Red Hand Commando bid to be legalised presents as much of a challenge to unionism as it does to loyalism, writes Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson
The announcement yesterday by the Red Hand Commando (RHC) that an application had been made to Home Secretary Amber Rudd on September 5 for de-proscription under section four of the Terrorism Act 2000 is a significant transformative step that sets a marker for a process of much-needed change within loyalism.
In its statement the RHC reiterated Gusty Spence’s famous words of the combined loyalist ceasefire of 1994 about “true and abject remorse to all the innocent victims” of the conflict, before stressing that loyalists should play a full part “in moving Northern Ireland towards a more peaceful and stable society”.
The statement went on to cast a critical light on the “mindless few” who engage in criminal activities and who persist in servicing their own individual greed at the expense of communities that urgently need confidence and energy to face the challenges ahead.
Importantly, the RHC view the request for de-proscription as a response to a community requiring legitimacy and credibility that has been denied it, largely because of the accusations of criminality that dominate the image of loyalism; an image, it must be said, largely imposed by others, who prefer to insist that loyalist communities are places where thugs and intimidation are accepted as a way of life.
No doubt many, in their initial response to the RHC statement, will reach for this easy, inaccurate and damaging stereotype as an auto-response.
However, be aware that there are serious conversations taking place in loyalist organisations about what a future free from the structures of violence might look like. This has been a long time in coming, but should surely be welcomed.
Admittedly, little obvious progress has been achieved since the Good Friday Agreement and the conversations themselves have been convoluted, difficult, complex and intense. Admittedly, too, the various organisations operate at different levels of conviction over what change means and have been more or less planning for that.
Yet, given these differences, there now exists a serious opportunity for building impetus into a transformative process for loyalism.
The RHC statement is an indication of discussions which have been going on behind the scenes for some time and the UVF and UDA will, no doubt, watch reaction to the de-proscription application with interest as they conduct their own internal discussions about transformation.
The launch of the Independent Reporting Commission at the end of this month also offers another important context by which to monitor and support change, and could prove especially useful in bringing further leverage to serious transformation efforts.
There is unlikely to be much sympathy for any internal difficulties that paramilitary leaders might face – even if their presence is necessary to support positive transformation (who else is going to do it?).
But, important though the actions of leaders are, there is nevertheless a very real need to see the problem of transformation as being hindered rather than helped by middle-class unionism that continues to denigrate loyalism and any genuine attempts by its leaders to reinforce peace in communities, while offering nothing constructive in return.
Apart from a handful of individuals working to support loyalists, most push on with the myth that loyalism is simply bad and unionism is good.
In our view, the issue of where loyalism goes is not just a residue matter of conflict, but has now also become a question of class. The view that unionism is respectable and loyalism is not has reinforced the sense of loss and isolation felt by many in loyalist areas. To help build loyalist transformation we argue that an inclusive unionism is now urgently needed, where the divisions of class are addressed and where loyalism is encouraged to play a central role in the creation of a confident outlook, rather than used to reinforce wider social fears and anxieties about the future.
Indeed, we believe that the term “loyalism” has become so loaded with negative connotations it should be replaced by “working-class unionism” to end the ridiculous superiority and inferiority distinction between unionism and loyalism that exists.
Though the progress of republicanism remains a concern for many loyalists, the real difficulty comes from loyalism not envisioning a path of change that confronts the predicament it faces. And defining this predicament is sure to prove evasive all the time the Union remains the single priority.
The reason for this is fairly simple: you cannot make a convincing case for change when the situation you are most concerned about is already to your advantage. Progress has to be built on agreement about what is missing, or lacking, and working to try and overcome that absence.
For a community to be preoccupied with preserving what they have at all costs risks becoming a form of social hypochondria, with fear stifling energy and reducing challenges to a simple “us-and-them” formula.
What is clear more generally is that the unionist psychology is not well equipped to think in terms of change, or difference, because historically its main concern has been preservation.
The excitement of possibility that existed at the time of the Good Friday Agreement has dissipated into black and white politics where crude win-lose situations become the main reference point for political understanding. But this is not conducive to a stable, diverse and confident society.
To build transformation, loyalism and unionism together must address the areas of deficit which inhibit aspiration and confidence. Central to this is the issue of educational under-achievement, which in loyalist communities is acute. Without achieving basic national standards of education, the possibilities for development and aspiration become limited.
But education is not just a problem confined to schools. It comes from the inability to see the value in a culture of education that includes everyone and where creativity, diversity and imagination start to take precedent over reactive attitudes to issues of the day.
As confidence grows, so does the willingness to engage in political and social debates, and the more vibrant and interesting society becomes as a result.
Contrary to the popular view, there are a number of individuals who belong to, or remain connected with, loyalist paramilitary organisations that are intelligent, articulate, humorous and imaginative.
They understand the potential of the influence they might have to advance transformation, but they need external assistance to help shape the conditions for that change to take hold as well.
There is much good work going on at community level, but it lacks convergence and it is not attached to a broader strategic plan about where things might – or should – be in 10 or 20 years’ time.
The Sinn Fein project has a dynamic to it and that dynamic brings emotive appeal.
The dynamic is about working to bring about a united Ireland. Looking at unionism, it is hard to identify a dynamic at all and that means it is not much of an attractive proposition.
What should middle and working-class unionism do to encourage external interest and support for its development?
It is important to remember that Sinn Fein saw the need for this early on, when its leaders sought to use those such as Brendan Duddy, Fr Alec Reid, John Hume, Irish-America and the Irish and British Governments to help facilitate the conditions where the advantages of change could be more convincingly presented.
Both unionism and loyalism have been weak on this front, preferring to look inwards and viewing external influence with suspicion.
A considerable number of loyalist leaders now see the value of working with external players to help make the case for change.
They realise that the media stereotype of criminality (and, indeed, criminality itself) must be confronted, although the latter is surely more a policing matter, and they acknowledge that honest and direct discussion has to be ongoing in relation to an emerging strategic vision.
Of course, there should be no underestimating how those opposed to transformation will try to disrupt it where they can, striving to protect personal fiefdoms and control.
But over time they will become ostracised as communities increasingly come to see that their actions are destroying the badly needed confidence, aspiration and diversity that will allow working-class unionism to thrive and play a full and positive role in the development and progress of Northern Ireland as a whole.
However the Home Secretary responds to the RHC request for de-proscription, it is clear that the application is a gesture of seriousness and a determination to advance the case of loyalism beyond the box that much of unionism and others wants it to stay in.
The RHC request presents a challenge to unionism as much as it does loyalism and how the two respond together will show us whether a new inclusive unionism is possible, or whether the old tired responses of “us-and-them” show no sign of waning.
Dr Graham Spencer is Reader in Social and Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth. Rev Chris Hudson of All-Souls Church in Belfast mediated between the UVF and the Dublin government during the early stages of the peace process