A community coming to terms with a new reality


Stephen Colbert

THE predicted long, hot summer of Loyalist violence in the North of Ireland has not materialised. The conditions were there—the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland, the perceived threat posed by Brexit to the Union, the easing of Covid-19 restrictions and good weather.  A potential tinderbox. 

This year’s 12th of July parades—usually the spark for violence—took place without serious incident.  Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the Orange Order held 500 smaller, local walks rather than the usual 18 large parades. While there was talk during the run up to the ‘Twelfth’ of community tensions turning into street violence the parades were mostly sombre if not a little subdued. 

Has the appetite for violence waned? Has a new post-conflict generation turned its back on the extremists?  Or is something else happening to Unionist and Loyalist identity?

The usual procession of talking heads and soapbox pundits emerged to talk about how activities around the Twelfth are integral parts of their identity and any interference with them would be an attack on their very Britishness. Undoubtedly, the bonfires on the night of the 11th and the Orange walks on the 12th are mainstays of the Unionist and Loyalist calendar. However, the spokespeople become less forthright when discussing the burning of effigies of Nationalist politicians and the Irish tricolour on the bonfires.

In recent years, the appearance of a Ku Klux Klan flag flying over Loyalist East Belfast added to the debate about the meaning and importance of the parades, flags, symbols and emblems in the North of Ireland. As Sinn Féin’s electoral success continues to grow on both sides of the border sections of the Loyalist community feel increasingly voiceless and are seeking to broaden their allegiances with far-right groups.

Iconic evidence of Sinn Féin’s influence is visible in Belfast where it has become the largest political party and has held—along with other Irish Nationalists—the mayoralty on a number of occasions. One of the Nationalists’ strategies is to ‘green’ those sections of civil society once deemed to be Unionist and Protestant by birthright. In 2012, Nationalists on Belfast City Council succeeded in significantly reducing the number of days the Union Jack flies from Belfast City Hall. And, while it has not replaced it with the Irish tricolour, it has sent out a message that Unionist and Protestant dominance is at an end. This was momentous.

An initial response to this saw a hardcore group of loyalist protestors maintaining a visible presence on a roundabout in a busy section of Belfast. Dubbed the ‘flag protest’ it temporarily became a touchstone for many who feel alienated by having to share power with Nationalists and Catholics. However, it petered out without gathering the mass support it predicted.

Was this failed protest a single event response to the decision to reduce the number of times the union flag is flown over Belfast City Hall or did it signal a deeper malaise specifically within the working class Loyalist communities where most militants originate?

Growing up Protestant and loyal
There are two dominant traditions in Unionist political culture—the mainstream Democratic Unionist and Ulster Unionist parties on one hand and secular, working-class Loyalism on the other. In the latter, growing up Protestant and loyal was an expression of civic culture. They saw themselves aligned with the shipbuilders of Clydeside, Tyneside and Liverpool. However, these places rarely viewed them as brethren. Fathers and sons worked the same jobs, church attendance remained higher than the rest of Britain, family life was central and community ties were strong. Civic pride was important for Protestants, thus the decline of traditional trades and industries starting in the 1980s hit the community’s collective self-esteem hard.

Protestant working-class estates were becoming ‘sink estates’ characterised by unemployment, lack of aspiration, poverty and the breakdown of the family as a unit. They became further disconnected from the British working-class as it too fragmented as traditional industry was replaced by a service sector.

As Unionist and Protestant hegemony slowly dissolves, it seeks to reproduce cultural markers such as the ‘flag protest’ as a reminder of the need for cultural cohesiveness and solidarity in the face of what they see as the threat of Irish unity and British state-inspired betrayal. This social fatalism aligned with the loss of positive role models makes paramilitarism an attractive option for anyone seeking social status and validation.

Purpose of Orange walks
In the North of Ireland flags, emblems and parades are symbols of the distribution of power, of communal strength and local dominance. Since the Good Friday Agreement, there has been a marked increase in the number of parades with Protestant parades outnumbering Nationalist ones by a factor of nine to one. Socialisation takes place at band meetings and parades and a collective identity is forged perhaps replacing or bolstering that which was weakened because of the decline in traditional working-class roles. In the process of socialisation, socio-cultural conformity and homogeneity is assumed.

An imagined heritage is constructed. Each community’s identity is projected onto a symbolic field, which in turn constitutes the real battlefield. Symbols of Orange walks exemplify the dominant position of the Protestant community and although—pre-Covid-19—the number of parades are increasing, Unionists and Loyalists feel their parading traditions are undermined by the need to re-route and consult Nationalists.

Threat of exclusion
The North of Ireland is small and divided people live very close to each other. The psycho-emotional factors from these divisions fed the conflict. The threat of the ‘other’ ensures loyalty to an allegiance. The conflict there has largely been a working-class conflict fuelled by economic factors such as high unemployment. High unemployment enabled violence—it made people available and it instilled a sense of grievance.

When individuals suffer from low self-esteem, they tend to develop a negative identity. The individual can turn to maladaptive groups—gangs, criminality, and terrorism—to try to regain lost self-esteem.

Loyalists are reluctant partners in the Peace Process. Their identity is unique—the ‘honest Ulsterman’ separated from Irish, but also British society. They are not able to evolve from their cultural points of reference. When such groups are placed under political, economic, ecological or military stress, they can become malicious. They continue to be a threat. The exoticism of Loyalism promotes conflict as fashion. Unable to mourn the passing of their ways of life they have become stuck and now see themselves as victims.

Conclusion or conflict resolution
Protracted social conflict is about needs, not interests. Conflict resolution needs to meet the needs of the individual first. All the participants have legitimate needs that must be satisfied in order to resolve the conflict.

Unionism sees the parades as an expression of their civil rights, a celebration of their culture and a confirmation of their constitutional status. Nationalists regard the same parades as triumphalism and reminders of their second-class status.

Dividing lines
Northern Ireland is celebrating its centenary this year.  One hundred years ago, no one in Ireland wanted partition. Unionists wanted the entire island to remain with Britain. Nationalists initially had not talked of independence, but a form of devolution and the return of the Irish Parliament abolished in 1801. Unionists fought hard against this moderate measure and were the first to threaten armed resistance ironically importing arms from Germany. Northern Ireland was born amid heightened violence and that sense of siege has never gone away.

At its foundation in 1921, it had a large and aggrieved Catholic minority who identified as Irish, living cheek by jowl with an unsettled and insecure Unionist, Protestant majority who considered them ‘disloyal.’  Catholics were systematically discriminated against and became an underclass until recently. A Catholic middle-class has emerged, transforming once Unionist and Protestant strongholds such as South Belfast. The sight of Catholics holding important positions has unsettled some middle and working-class Protestants. Their collective sense of superiority has diminished as their dominance wanes.

Today the Irish Republic is a forward looking, economically successful, popular country. This adds further to Unionist nervousness because they can no longer peddle the racist stereotypes of a feckless, backward Republic.

What now?
What now for Unionism and Loyalism? John Hume believed that the border was in people’s minds and the physical one would disappear when that was changed. Nationalists have always tried to accommodate Unionists. The Irish tricolour was designed as a flag of peace recognising the status of the island’s Protestant tradition. The Sunningdale power sharing agreement of 1973, the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) the Good Friday Agreement of 1999 and the subsequent Peace Process all contained substantial measures to accommodate Unionist and Loyalist fears.  British-Ulster said ‘no’ to each of these moderate attempts to bring about peace and equality.

The North of Ireland has changed. There is no longer a Unionist majority and while Unionists and Loyalists continue to shout ‘no,’ they have become accustomed to the new situation and have been working the deal. There is hope.

Stephen Colbert is a lecturer at New College Lanarkshire