Alex Kane: Loyalism has been failed, and mostly by mainstream unionism

In the great scheme of things nothing that happened in Sandy Row on Friday evening, or in Newtownabbey on Saturday evening, will have the slightest impact on either the protocol or on Simon Byrne’s future as chief constable.

Monday, 5th April 2021, 1:00 pm

Ironically, maybe that’s why they happened: yet another manifestation of that peculiar tendency of a section of unionism/loyalism to be seen to be doing something, even when they’re not quite sure what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it.

I can’t believe a crowd of youngsters (some not in their teens and others barely in them) decided on Friday evening that a confrontation with the PSNI was a logical, strategic reaction to the PPS report last Tuesday and the revelations which flowed from its conclusions.

What did they think would happen in the cold light of Saturday or Sunday morning?

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Youths riot in the Sandy Row area in Belfast on Friday night

That Michelle O’Neill would issue a full-blown apology for undermining the Covid regulations last June and admit the ‘ourselves alone’ mantra wasn’t, in fact, a form of herd immunity for Sinn Fein supporters? Or Simon Byrne would tweet a mea culpa and pack his bags? Or the leaders of unionism and loyalism would hail them as heroes and hoist them shoulder high for photo-opportunities?

None of that happened. None of that will happen. The people who organised the confrontations (because, as I say, these youngsters didn’t just decide to do it) knew it wouldn’t happen, either. But it suits the interests of some people – and those interests are rarely the interests of unionism or loyalism – to stir up trouble for their own ends (sending a message to police and politicians: ‘this is our area, we control the streets’.)

I won’t pretend I understand what was going through the minds of the teenagers who saw PSNI officers as ‘the enemy’ on Friday evening: although the serial accusations of two-tier policing and servicing the republican agenda probably had its part to play. I won’t pretend I can empathise with their everyday concerns, because my concerns and interests are clearly different.

I won’t pretend I have anything to offer to address their concerns and improve their lifestyles and opportunities.

But nor will I pretend their actions don’t make a difference to me. They do. I’m old enough to remember how often the loyalist community has been used by elements of mainstream unionism for their own purposes: and observant enough to conclude how rarely they see improvement when matters settle down again and mainstream unionism finds other things to preoccupy it.

In October 1994 the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando agreed a ceasefire and supported David Trimble’s efforts to conclude an agreement which would be acceptable to the IRA. Over the past 27 years channels of communication between loyalist paramilitarism and the IRA were kept open and have been used to resolve a number of ‘community’ problems behind the scenes. Those channels are still open.

Yet just a few weeks ago the Loyalist Communities Council withdrew its support for the Good Friday Agreement. Why? Was it just because of the NI Protocol and a belief that Sinn Fein always got its own way?

Or was it something more deep-rooted than that: a growing sense across and within the loyalist communities (loyalism has always been heterogeneous, by the way, which may explain why it has so many kinds of paramilitary groups) that they had been left behind, with precious little to show in the way of tangible socio/economic/educational/employment et al benefits?

If that is true, then where should the finger of blame be pointed? Is it the fault of Sinn Fein and the SDLP that the rates of educational underachievement are higher in loyalist areas than elsewhere? Is it the fault of republicanism that unemployment rates are often higher in loyalist areas than elsewhere? Is it the fault of the Irish government that loyalist paramilitary groups are recruiting, while also knee deep in criminal activity?

Is it the fault of the Good Friday Agreement and its out-workings that unionism is in a minority in the Assembly, or that a significant number of voters who once voted for unionist parties have now shifted to Alliance?

Loyalism has been failed: as it has been on so many other occasions. And it has mostly been failed by mainstream unionism. It was left behind by William Craig after he switched back from Vanguard. It was left behind after the UWC strike in 1974. It was left behind after 1985. It was left behind after Drumcree. It was left behind after 1998 (mostly because of a reluctance of voters to support parties linked to paramilitary organisations). It was left behind after 2007 (when the DUP/SF cut their deal).

It was left behind after the collapse of the Unionist Forum in 2013. It will be left behind again once some sort of resolution is reached on the protocol (which will happen).

If it wants to stop being left behind then two things are essential: the election of more representatives at council and Assembly level who genuinely understand the needs of their community; and the total separation of loyalist paramilitarism and loyalist politics (because it’s that link which clearly puts off voters).

The voices and interests of tens of thousands of ordinary working-class loyalists need to be heard. But it must be their voice: not the voice of those who, too often, claim to speak for them – yet who really don’t.

Indeed, they fundamentally damage their interests.

Alex Kane tweets at @Alexkane221b

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