Out of the shadows: The real LAD, and why he matters

John-Paul Whearty pictured in the News Letter offices this week.'Picture: Arthur Allison.
John-Paul Whearty pictured in the News Letter offices this week.'Picture: Arthur Allison.

You almost certainly had never heard of John-Paul Whearty before this week.

Yet without the 36-year-old some of the biggest political and political controversies of recent years would not have happened - most notably the prosecution of Pastor James McConnell.

For four years, Mr Whearty, who goes by the name JP, has been the anonymous mastermind of the Loyalists Against Democracy (LAD) social media publication.

On Tuesday, he unmasked himself in the Irish News and appeared on Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme. That evening, he visited the News Letter offices for a long chat about a phenomenon whose influence has been dramatic.

Since emerging into the chaotic world of social media at the tumultuous time of the flag protests in December 2012, the accidentally important project has mushroomed, while little has been known about the individuals behind it.

During more than an hour discussing LAD, the ruggedly bearded Dundalk-born former Dubliner emerges as an enigmatic, open and profoundly contradictory individual.

John-Paul Whearty speaking to the News Letter's Sam McBride ahead of his show in the MAC in Belfast. 'Picture: Arthur Allison.

John-Paul Whearty speaking to the News Letter's Sam McBride ahead of his show in the MAC in Belfast. 'Picture: Arthur Allison.

He is the man who pilloried some of the appalling grammar of loyalists online, yet says he can’t spell.

He is the man whose online outlet owed its existence to a liberal acceptance of free speech – up to and including vulgar personal abuse, but who in discussing Pastor McConnell shows little understanding of the concept that defending free speech necessarily means defending the right to be both wrong and deeply offensive.

And he is the man who named his venture ‘Loyalists Against Democracy’ as a satire of the flag protesters’ rejection of a democratic decision, but who now says he doesn’t believe in democracy either.

And yet, he is no fool. There are thousands of poor online parodies. LAD attracted a huge audience because of its sharp edge – both in finding stories missed by established media outlets and in how it ruthlessly dissected them. Often those it exposed in the early years were indulging in grotesquely sectarian discussions – or casual suggestions of murder.

And – ironically, given the freewheeling, foul-mouthed nature of LAD – its founder’s day job is looking after the very professional social media output for a global brand.

The entire story began in the weeks after the 2012 decision not to fly the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall every day. Having moved to Belfast for work two years earlier and having “fallen in love” with the city, JP reacted viscerally against those who brought the capital to a standstill.

Initially a “throw-away comment one evening” led to “trolling” on loyalist Facebook pages under his own name and then creating LAD. Over a few weeks, others began to come on board, with “eight or nine” people having had access to the accounts at various points.

Yet, despite satirising the flag protesters’ rejection of a democratic decision, he now says: “I don’t think that democracy works. I’m a socialist. I’m OK with a totalitarian dictator, if that’s what it takes...if you look at democracy, it never really swings your way, does it?”

He goes on: “What would you have in its place? Well, let’s see what they’re doing in China or Cuba or somewhere like that. Like yeah, I’m one of those. I’ve no issue with that – that’s my politics.”

I ask whether that means that he was in fact in agreement with the people he parodied. “Of course, yes. Completely...I was in agreement with them.

“Democracy hadn’t gone their way. But they’d been lied to. it was never going to...look, there’s all this talk about Stormont having this spin doctor. If the DUP had had a spin doctor four years ago, they could have spun this in a completely different way – ‘Sinn Fein just voted to put the Union Flag on city hall’. But they didn’t – they wanted that argument, so they led people to believe that democracy wasn’t working for them.”

I ask him why, if he opposes democracy, he votes. “Because if you don’t vote then...democracy doesn’t work, but it’s the only system that there is...”

JP defines LAD as “freedom of speech in action: some people say stuff that you don’t like; people say stuff that I don’t like all the time...I try to twist it in on itself and throw it back out so that they look stupid”.

But some freedom of speech advocates were horrified at the role which the group played in the Pastor James McConnell case.

Many of LAD’s most ardent followers view the incident as its finest moment, a wholly-justified exposure of a senior Christian leader – whose church had been attended by the First Minister – who was hailing Enoch Powell as “a prophet” and savagely denouncing Islam.

When it publicised the sermon (having heard it online) – in which the pastor branded Islam “satanic” and “heathen”, while saying that he would not trust Muslims – LAD asked what appeared to be a rhetorical question: “Is it right that this kind of hate speech is allowed under the auspices of religion?”

The Public Prosecution Service soon pressed criminal charges (following a complaint by a local Muslim leader) against the 78-year-old pastor, arguing that his “unrepentant” characterisation of an entire religion had no legal protection. Ultimately, the court disagreed and said that what he had done was entirely legal.

At the time, the columnist Newton Emerson responded to some of those cheering on the group on Twitter, saying “You either believe in free speech or you don’t” and added: “Why not tackle McConnell the old-fashioned way, by countering his arguments, without a first recourse to dialling 999?”

I put it to JP that there appears to be a significant conflict in the way in which LAD approached the Pastor McConnell situation, given that both he and they were arguably operating at the extremities of what free speech permits.

“Yes, but people miss the nuance of it. Pastor McConnell stood up in his church and declared that his god was better than their god, but if you go back up the family tree you’ll see that there’s an interlinking connection and they’re all one and the same.

“So to stand there as a Christian, a follower of Christ, and to deride the religion of Islam that holds Christ in great esteem – and I’m an atheist, so I think this is hilarious – so the joke in the bunker was like ‘my sky pixie is better than your sky pixie’. It was nothing to do with what it became...”

I ask him what he made of the decision to take Pastor McConnell to court?

“That’s the law, isn’t it? So the law stated that there was a case to answer, so then the law had to be tested.”

Does that mean he supported the case being taken?

“I support the rule of law and if you’ve nothing to lose...look, let’s be honest: he made a statement that was a little bit racy and he made it in his private building to his congregation. That’s OK. But put it up on the internet and you’re fair game.

“As a leader of a congregation, he has a responsibility and a duty of care to not expose those people to stuff that may or may not be true, OK? I couldn’t sit here [and label Christians] in the same way that he labelled Muslims because I would be considered then to be anti-Christian.”

But does he believe that he should end up in court if he says something which is untrue?

“Should I be in court? I’ve struggled with that; he had been found to have broken a law [actually, that was not the case, as the court cleared him] so yes he did have to go to court but...I think it had to go to court, didn’t it?”

Pastor McConnell’s case became something of a cause celebré for free speech campaigners, with even a Muslim Imam flying in from London to testify in his defence.

JP says with emphasis: “What I didn’t enjoy was other secularists supporting him....” Why not? “Because it kind of defeats the purpose of...I don’t know. It just didn’t sit right with me. It was kind of like ‘he did say it, he did publish it and the law does state that yes I could find myself in the same situation but luckily for Pastor McConnell he has more resources than me so he was able to take the case to court...”

But, as with so much of the LAD project, I’m left confused about what he actually thinks of the case.

Later in the interview, when I ask him whether religious debate should be full and frank without the threat of prison, he appears to contradict his earlier view, saying: “in hindsight, looking back at it, it shouldn’t have been brought to court because the court case was a farce...I had no problem with what Pastor McConnell had said; it was the fact that he was saying it.”

In JP’s words, LAD has been “a documentary for social media”, brutally showing members of the public that when they post something on their public Facebook page they might as well put it on the front page of a newspaper.

But its own anonymity meant that its authors could not themselves be challenged.

LAD set out to parody some of the more unsavoury and absurd aspects of Northern Irish life. Yet, like most of us, it has plenty of its own contradictions.

• In Monday’s News Letter: LAD, NI21 and money