While much has been penned in recent weeks concerning the meaning of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) ‘warning’ about the main loyalist paramilitaries withdrawing support for the Good Friday Agreement, while stressing that opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol should be “peaceful and democratic”, I still fear that many could be misreading the mood of that general loyalist community.
I equally fully realise that in examining the potential of a loyalist terrorist backlash against the Protocol, I could myself ethically as a journalist be accused of scaremongering and ‘egging the pudding’, given my own well-known hard-line pro-Brexit views.
I will leave my heart-felt case for Southern Ireland leaving the European Union under Irexit for another day!
However, those colleagues who know me, also recognise that during my 43 years in journalism, I have not been afraid to address any potential ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to Irish politics.
My aim in journalistically addressing the issue of potential loyalist violence is to offer democratic alternatives for working class loyalism so that the so-called ‘elephant’ is removed from the room.
To do so, it will be necessary for me as a journalist to stopping behaving like a political ostrich and ‘take my head out of the sand’ and face realities.
In 1994, when I formed my political think tank, the Revolutionary Unionist Convention, aimed at developing the ideology of Revolutionary Unionism (namely getting my fellow Unionists to think on an all-island basis), the long-term goal was to bring about a political fusion between middle class Unionism and working class loyalism in a completely non-violent arena.
The loophole in Revolutionary Unionism as an ideology is that it is still largely a middle class agenda. The ideological reality is that I do not want Revolutionary Unionism to become a 21st century version of the Unionist ‘Fur Coat Brigade’.
In short, what is needed is a new workable ideology for loyalism. Hence, in the coming weeks, I will be unveiling on The Pensive Quill the elements of what I will call Revolutionary Loyalism - a radical working class set of beliefs which hopefully will bridge the gulf which now exists between modern day Unionist parties and loyalism.
From the outset, the aim of Revolutionary Loyalism will not be to establish yet another pro-Union party.
I am also acutely aware that I may fuel the very topic I am seeking to investigate, expose or analyse. It was a thought which constantly troubled me during my investigations into the activities of the Far Right in Northern Ireland.
With racism such an emotive topic in the media, when I look back on the articles I had published in the Belfast News Letter, the Irish Daily Star and Searchlight magazine, ethically was I actually fuelling the very evil I sought to analyse and expose?
For the Far Right, any publicity is good publicity. So can the same ethical dilemma be posed of me in my analysis of militant loyalism?
The same ethical dilemma faced me in the late 1980s when I began investigating allegations of collusion between British security forces and loyalist death squads. I was emphatically told by colleagues and sources not to pursue that topic. I did and paid the price.
As I have mentioned in a previous article on the subject of violent loyalism, what concerns me is that people are basing their judgement of loyalism’s capabilities to mount a terror campaign against the Protocol based on those who ran the terror gangs at the time of the original Combined Loyalist Military Command ceasefires of 1994.
A lot of water has flowed under the political bridges since 1994. Now in 2021, ironically the centenary year of the founding of Northern Ireland, Unionism as an ideology electorally finds itself in a minority if we take the past three elections in Northern Ireland into consideration.
I grew up in the heartland of Bannside which became the late Rev Ian Paisley’s Stormont seat in 1970. Bannside was also part of the wider North Antrim Westminster constituency, the Commons seat which Paisley senior captured from the Ulster Unionists in 1970.
His success was a fusion of two, then voiceless, sections of the pro-Union community - working class Protestants and Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists. If ever there was a political shotgun marriage, this was it - but it worked for Paisleyism!
When Paisley senior launched his Protestant Unionist movement in Bannside and North Antrim, The Unionist Party was dominated by the so-called ‘Fur Coat Brigade’ of middle and upper class Protestants. ‘Big House’ Unionists and wealthy farming Unionists were the controlling factions in the Unionist Party in that region - certainly not the working class Protestants who lived in the various urban and rural housing estates. Many of those working class estates didn’t even have inside toilets at that time.
In those days, The Unionist Party still held its ‘public’ meetings in Orange Halls, but admission to many of these meetings was by ticket only.
During my time studying part-time at Queen’s University in the 1990s, I recall interviewing a local North Antrim Paisleyite activist who told me how he disrupted meetings of The Unionist Party.
He said they were supplied with the invitation tickets by upper and middle class members of the Party worried by Terence O’Neill and later James Chichester-Clark’s liberalising policies. As a working class loyalist activist, there was no way he could gain access to The Unionist Party’s meetings without the help of those upper and middle class ‘Fur Coat Brigade’ sympathisers within the Party.
The source left me in no doubt that there was a link between middle class Unionism and working class loyalism. The long-term results of the loyalist campaign was to drive the ‘Fur Coat Brigade’ out of the Orange Halls and out of Unionist Party activity.
I simply pose the question, given the unrest in present day loyalism over the Protocol, could the same situation arise again - namely, that middle class Unionists could get working class loyalists to create political mayhem?
More importantly, what should middle class Unionism do to keep the working class loyalist pot from boiling over given those warnings from the LCC? In short, how do we make this ‘elephant in the room’ either ‘leave the room’ or ‘sit and behave itself’? Like it or not, the thorny issue of loyalist resentment over the Protocol must be practically addressed.
The answer is to be found in how middle and upper class Unionism mobilised the Protestant working class at the turn of the 20th century as the anti-Home Rule movement gathered momentum. The upper and middle class Protestants formed a network of Unionist Clubs, mainly across Ulster, where working class Protestants from the pro-Union community could air their grievances vocally about Home Rule.
Ironically, it was the messages coming from these working class meetings which prompted Carson and Craig as the main leaders of the Unionist community that an armed militia - the original Ulster Volunteer Force - was needed in the event of Home Rule being imposed on Ireland.
The same strategy was employed in 1985 by middle class Unionism in the aftermath of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That strategy spawned the network of the Ulster Clubs movement, fronted by then leading Portadown Orange District officer Alan Wright, whom I interviewed for the Belfast News Letter about the role of the Clubs.
In short, if the supposed unity being demonstrated by the various Unionist parties in their opposition to the Protocol is to be maintained, then working class loyalists need to have a clear voice, and by working class loyalists, that does not simply mean those who would be aligned to the various paramilitary groups represented by the LCC.
In a previous article, I noted the success of the pressure group Ulster Vanguard before it decided to become a political party. The current Unionist leaderships of the various parties now need to establish a network of revamped Unionist Clubs across Northern Ireland and the Southern Irish border counties to allow working class loyalists to voice their concerns.
Unionism needs not only to speak with one voice, it also needs to move forward in step. Otherwise a situation will emerge whereby working class loyalists ask - which Unionist party, leader or faction actually speaks for the Union?
If the middle class Unionist leadership does not accurately feel the pulse of working class loyalism, that creates a gap which can be filled by militants.
Worse still, if the “peaceful and democratic” Unionist Clubs network is not established, working class loyalists can get the false impression they are a ‘voiceless community’ as sections of the Catholic community felt in 1968 and 1969 … and we all know how that ended up.
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at http://radio.garden/listen/sunshine-104-9fm/tBZsuX1o