Loyalism in Northern Ireland
Central Library, April 4, 1995
Irish Studies Department
Queens University, Belfast
This paper outlines contemporary loyalism and explores the political
positions of the loyalist fringe parties, the U.D.P. and P.U.P..
It addresses the growing sense of Protestant working class alienation
and the development of a newly articulated social democratic politics
from Protestant working class communities.
The Protestant working class is in a state of crisis. Throughout
the Troubles, while the media has focussed world attention on
the plight of an oppressed nationalist minority in Northern Ireland
the loyalist community has been vilified. Their experience has
been largely ignored by academics and misrepresented by the media.
Their politicians have largely absolved themselves of responsibilities,
bar those pertaining to constitutional issues. They have sustained
a concerted campaign of terrorism and economic sabotage, been
decimated by recession, inept government policy and planning initiatives.
Their cultural identity has been both denied and denigrated. And
the union, membership of which they hold so dear, appears to be
considered explicitly negotiable by the powers that be.
Throughout their experience, the Protestant working class remained
largely silent, allowing others to paint a picture of neo-colonialism
and privileged exclusivity, of historical obsession and reactionary,
boorish culture. It is as if the failure of the loyalist community
to articulate on behalf of itself conspires to reveal its guilt,
as if they do not have an articulate or rational case to present.
Their silence is all the more culpable when contrasted with the
undeniable skill with which republicanism has presented its case
to the world. As one loyalist recently put to me: " Have
you ever heard a Catholic who couldn't put his case across or
a Protestant who could?"
It is within the context of the silence of the loyalist community and their inability to foster understanding in the world at large, that a profound re-evaluation is taking place. Evolving from this process are loyalist representatives who are now prepared to articulate their positions publicly. Effectively, those positions are based on the following perceptions:
a) traditional tribal animosities have been cynically exploited by unionist leaders and effectively served to obscure the real, 'bread and butter', issues which could have united the working classes without threatening the union.
b) Loyalty vested in the union has been disregarded by successive
governments to the point that only suffering has been received
I will look in more detail at each of these points in turn. With
the establishment of a Protestant state for a Protestant people
- in opposition to a Catholic state for a Catholic people - the
loyalist community was lead to believe that the state was for
them and bestowed meaningful privilege upon them. This was true
to the extent that it ensured the continued legitimacy of their
Ulster Protestant/ British identity. Within it: "Protestants
enjoyed the privilege of having their symbols and culture accorded
pride of place in the affairs of the state. The superiority of
their ethnic group was evidenced by the status of their culture".
But that this state was actually for them was true only to the
extent that it was clearly hostile to its nationalist minority.
Within loyalism today, there is growing and tacit acceptance and
retrospective denunciation of anti-Catholic discrimination in
housing, employment and political representation. That the government
didn't do right by its Catholic citizens is accepted, but what
is being questioned by loyalism is the extent it did right by
them. There is now a growing perception that if the state was
for anyone, it was for the professional and ruling classes. This
reflects one of the greatest tragedies of the troubles, that class
inequalities have been ignored, while sectarianism has hogged
Devlin, (1993: 61), said: 'The appalling discrimination practised
by the unionist against Catholics was as nothing compared to their
class bias, for the ordinary working class Protestants were only
a little better treated than their Catholic counterparts.' It
is precisely this painful point that the loyalist community is
coming to terms with. Painful because it entails a realisation
that they were wrong; doubly painful because it reminds them of
lost opportunities, most tragically the effect their support could
have had for the civil rights movement in the beginning when it
was just that.
Whilst joblessness was and is higher for the nationalist population,
we should not forget that this could be as much to do with capitalist
centralising policies which discriminate against peripheral areas
along the border and in the west where Catholic majorities exist.
Neither should we ignore the effects of terminal decline that
were ravaging the traditionally Protestant heavy engineering and
ancillary industries of the North. This was a decline which had
begun in the 1930's, continuing through the 50's and 60's right
up to the present. By the time of the Civil Rights agitation,
Northern Ireland was already an unemployment 'blackspot' within
the U.K. (Boyle, Hadden 1994: 138)
Similarly, the benefits loyalists received from discrimination
in housing are now being questioned. One loyalist reflected on
the Catholic campaign for better housing. He remembers taking
their demands to mean that the conditions under which he lived
were somehow better. Only belatedly did he conclude that his sense
of privilege was based on the fact that, as Protestants, his family
stood a better chance of swift slum allocation than those who
were taking to the streets in protest.
As far as the property qualifications was concerned, although
the world rapidly developed the impression that one man, one vote
meant that nationalists were denied the vote, it was an issue
that affected both communities. The unionist government maintained
a system whereby if you could not pay your rates, you were denied
a vote in local government elections; on the other hand, if you
were a local business man with several properties, you received
a vote for each.
Although the civil rights movement developed into a nationalist
campaign for Irish unification, within contemporary loyalism there
is a growing understanding of the inevitability of such a development,
and of a chance missed to join the class based beginnings of the
movement to agitate for change without threat to the union. Witness
the following quote from a respondent:
" .. it became a movement with a nationalist agenda that
wasn't in our interests. Our leaders warned us it was that way
all along, they were proved correct. What they didn't tell us,
though, was that instead of lookin' on or bashin' them we could
simply have joined them. A campaign for civil rights with a million
Prods joining the bandwagon isn't going to turn into a campaign
for Irish unification, you can't coerce a million Prods in that
context. Its goin' to stay a genuine class struggle that could've
forced out the fur coat brigade and created an Ulster acceptable
to is working people, and there's not a damn anyone could've done
about it. We wouldn't be in the stuck we're in now, I'll tell
While loyalist experience over the last twenty five years has
led to a reassessment of the Stormont system, their understanding
of what their loyalism means and costs has also undergone a transformation
as the British government presides over a situation growing progressively
darker for the loyalist people. The real tragedy for Ulster loyalists
is that Britain only ever had a strategic interest in Ireland.
But for the loyalist community, this only really began to sink
in when the Anglo Irish Agreement ushered in a new era of direct
rule that, for the first time, recognised the legitimacy of Irish
unification, and made a first tentative step down that road by
rewarding the Irish government with a small but symbolically devastating
role in the affairs of the North. Loyalists, who honestly perceived
themselves and their history as one of serving the interests of
Britain at great personal cost, found their loyalty utterly rejected.
For once, the unionist leadership reflected their mood when Harold
McCusker gave his response in the House of Commons (18-11-1985):
" I never knew what desolation felt like until I read this
agreement.. Does the Prime Minister realise that when she carries
the agreement through the House she will have ensured that I will
carry to my grave with ignominy the sense of the injustice that
I have done to my constituents down the years - when, in their
darkest hours, I have exhorted them to put their trust in this
British House of Commons which one day would honour its fundamental
obligations to them to treat them as equal British citizens?"
(Bew and Gillespie 1993:191).
Before the current round of the Troubles, nationalists were politically
helpless, their aspirations were hopeless and their cultural identity
stigmatised, while the loyalist community was complacent. Now,
within nationalist communities there is: "A whisper of triumphalism..
that the system is breaking down for the (loyalist) community"
(O'Connor 1994:192). It is lost in a world it no longer understands,
a world that doesn't seem to want to understand it. The clear
denial of partiality on behalf of the British government invalidated
the moral universe of the loyalist people. It left them with a
sense of belonging restricted, and hemmed in to their own communities.
The resultant condition experienced is a crisis of identity where
the loyalist sense of "fit" - their social reality -
does not correspond to the actual reality of the world they live
This reflects a growing sense of awareness that the system has
failed for the loyalist community who sense that their politicians
are more concerned with restating positions that they are in addressing
their more pragmatic responsibilities. They were elected time
after time, because loyalist fears were such that they wanted
those positions loudly affirmed. Now with cease-fires in place,
socially motivated loyalists see a window of opportunity opening.
Fronted by the UDP and PUP, they have emerged from the community
centre and back room bars into the light of day, and immediate
media interest and sympathy.
While Robinson, DUP, (BT 4-1-1994) warned Westminster that if
they didn't "listen to the ballot box, they will hear the
rattle of gunfire for some years to come," Paisley suggested
that, with the benefit of hindsight, he should have been much
tougher, saying that if he had not acted within the law, successive
governments might have taken more notice of him (BT 1-3-95). According
to loyalist sources, key members of the DUP advised against calling
a cease-fire: "They said even if nobody was killed, we should
maintain the threat as a bargaining chip''. (Sunday Times 16-10-94).
Kinner, PUP (Irish Times 3.9.94) said " fears and insecurities...have
been generated... and instilled into working class communities
by unionist politicians. They have often ... been used to manipulate
the paramilitaries into engaging in violent activities, and ...the
politicans who generated the situation then wash their hands of
them, condemning them for taking their call to arms too literally."
McCartney, Q.C. (Belfast Telegraph 28.9.94) said "The fundamentalist
views of... Paisley... and the sectarian ethos which he has imprinted
on his party, provide a major obstacle to the emergence of any
radical and pluralist pro-union philosophy which might... preserve
the union and offer a basis for reconciliation to which everyone
could subscribe. Fringe loyalists are now leading the call away
from sectarianism. "Its time to ditch the dinosaurs,"
says Ervine, PUP (Sunday Times 11-12-94), "we need to take
the Ayatollahs out of politics over here. John Paul II is a nice
old Polish bloke. It doesn't do anybody any good going around
shouting he's the anti-Christ. And calling the Catholic Church
the harlot of Rome is just downright offensive." He also
said (Sunday Times: 5-3-95): "The bellicose ranting of the
unionist that the world has become accustomed to is not real unionism.
The real unionism is not unnecessarily jingoistic, it is not right
wing but practical, if it is allowed to be so."
While the DUP will have "no truck" with Sinn Fein because
they are paramilitaries, Smith, prisoners spokesperson for the
PUP, said (Belfast Telegraph 4-10-94): "We realised a long
time ago that when the war eventually ended we would have to talk
to Sinn Fein". He went on to claim that, within loyalism,
there was a growing understanding that Gerry Adams had put his
life on the line for the peace process. Adams himself, claimed
recently that unionist leaders were out of touch with their people
and that those people are reassessing their position. The loyalist
fringe parties represent evidence of that reassessment.
I want to end with two quotes from loyalists:
"we can't afford to let our politicians destroy whatever opportunities might be created. Let's face it, many of our politicians must be frightened by the cease-fire. And it's not hard to see why - if our fears about being sold out are finally allayed, in a few years from now these politicians could be redundant. We must analyse the situation from our own needs, not theirs. We've been marched up to the top of the hill and down again once too often.' (Hall 1994:30)
"Both communities have suffered and both communities have
caused that suffering. We cannot undo the past, but we can rebuild
for the future. If republicans are prepared to use democratic
means to try and persuade us to go into a united Ireland, well,
let them go ahead and do that. Our task will be to persuade Catholics
that the union is the best option for them... But it will mean
Protestants having the courage to sit down with the Catholic community
and change Ulster, so that it reflects the identities of all its
people. That will mean the Catholic community feeling able to
give proper expression to its sense of Irishness alongside our
sense of Britishness. I don't see why a new Northern Ireland could
not incorporate both."(Hall 1994:31)
Unionism cannot survive without adopting this new language of
accommodation and thirst for change. It is ironic, don't you think,
that the most vocal proponents learned it in the Maze.
The following points were made in small group discussions.
Protestants and working class politics.
* Working class politics have been submerged within all the of
the unionist parties, as a result the Protestant working class
voice is fragmented.
* The PUP seem to be more of a socialist party and one development
which is necessary is an understanding of common class issues.
* The split between those with jobs and those without, i.e. the
poverty gap is growing. Therefore it should be expected that this
concern is reflected in politics.
* There has always been a strong labour tradition within the Protestant/unionist
community. The Communist Party in the North has had strong support
from Protestants and its possible that the politics of the PUP/UVF
is in some way a continuation of that.
* The Protestant working class is saying "your time is up"
to the unionist ruling class.
* The development of class base politics would be unrealistic
if it meant homogeneity, instead of alliances. Because people's
sense of identity as British and or as Irish is also important.
* Protestant identity is a complex identity. An important factor
to this identity is the fear of a Catholic Gaelic state. The desire
for supremacy and privilege is not an important part of that identity.
* Realistically, there is no political position on Northern Ireland
which would unite the working classes.
* There is a need for some degree of self determination for Northern
Ireland to be able to see some sort of class politics emerging.
* The time has come for something new. Class politics may develop
out of the trade union movement, but only with British disengagement.
* There already is a sense of British disengagement and PUP politics
reflects this. There is also simultaneously a sense of class politics
emerging. But is it the case that a sudden and total British
disengagement will also risk any real development of class politics
on the loyalists side, given that the boundaries which had become
more fluid in the months after the cease fires are also being
re-drawn in the face of suspected deals etc?
* The emergence of working class Protestant politics is important.
* The days of a united Ireland versus united Kingdom are hopefully
gone. But there is a need for unionists to identify structures
with which they can live with and then we can get closer to developing
class based politics.
* The question of class identities and sectarianism needs to be
* The PUP and Sinn Fein will get together, as they are both concerned
with the pragmatic politics.
* Working class Catholics do not believe that working class Protestants
were responsible for the unfair treatment of Catholics.
* It is only now that the media is picking up on deprivation within
and discrimination against the working class Protestant population.
Support for fringe Loyalist parties
* The support for the PUP has not been tested.
* The established unionist parties are still strong.
* The presentation has not done justice to the complexity of working
class loyalism. Paramilitary support and individuals involved
in paramilitaries are also involved in other unionist parties,
such as the UUP and DUP, which articulate different positions.
* It would be hard to estimate the numbers of this 'new breed
of loyalists'. If support was to be measured in votes, it would
take a long time because people would have difficulty voting for
a party whose membership and leadership is headed up by ex-paramilitaries
and people involved in killing.
* Speaking as a Republican, I think unionist need to move to a
position in which they articulate the advantages and disadvantages
of the union, and I think the PUP are more in a position to do
* The PUP seem to want full integration into the United Kingdom
and would align themselves in this process with the British Labour
Party. The UDP position is more on the lines of an Independent
Ulster, although both sets of politics seem to operate within
the same contexts, i.e. working class Protestant communities.
As a republican, integration into a United
Kingdom and the PUP's position on this seems incredible in the
light of events and, to me, is not a political option.
* One reason why the PUP may hold this position of supporting
full integration into the U.K., may be because there are no real
class politics in Ireland.
* The leadership challenge to James Molyneaux showed that people,
including the youth, are tired and disenchanted with the leadership
and the landed gentry.
* People may not agree with all that the PUP and UDP are and say
but there are elements within it which people regard as right
and are thinking "we should be doing something about this
* It is difficult to tell what percentage of working class Protestants
the fringe parties such as the PUP represent. Nevertheless, there
is a significant new articulation coming from a section of the
Protestant working class.
* The Ulster Unionist Party are listening to the Protestant working class and are responding to their demands. They are taking on the challenges of the working class, opening up welfare offices and training officers in welfare rights. This is happening now because of the radical
thinking in the party and now we have to earn the votes.
* You have just admitted that you did not have to earn votes.
The traditional unionist politicians have failed working class
communities and they have taken on their own responsibilities.
it is only now, that any new or radical thinking and elements
are coming through and being reflected in the UUP.
* There is a need for networks between Protestant and Catholic
* There is a social change taking place, part of this change is
more self confidence being expressed within the Protestant community
and this is reflected by the fringe loyalists.
* Unionism can be re-defined and this re-definition of unionism
should take the structures of power sharing.
* Parties will and should come together to address social issues.
The have been doing this on a number of issues. They need to do
it now, for issues such as policing.
* One change that is happening is that more Protestants are attending
public discussions like this one.
* Not all nationalists see a united Ireland as workable.
*There is a fear that the economic situation will force the British
to withdraw their interest in Northern Ireland.
* 'Tell us about it', this is a phase that should be used more,
as it opens up channels for listening.
* Sense of identity is important to people, and perhaps "successful
co-existence depends on strengthening difference".
* Brits Out is understood often as meaning Protestants out. Is
that what is meant?
* There is still a strong sense of tribal identity (orange/green),(British/Irish).
This needs to be broken and will take time.
* A future long term development within the Protestant community,
once the national question in Northern Ireland is resolved, may
be the renaissance of Protestant religions and religious Protestants.
* It is likely that Molyneaux and Hume will reach an accommodation, but can this happen at a grassroots level?
* What do people in Scotland and Wales think of the British Isles?
* Are we heading towards a British unification rather than an
Irish unification as the Irish state is failing economically?
Why is this not regarded as an option?