I was the guest keynote speaker at last week’s PUP conference at the Corr’s Corner Hotel, Newtownabbey.
They had asked me to address the general and ongoing electoral problems facing their party and what they would be required to do in terms of building influence and promoting their agenda. I focused on the issue of ‘perception’: the perception that loyalism, even within broad swathes of unionism, is regarded as insular, negative, squabbling, criminal and more concerned with turf wars and internal feuds than with addressing the genuine socio/economic needs of the loyalist community particularly and working-class unionism generally.
This, I argued, was why the PUP was a political/electoral minnow (it holds only 4 of the 591 elected offices available at council, Assembly, Euro and Westminster) and why the Ulster Democratic Party (the UDA voice in the 1997/8 negotiation process) had disappeared altogether. It also explained why political parties with links to loyalist paramilitarism seemed incapable of making the sort of breakthrough required to allow them to be taken seriously. Put bluntly, the very people they claimed to represent didn’t bother to vote for them.
A few days later Dee Stitt, a former member of the UDA and now Chief Executive of Charter NI, made my point for me. In a recent interview with the Guardian he said: “People see paramilitary grouping structures as a negative. Some people see that as a negative and use it against loyalist communities. They are involved in crime, drugs, racketeering ... But North Down Defenders is our homeland security. It says it in its name, we are here to defend North Down. From anybody.” He also said: “There is always inter-community violence. In normal society there is always going to be a big guy. Working class housing estates – it’s a jungle.”
That’s exactly the perception of loyalism I was talking about at the PUP conference. It’s that perception which puts off potential voters from those loyalist areas; it’s that perception which makes many people keep any relationship with loyalist ‘community workers’ and ‘spokesmen’ an arm’s-length one. And it’s that perception and that arm’s-length relationship which ensures that those communities continue to believe they are being left behind and sidelined.
Charter NI is a community based organisation based in east Belfast. The signage on the door says: ‘Striving to enable, equip and empower our community.’ It has just been given £1.7m to help it do that job. Yet if Mr Stitt really believes that there is ‘always’ inter-community violence and always a ‘big guy’ in normal society, how exactly is he planning to enable, equip and empower ‘our community’? And why him? Who does he represent? For whom does he speak? What is his agenda? What is his motivation?
Last October Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief-of-staff, was one of the key people behind the launch of a Loyalist Communities Council (embracing the UVF, UDA and the Red Hand Commando). He confirmed that it was being launched because loyalists believed that they had been left behind, economically and politically, since 1998. When he said that the groups concerned would “eschew all violence and criminality,” he was also confirming that the perception of these groups was a key factor in their having been left behind.
Here’s the problem for the Executive and for NI generally: if ordinary loyalists, political parties with links to loyalist paramilitaries and the paramilitaries themselves (many of whom remain armed, active, violent and criminal) feel that they are outside the mainstream and of no genuine interest to the likes of the DUP/UUP/TUV et al, then how do you ensure that their voice is heard and their agenda attended to? Charter NI is one way. The Loyalist Communities Council is another. A cadre of smaller community groups and spokespeople is another.
All of this requires massive funding: millions have been handed over since 1998. But it also requires proof that the money has been well spent. I don’t just mean the auditing and publications of accounts and project spending. I mean proof of change on the ground. Stitt also said in his interview that: “Loyalist groupings are doing some brilliant work, they are involved in community development. Loyalist groups and loyalist community leaders keep drugs out of our communities full stop, period. It’s not here.” Evidence would suggest that his statement is only partially accurate; and it certainly doesn’t mention that the drugs are being pushed by other elements within loyalism.
But if so much good work is being done by loyalist groups and loyalist community leaders then why, for instance, isn’t the PUP reaping the rewards of electoral success? Why do so many of those community leaders--many of whom seem to be self-styled – still tell us how badly loyalist communities fare when compared to republican communities? Isn’t it really the case that the DUP and Sinn Fein have reached a nod-and-a-wink agreement that loyalist groups linked to assorted paramilitary groups should be cosseted and funded as part of a broader strategy to buy them off?
I accept the need for all parts of society, particularly former combatants, to be included in the new era Northern Ireland. I accept that people with a past shouldn’t be excluded from the future. But we need proof that they have accepted new realities and that they are bringing their communities with them. Mr Stitt, and others like him, need to be extraordinarily careful with the language they use. And the Executive, which funds them, must also be extraordinarily careful.
Many, many ordinary people in those loyalist areas still believe that no-one actually hears, let alone represents them.