationalism, including the Irish Government, was happily shredded as they heartily supported forsaking the cornerstone of cross-community consent on key decisions, enshrined within Strand 1 (5) (d) of the Belfast Agreement, in order for pan-nationalist majority rule to be used to drive us into an economic United Ireland.
Pete further used his Irish Times platform to present the current situation as some kind of battle between hawks and doves, with ‘good’ progressive loyalism and ‘bad’ regressive (in his mind) loyalism. He appears intellectually incapable of arriving at a point of accepting that pro and anti-agreement viewpoints are equally legitimate. There isn’t good loyalists and bad loyalists divided along the lines of those who hold views deemed acceptable to the liberal elite, and those who hold views deemed unacceptable. Only funders make that distinction.
In the current situation loyalism isn’t divided. Every section of loyalism is absolutely united on resisting an economic United Ireland. Those talking down that anger are misinformed, and those indicating that this anger is being whipped up by a small unrepresentative section of loyalism are either clinging to their own utopian dreams or talking to people who are misleading them, for whatever reason.
A good example of this is when Professor Shirlow in his Irish Times piece, and on Sunday Politics, contrasted the Shankill winter festival with the opposition to the Brexit deal. The implication was the good loyalists were having such festivals, whilst the bad loyalists were getting angry about Brexit.
This is misinformed nonsense. The festival was born out of several loyalist ex-prisoners seven years ago starting a Christmas Tree on the Shankill. Those same people were in the audience at recent public meetings. Loyalists are absolutely united on this one key issue; anything that undermines the constitutional position of Northern Ireland will be fiercely resisted.
Professor Shirlow, and others, have been working extremely hard to try and talk down loyalist anger in recent weeks. He has been joined by the likes of Councillor John Kyle, who is also entirely out of touch with current loyalist thinking.
These people appear to have a one-dimension view and believe that loyalist resistance and anger could only be directed towards a sectarian conflict.
There is no one I have heard within loyalism seeking a return to sectarian conflict. How could any sensible person want to see such a scenario come to pass?
Even as far back as 2000, in the early days of the cessation of violent conflict, Henry Jordon and Jim Cusack in their book ‘UVF’ quoted a source they allege at the time was second-in-command of the UVF.
In this book published in 2000, on page 402, it says the following;
“There is no way we are ever going back to the kind of tit-for-tat sectarian we saw in the past”.
The interview then continued to say, “If there is to be a resumption in the future caused by Dublin pushing things too far, then the organisation will be looking across the border.”
That historical extract from almost 20 years ago shows that even in the earliest days of peace, loyalists were not contemplating any potential for a return tit-for-tat sectarian conflict. I have heard nothing in 2019 that would contradict that core loyalist position.
However, we are in precarious and fast moving times; the message has been sent out by the Irish Government and the EU that peace is only secure so long as nationalism gets their own way. That is a dangerous precedent that has been set.
Peace must be a core commitment on all sides; it can not be a ‘peace process’ whereby peace is only secure so long as everyone goes along with the one-sided ‘process’. The process is finished- unionism and loyalism have no more concessions left to give, and indeed the vast majority of the PUL community feel that the whole ‘process’ has been a con from the very start.
We face difficult times ahead, and loyalism is being pushed into a corner by the actions of the EU and Irish Government, who have aggressively launched an all-out assault on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
Nationalism made clear that any land border would see them take to the streets. Unionism/Loyalism would inevitably end up taking to the streets in mass numbers should any economic United Ireland be forced upon us. Once that genie gets out of the bottle, it would be very difficult to put it back in. We all want to avoid such an unpredictable situation.
The likes of Professor Pete Shirlow should perhaps reach out to older loyalist voices who would have viewed him as a critical friend; maybe then he will adapt his analysis and realise that far from the loyalist anger being something to be dismissed, in fact that anger is greater than at any time since 1998. Hopefully at that point he can accurately reflect the current loyalist thinking as it is, rather than as he wished it would be.