Loyalist fears were ignored in the 50s, 60s, and 70s and are ignored now

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

“While the context is starkly different to that of the early 1970s, those concerned with the well-being and future opportunities of young loyalists should look to the descent of the Tartans into paramilitarism and ultimately jail or death in that complex, nightmarish and disorientating period and consider it a warning from history to those who would consider the Northern Ireland question resolved.”

That’s the closing paragraph from Gareth Mulvenna’s new book, Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash.

They are words we ignore at our peril, because I sense – and I have written about it in previous columns – that the uncertainties, fears, suspicions, feelings of disengagement and isolation, along with an undisguised contempt for mainstream unionism and the political institutions are still key factors at play within the psyche of loyalism.

Those factors were ignored in the 1950s. They were ignored in the late 1960s and early 70s. And they are being ignored now.

This is the story – told through the voices of some of the people who lived it – of a process that saw thousands of young working-class loyalists radicalised by social/political instability and personal experience: a process that saw them transfer from the sort of clan/turf gangs that were not unusual in the working-class areas of industrial cities across the UK, into newly formed paramilitary groups like the UDA, Young Ulster Volunteers, Youth Citizen Volunteers, the Red Hand Commando and Gusty Spence’s rebooted UVF. It’s also the story of thousands of young lives blighted and redirected by very bad, stupidly misguided decisions made when many were still teenagers.

One of the strengths of the book is that it doesn’t try and rewrite history. It doesn’t attempt to justify or ‘understand’ the decisions these people made. It doesn’t portray them as heroic figures, nor gloss over the horrors of what they did.

They lived in a particular place at a particular time and faced challenges and circumstances that many of us never had to confront up-close or too personally. I remember having a conversation with David Ervine about a decade ago and he asked: “You write well, Alex and you ask important questions. But I wonder what would have happened if you hadn’t been adopted and had been raised alongside the likes of me and Billy (Hutchinson) instead of a nice middle class home.”

I was reminded of that question as I read this book. What would I have done? There’s an interesting quote from Reg Empey, then a Young Unionist, who visited a loyalist area close to the Short Strand in the late 1960s: “Some of the dwellings still had gas lights and old-fashioned Belfast jaw-boxes. Cold tap. Loo down the yard. The houses were in bad condition. The walls were damp. For young people who came from further up the constituency, who weren’t used to those conditions, it was a bit of a shock.”

Those Young Unionists drifted into mainstream politics or work, while many of the young loyalists in the poor housing drifted into paramilitarism.

The book raises important questions, too, about the nature of the relationship between working-class loyalism and mainstream unionism. The plain fact, of course, is that the relationship, in terms of addressing the educational/social/housing needs of loyalists, was negligible. But as the unionist unrest which accompanied the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, Terence O’Neill’s rapprochement with the Republic and the growth of ecumenism in the 1960s developed into anger, it became clear that a new generation of unionist voices were tapping into that loyalist demographic.

Yet the message they gave them was one of relentless pessimism.

Everyone, it seems, was betraying them. Their own government at Stormont. The British government. The RUC. The UUP. The Civil Rights Movement and the new voices in nationalism were all just ‘IRA fronts.’ The Republic was waging war on them. All Catholics were members of or supporters of the IRA. And those new voices in unionism – like Ian Paisley, Desmond Boal, Bill Craig (who had increasingly distanced himself from his UUP roots) – were telling them that the only people they could trust were themselves.

The only people who could defeat the IRA and defend unionist principles were themselves. Sadly, tragically in many cases, too many of those young loyalists who heard that drip-drip of gung-ho despair and ourselves alone insularity were sucked into paramilitarism.

At the very time loyalism needed coherent leadership, a socio/economic agenda and a thought-through political response to what was happening all around them, they were fobbed off with the sort of guff they had been dished up since 1921. They were a neglected community: a community which was left with poor housing and underachievement.

To all intents and purposes they were a large community which never really had a voice of their own. No wonder, then, that they were so easily manipulated in those crucial years between 1963 and 1973. As a community they remain unrepresented. Serial underachievement remains largely unresolved. They are still being fed the message that they have been left behind while republicans have benefitted from post-1994 political changes.

This is an important and valuable book. The story it tells is an important one and the concluding paragraph is bang on the money. Lessons still haven’t been learned from that journey from Tartan gang to paramilitary gang, so I hope that politicians – from all parties – will read this book.

And hopefully some of those who still look down their noses at loyalists will read it and think, “thank goodness I wasn’t there at that time and faced with those conditions, circumstances and decisions.” More important, what do we do to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself?

• Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash (Pub. Liverpool University Press. £16.99 paperback)