Politically and culturally, the Easter celebrations traditionally for republicanism mark the commemoration of the doomed Dublin Rising in 1916 and for the Protestant Loyal Orders, they mark the official start of the annual Marching Season.
But this Easter Monday 2021 hopefully marks the launch of a new ideology for Loyalism in Northern Ireland, which I have entitled Revolutionary Loyalism.
Hopefully, it will start a debate among the pro-Union community as to what Loyalists are ‘loyal’ to. Among the nationalist community, it will also spark a debate as to what they will have to both compromise with, and accommodate politically if its vision of Irish unity is ever to become a living reality.
In writing any such political ideology, I have to work on the basis that the concept will be shot down from its inception - both from inside Loyalism and from outside Loyalism. For many on this island and beyond, ‘thinking outside the box’ is a non-starter.
From the outset, there is a massive pitfall I must avoid. As a born again Christian theologically, mention any aspect of my Biblical faith in Revolutionary Loyalism, and I will be instantly branded ‘yet another demagogue’.
I recall the flak I took in 2014 when I published my ebook on my new ideology for Irish republicanism entitled ‘An Saise Glas: The Green Sash: The Road to National Republicanism.’
National Republicanism was intended to be a new, non-violent ideology for Republicanism with strong Christian overtones. However, the flak came because many equated Christianity with clerical sex abuse and paedophile priests. There have also been the historic tensions, especially throughout the 20th century, between the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland and Irish Republicanism.
Similarly, mention Christianity and Loyalism in the same sentence and it immediately conjures up images of firebrand religious sermons and speeches which inspired many young Loyalists to commit acts of terrorism and spend years languishing in prisons.
Likewise, mention the concept of ‘Loyalism’ in 2021 and it also throws up the perception of drug dealing gangsters who terrorise their communities for financial gain under the banner of supposedly ‘on ceasefire’ terror gangs. In short, for many in the pro-Union community, ‘Loyalism’ has become a dirty word synonymous with Mafia-style crime.
Revolutionary Loyalism, by its very nature, challenges those who call themselves ‘Loyalists’ to seriously ask themselves - what are they loyal to?
It is only fair that I ask the same question of myself. In 2015, I outlined these views in an article for the website Long Kesh Inside Out.
On numerous occasions, I have also outlined my ideology for the pro-Union community as a way forward, known as Revolutionary Unionism, as it seeks to challenge my fellow Unionists to ‘think outside the box’, especially now when the concept of a so-called ‘shared island’ is very much on political lips.
Essentially, can someone from the pro-Union community - or a Unionist - also call themselves a Loyalist, or is there a key difference between being a Unionist and being a Loyalist, in much the same way as there is a clear difference between being a constitutional moderate nationalist and being a militant republican socialist?
Is it too sweeping a perception to enter the class structure into this defining process, namely there is a perception that most people who call themselves Unionist are from the middle and upper classes of the pro-Union community, and most people who define themselves as Loyalist are from a working class background.
Does being a Loyalist simply mean you come from a working class housing estate, play in a flute band, support Glasgow Rangers Football Club, and the highlight of your year is getting drunk at Eleventh Night bonfires before walking off your hangovers at the Twelfth demonstrations the following day or basking in the sunshine at the traditional Sham Fight at Scarva on the 13th?
Tragically, for many this is the perception of what being a Loyalist entails. Perhaps for some, this is an enjoyable lifestyle.
Perhaps a key task of Revolutionary Loyalism is to shatter this childish image; to give Loyalism purpose; a radical identity; a reason to be proud to call oneself a Loyalist.
Whilst my original ideology of Revolutionary Unionism was a positive and pro-active way forward for the pro-Union community, it was still open to the criticism that given my personal Ulster Unionist Party family background, I had merely revamped the middle class ‘Fur Coat Brigade’ concept of Unionism.
Revolutionary Loyalism will have a primary aim to bridge that class barrier between all classes in the pro-Union community, a role which was previously done by the Orange Order.
Before the Troubles erupted, in an Orange Lodge meeting, the upper class businessman could sit with the working class labourer and call each other ‘brother’ as political equals.
The myth must be eliminated that those who call themselves Loyalist are viewed as second class Unionists. A key practical aim of my original Revolutionary Unionism was the establishment of a single pro-Union party, simply called The Unionist Party to represent all shades of pro-Union thinking across the entire island of Ireland.
However, given the realities of the class structure within the pro-Union community, should that movement now be renamed The Unionist and Loyalist Party?
Perhaps we need to look at the origins of this term ‘Loyalist’ to fully understand why Revolutionary Loyalism should be taken seriously. The term seems to have been initially muttered around the time of the Home Rule crisis in Ireland in the early 20th century.
The middle class and upper class dominated Ulster Unionist Council had been founded in 1905, but needed political foot soldiers to give it strong clout. So the UUC emphasised the role of the Unionist Clubs network to enlist the support and listen to the voices of pro-Union working class folk.
The original Ulster Volunteer Force of 1912 had the motto ‘For God and Ulster’, as the type of Ireland then which Home Rule would usher in would be dominated theologically by the Roman Catholic Church and the overwhelming majority of Unionists at that time came from the Protestant denominations.
When the Troubles brewed up in the 1960s, back came a revamped UVF with the same motto, but as a terrorist group, not the militia of 1912. But was it a case that Right-wing middle class Unionists ‘made the balls’ and the working class Loyalists ‘fired them’ during the Troubles?
In short, how much Loyalist terror activity during the Troubles had its origins in evangelical and fundamentalist Christian preaching? Can we get a better understanding of Loyalism by looking at the mottos of the Loyalist terror gangs?
The Ulster Defence Association took the Latin phrase ‘Quis Separabit’ (Who Will Separate Us?) as its motto.
When the more militant Ulster Freedom Fighters terror gang was formed in 1973, its Latin motto was ‘Feriens Tego’: (Striking I Defend).
Flags of the so-called Ulster Defence Union carried the emblems and mottos of both the UDA and UFF.
The Red Hand Commando terror group opted for an Irish language motto: ‘Lamh-Derg-Abu’ - ‘Red Hand To Victory.’
When the late Billy Wright formed his breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force after the Combined Loyalist Military Command ceasefire of 1994, his LVF flag carried the slogans in English - ‘Lead The Way: In Defence Of Our Heritage And Culture.’
During the 1980s, the Loyalist vigilante groups, Ulster Third Force and Ulster Resistance, also viewed themselves as ‘defence’ movements.
Does this mean that Loyalism is merely a reactionary or defensive set of beliefs? Or put crudely, being a Loyalist means you simply want to defend your part of this island from Irish unity?
As the Troubles progressed and more Loyalists were jailed for terrorist offences, a bitterness evolved between working class Loyalists and some of the Christian Protestant denominations.
Is this why political concepts such as Hard Left socialism, Marxism and even communism gained ground within the Loyalist terror groups, and especially among their political movements? At one time, some Christian fundamentalists would have referred to the Progressive Unionist Party - the party which closely represented the views of the UVF and Red Hand Commando - as ‘the Shankill Soviet’.
Did working class Loyalism believe that some in the Protestant Churches were adopting a ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ approach to working class Loyalism, namely ‘we will lead them up the hill with our Christian rhetoric, but if they get caught in acts of terror, we will disown them as sinners bound for hell’?
If this was the perception among Loyalists, it is little wonder many Loyalists turned their backs on the Churches, whom they viewed as modern day Pharisees.
So where does this leave Revolutionary Loyalism as a way forward? From the outset, it must be clearly emphasised that this ideology is purely democratic. Its power is in mobilisation at the ballot box, never the barrel of a gun.
Put bluntly, Revolutionary Loyalism’s first loyalty is to the democratic principle of the ballot box. Immediately, this will spark the question - what happens if the pro-Union community would lose a future border poll, and Northern Ireland votes to leave the United Kingdom?
Revolutionary Loyalists cannot rely on the preconception that working class republicans in Belfast or South Armagh would be prepared to give up their generous UK benefit system and UK National Health Service for the costly living standards of an Irish Republic - especially the fees for appointments at the doctor or dentist in Southern Ireland.
In such a scenario, Revolutionary Loyalism would have to accept the will of the people of Northern Ireland and campaign for an Independent Ulster, no matter how small that piece of independent ‘turf’ might be.
However, Revolutionary Loyalism’s primary goal is to maintain the Union by ensuring that everyone who calls themselves a Loyalist voter is both registered to vote and votes on polling day.
You need only examine the percentage turnout in supposedly Unionist constituencies to see the low voter numbers.
In this opening chapter, Revolutionary Loyalism seeks to challenge Loyalists as to what precisely they are loyal to - a Union, set of laws, a Parliament at Stormont or Westminster, an Orange Lodge, a sporting team, a flute band, a bonfire location, a flag, the Royal family, a political party or pressure group? What?
Revolutionary Loyalism is about being pro-active and forward-thinking in your political views; it is about selling the merits of ‘putting people first’, whether they be pupils, patients or pensioners. It is about active democratic mobilisation of your local community; it is about championing the cause of UK unity among the pro-Union classes.
In next week’s chapter, I will examine how Revolutionary Loyalism will redefine its relationship with the Christian Churches, not just within Northern Ireland, but right across the entire island.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
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