We should not sneer at loyalists as Britain disengages from Northern Ireland

Do you remember those early April days running up to the death of Prince Philip when Northern Ireland’s loyalist communities briefly caught the attention of the international media?

Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 11:59 am
Updated Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 12:12 pm
Jamie Bryson was mocked for delivering a speech against the Irish Sea border from atop a blue wheelie bin outside the PSNI station in Newtownards last month. Photograph by Declan Roughan / Press Eye

Doesn’t it all seem a somewhat distant memory?

Domestically, Belfast City Councillor Michael Long — of the Alliance Party — probably spoke for many last month when he posted a tweet mocking that speech Jamie Bryson delivered well after the riots and the media attention had faded away, atop a blue wheelie bin outside a PSNI station in Newtownards.

The many who would join Councillor Long in his mockery almost certainly account for a majority of the population in Northern Ireland these days: an uneasy coalition of nationalists, republicans, greens and Alliance voters perhaps, but one very much at ease in indulging shared pleasures, amongst which sneering at loyalists clearly seems to figure fairly highly.

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It was reported that Jamie Bryson has struck up a friendship with GAA pundit Joe Brolly. Brolly recently wrote that in the event of a vote for a united Ireland, consideration should be given to the creation of a separate independent Northern state

A beleaguered minority they may be, but nonetheless it is loyalists who are doing the heavy lifting in articulating the anger of the entire unionist community at Boris’s imposition of a border down the Irish Sea.

Mainstream unionism’s words turn into ashes in the mouths of those who have voted for and justified this extraordinary constitutional vandalism.

Loyalism thus has a credibility which mainstream unionism no longer possesses.

To adapt a famous slogan of James Connolly: “Only the loyalist working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for the Union in Northern Ireland”.

The question for loyalists in this rather paradoxical situation of being simultaneously more isolated than ever before in Northern Ireland, but also standing at the vanguard of a demoralised wider unionist community, must be, as Sunday Independent commentator Eilis O’Hanlon recently put it:

Quo Vadis? ie. Where are you going?

To attempt some kind of answer, it might be helpful to look at a place where loyalists are no longer welcome or cherished: Dublin.

David Campbell of the Loyalist Communities Council recently and poignantly lamented the days when Bertie Ahern “remained focused on dialogue with unionists and loyalists ... even as his own mother was dying ... reassuring us that he wanted a new relationship with Northern Ireland based on cooperation and mutual respect”.

Despite a similar generosity of spirit evident in Micheál Martin’s ‘Shared Island’ initiative, it is the new Fine Gael of Varadkar and Coveney, flanked by their frenemies in Sinn Féin, utterly in thrall to the EU, and oozing an aggressively amnesiac middle class Irish disdain for all things British, which is very much in the ascendant in the South.

Varadkar speaks of the ‘conversation’ about a united Ireland in the same breathless way that the Queen’s University academic Colin Harvey does, with what seems to me like no awareness whatsoever that unionists have never asked to be part of that conversation.

This drumbeat of Irish unity emanating from Dublin would of course count for very little were it not for the fact that British government policy towards Northern Ireland is now fully in accord with the sentiments expressed by Dominic Cummings when he reputedly said that he would not care if “Northern Ireland falls into the f***ing sea”, whilst the recent trial of two British Army veterans in Belfast for the 1972 killing of Official IRA commander Joe McCann has a distinct whiff of a departing power making amends with what it sees as the natives.

The disturbing reality is that we are in a situation worse than the mid 1970s when Great Britain seemingly spent a significant amount of time announcing in advance its intentions to disengage from Northern Ireland.

The imposition of the sea border means that Britain has now disengaged.

Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, who helped found the Loyalist Communities Council, was on Channel 4 News at the height of the riots a few weeks ago when it briefly looked like there might be major incursions across the Springfield Road/Lanark Way peaceline.

Unlike Councillor Long he did not come to sneer at loyalists.

In language remarkably similar to that the British government once used to coax Sinn Féin into dialogue, he said that loyalists “have legitimate reasons to feel aggrieved” and that “we should offer a political way forward for those loyalists who want to take it”.

Yet aggrieved working class loyalists cannot inflict defeat upon their political enemies at Westminster in the same way that aggrieved Red Wall voters in the North of England were able to do in the last UK general election: long before the Irish Sea border, British party politics has been almost entirely managed outwith Northern Ireland.

In the Belfast Telegraph the other week it was reported that Jamie Bryson has struck up a friendship with GAA pundit Joe Brolly, with “pints and footie matches” planned.

Brolly recently wrote a long article for the Sunday Independent about the prospects of constitutional change on this island, precisely due to what he too saw as the reality of British disengagement.

Ironically this article was heavily criticised by unionists such as Ian Acheson and also in a letter sent to the paper by self declared “liberal Ulster Protestant” Dermott Simpson.

Yet Brolly said something which may provide an answer to where loyalists can go now.

He said that, in the event of a border referendum resulting in a majority vote for a united Ireland, consideration should be given to the creation of a separate independent Northern state, operating in the same spirit of co-operation and mutual respect with the Southern state that David Campbell recalled Bertie Ahern wanting between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

State, even nation, building would be a far from ignoble political path for loyalists to follow given the paucity of other dignified options open to them.

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