I’ve rarely heard such a lack of political sensitivity as Jim Wilson telling Stephen Nolan that, in applying to the British government to be deproscribed, the Red Hand Commando wants their ‘place in the sun’.
What a disturbing way to put it.
But at the same time, Wilson’s interview on the Nolan Show tells us so much about where loyalism is at in 2017. Still grasping for a political voice, still resentful of their exclusion from big house unionism, still frustrated that they can’t seem to access the kind of social and political legitimacy that they perceive republicans to have accessed.
In the mid 2000s, when I was lecturing in Sociology at QUB, I did some work with the RHC and UVF around their efforts to transition from paramilitarism to peace. Billy Mitchell (no relation), a former UVF commander and PUP strategist, who died in 2006, had invited me to spend some time looking into their work as he’d read some stuff I’d written on Protestantism and liked it.
A few years of hanging around with ex-prisoners, going to loyalist meetings, interviewing in the community, observing their interactions with OFMDFM (for whom I co-wrote an internal report, some of the research methods/findings from which are here), I learned a few things…
Loyalism craves political legitimacy. Most loyalists working in conflict transformation groups that I met, did not seek to excuse their violence during the Troubles, at least not to me. In fact many privately expressed regret. Instead, their real motive was to be understood as combatants who are on a journey from war to peace, and to be given some credit for the ways they were trying to move forward. Because this was, and is, a context where many unionists talk to loyalists in private, yet wash their hands of them in public. Where so much of what they do and say is mocked as the rantings of knuckle dragging thugs and fleggers. And it is a context where they haven’t been able to find a place in the political mainstream, often because of their own limitations, of which more below…
Calling this desire for legitimacy a ‘place in the sun’ is horrendous, utterly offensive to victims. I’m out of the loop now, so I can’t claim to know what the RHC’s sentiments in saying this, or applying for deproscription, really are. But what I heard in Wilson’s interview was the familiar frustration that whilst many loyalists have been working for positive change in their areas for a long time now, they feel that few people either notice or care.
To be specific about what I mean by positive change… I spent time in restorative justice programmes which tried to replace punishment beatings with community-based alternatives. Loyalist conflict transformation groups liaised between paramilitaries, youth workers, the PSNI and Probation Board to facilitate this. I went to anti-racism seminars that they ran on loyalist estates. I watched paramilitary bosses give powerpoint presentations to the rank and file about how the war was over, and the ways in which they needed to transition into peaceful politics and community work. They helped get kids get out of paramilitary groups. I saw loyalists’ close relationships with republican ex-prisoners, who they were in regular contact with, and indeed which peace was partly built on. Their mobiles would ring constantly, often having to leave to break up a fight at the interface, or to talk sense into some kid or other.
Just to be clear, I am talking about loyalist conflict transformation groups here, rather than paramilitary groups per se. These are ex-prisoner and community organisations who have links to, and influence with, loyalist paramilitaries. It’s a fine line, and I don’t think the difference is always clear cut. But it is a distinction worth making, because loyalist conflict transformation groups are aiming for a very different modus operandi (professionalised reconciliation workers, liaising with statutory bodies, supportive of the peace and political process) than the paramilitaries (many of whom are actively involved in crime and intimidation, operating totally outside the system). In a peaceful society, we wouldn’t need these kind of intermediaries. But coming out of conflict, these are jobs that need doing, and it’s fair to say that loyalist conflict transformation groups have been effective precisely because of their paramilitary connections.
In the mid-2000s there was little funding for this work, and loyalist conflict transformation groups would string out bits and scraps of grants, often not taking home a wage. The funding situation has changed now, notably with the UDA and Charter NI. But whilst loyalist groups want their work to be sustainable, I didn’t perceive the people I spent time with to be motivated by financial rewards. It was some mainstream recognition they were after. For people to believe that they could actually effect change. Like they saw Sinn Féin doing. They looked at demobilisation and reconciliation processes in other post-conflict societies, and tried to carve out a similar role for themselves in Northern Ireland.
Did they always succeed? Clearly not. Loyalist paramilitarism continues, and, according to a 2015 PSNI report, is still recruiting. Drug-dealing continues. Punishment beatings have declined but not stopped. Intimidation is still rife. Racism not only continues, but has mutated within loyalism in complex ways, almost in a Trump-like anti-migrant isolationism. Riots still happen at interfaces. But, in my experience, loyalists didn’t ever stop showing up for the work.
So why hasn’t their work paid off more? Why are they still on the fringes of political relevance, puzzling over how to be taken seriously?
Partly it’s their own fault. The way loyalists express their objectives is often jarring. This is not to deny the articulate, analytical ways that many loyalists like David Ervine and Billy Mitchell expressed their politics. But as a whole, there is a tendency to use blunt, stark language, an indisposition or inability to sugar coat and spin. This is not always a bad thing. But it has meant that loyalists have struggled to play the wider political game, with it’s nuanced massaging of words and phrases, to bring people along with the broader journey. And because they have never been able to sell their politics to a wider audience or indeed to voters, they often speak in the voice of angry, beleaguered outsiders. A vicious circle which alienates people outside loyalism even further.
And so they have remained pariahs. They have a sense of victimhood and exclusion that outsiders find incredulous. But which makes sense to a bunch of people whose selfunderstanding is that they took to violence in their teens to protect their communities from the IRA. That they were used as muscle and then sold down the river by the unionist establishment. That their communities have lacked, and still lack, the educational resources to find better solutions to their problems. And all of this in the context of a deeply polarised society in Northern Ireland, where everyone is looking over their shoulder to check how much themmuns are getting. Never mind the wider context of late capitalism where sink estates are generally left to go ahead and sink, while the rest of society holds its nose. Loyalists feel they’re trying to move beyond all this, and that they need help to do so.
But there are further challenges to loyalist conflict transformation groups’ legitimacy. Principally, because they have not yet managed to get violent loyalist paramilitarism under control. While the RHC is small, has an older membership, and may not have been active recently, the same is not true of the UVF and UDA. People are still scared of them, and with good reason. People are afraid to complain about flags and bonfires, and feel in many cases that they have to accept loyalist rule in their area, or else…
In the mid 2000s, I was constantly frustrated with how slowly and painfully the progressive message from the PUP and UVF leadership filtered down the ranks, if at all. In typical Protestant fashion, there were splits and splinters and people who would not come along with the wider project. They lacked the focus and discipline of the republican movement. And this wheel is still spinning. A loyalist leadership with one version of their civic role, versus paramilitary battalions and individuals who couldn’t care less and do what they want.
As I’ve followed the progress of loyalist peace-building over the 2010s – from afar this time – I’ve also been consistently dismayed by the pull towards conservatism and the constant own goals. As a result, articulate, progressive spokespeople like Dawn Purvis and Sophie Long have been unable to keep championing the wider project. Not least because whilst loyalist groups were initially champions of left-wing and even feminist ideas, regressive and misogynist tendencies often bubble to the surface.
Whether this means we should then dismiss the whole concept of loyalist conflict transformation groups, I don’t know. What are they for now, if not to bring people beyond conflict? How long does ‘post conflict transition’ last – is 19 years enough? Will we still be here in 49 years? But at the same time, if they’re open to scrutiny, take a clear stance against criminality, support the political process and some people simply won’t come along, are they just to be written out? Should they become ‘normal’ and assimilate into youth and community services? Maybe. But could they then reach who they need to reach? Could wider unionism or the DUP help with this work instead? I don’t think they are equipped to deal with grittiness, nor have they shown much of an interest to date. More than this, unionist parties have often whipped up sectarian tensions for electoral gain, rather than seeking to calm them.
Do I think the RHC should be legalised? Hell no! It’s 2017 and it’s a Commando! But then again, do I think that the DUP and Sinn Féin are also picking over the bones of the conflict rather than imagining new and transformative ways forward? Absolutely. The RHC cannot be singled out for using the language and structures of the past to grasp at meaning in the present. I am no fan of bonfires and flags. But airbrushing them out, in the context of continuing deep division, is impossible. Saying thanks very much, now please go away, would leave a gaping hole in struggling loyalist areas. And I don’t want to imagine what might fill this hole instead…
Which keeps me coming back to the same question… If not loyalists, who else is going to do this job? Who else cares about loyalist estates, the hoods and the fleggers? Who else will be able to tell the ceasefire soldiers why paramilitarism is not all it’s cracked up to be? Who else is going to be able to call out racism in a way that loyalist communities have ears to hear? Who else can offer a narrative of loyalist post-conflict transition? I have more questions than answers. All I know is that when I was a regular in loyalist areas in the mid 2000s, I didn’t see anybody else signing up for the job.
Claire Mitchell is a freelance writer. Formerly senior lecturer in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. She is a member of the Green Party of Northern Ireland, but all views are her own. More at www.clairemitchell.net