William Ennis–who is becoming a frequent–and welcome contributor to these pages, is a mature student and a Progressive Unionist Party activist.
Novosel: My Thoughts
I first heard of Professor Tony Novosel in 2011 when he was invited to grace the lectern at the PUP’s annual conference. He cut an intriguing figure. A thoroughly polite gentleman with a softly spoken American accent, the speech he delivered that Saturday afternoon grabbed me. It’s always pleasant to hear a Loyalist voice in an alternative accent to the Ulster twang, his enthusiasm for deep-rooted and genuine Loyalism was as heart felt as any other in the room.
This was my first party conference and not having been able to trade shifts with any of my work colleagues I had arrived mid proceedings and in the distinctly un-classy garb of my warehouse work clobber (‘well we are a working class party after all’, was my excuse, and I was sticking to it!). After what had been a bruising year for the party with a disappointing election campaign Professor Novosel’s address proved to be quite the tonic. What unfolded into a superb conference, complete with the unveiling of a new party leader, became a refreshing turning of the page. Our new chapter had begun and the feeling from that afternoon was so positive I can still summon it. We had embarked upon a new chapter, and it was time to get scribbling.
When a year or so later I heard that Professor Novosel had published a book on the history of the conflict through the perspective of Loyalist’s the anticipation was gripping. I then heard its title, Northern Irelands lost opportunity, the frustrated promise of political Loyalism and realised that reading this book was barely optional.
I am, of course, a civilian Loyalist. I was not in the trenches, as it were, with men such as Ervine and Hutchinson, and so the desire to build an understanding of what these men went through was, and remains, a fundamental one.
I read Professor Novosel’s book, and here are my thoughts…
Have you ever been in a room during a fierce argument between two or more people? Fingers pointing, blood pressures sky high, voices screaming at a level hazardous to the eardrums? Does conflict not often resemble this? The reason such arguments seldom get resolved is because neither, much less both sides of the argument get heard. I understood this book from the very first paragraph as the author deploying a megaphone and exclaiming… “Everyone else, shut up! Let’s hear what Loyalism has to say!” The value of this alone is immeasurable. To understand this merely walk into your local Waterstones or WH Smith and observe wall after wall devoted to the Easter rising, Dan Breen, Mick Collins, De Valera, Wolf Tone, Napper-Tandy, Joy-McCracken, Drennan, Gerry Adams, and that unspeakable work of Satan that is virtually anything British. Those who are Pro-Union British barely exist, and those of us who are working-class and Pro-Union British simply do not. We are a fly never to be allowed into the ointment that is the romantic Republican narrative. With this in mind, the very undertaking of this project by Prof’ Novosel is significant and I don’t consider this to simplistic a point to make. Much like the working-class Loyalist Hugh Smyth becoming Lord Mayor of Belfast the significance doesn’t lie in his excellent execution of the office, but in the fact that the appointment happened at all.
The book exposed me to viewpoints I had not been aware of. Gusty Spence’s piercing 1977 Remembrance Day speech to his incarcerated troops in which Spence compared the abuse of the Loyalist working classes of that era with the abuse of the working classes by the upper classes at the Somme. This was, for me, breathtaking insight given the impenetrably sacred British narrative of the Great War. Such objectivity and leadership would certainly have been lost to history but for Novosel’s determination to scratch beneath the surface. David Ervine’s scathing criticism of main-stream Unionism’s refusal to engage with what he saw as a perfectly reasonable civil rights agenda is another such insight that both main-stream Unionists and Republicans would no doubt like to bury.
Novosel interviews many ex-prisoners at great length and invites them to lay out exactly who they were (and are) as people. Their loves, their lives, why they believed that had fallen into such a conflict, and exposes these men for the first time as, heaven forbid, human beings, human beings who didn’t wake up killers, but were products of their country’s history.
One of the greatest revelations for me is actually quite embarrassing. It was one of those moments when upon having something explained to you the answer was so obvious all along you slap yourself squarely across the forehead with teeth gritted in shame. It’s only fair I divulge so here goes. For many years I had heard of the legends of Spence University, of how men would become exposed to political ideas and look inward for answers. These men in Spence University would come to reject sectarianism and begin plotting for peace and so on and so forth. For the longest time I would ponder, “What was wrong with the rest of them? How come the rest didn’t have these revelations sooner?” Of course the book deals at length with the reality that those incarcerated men had the facility to question, debate, read, learn, strategise, where as the poor sods on the outside were trapped in a vicious conflict with no such opportunity! My goodness, how silly was I not to have realised that?! But that is what this book became as I read- a reality check.
The book is not without flaw, and it is noteworthy that I retain only one complaint. The damaging notion that one is a Loyalist or a Unionist is one I simply can’t abide. I find it positively insulting for anyone to deny me my Unionism on the grounds that I am a Loyalist. Loyalism is a cultural concept. It means my parents afforded me the opportunity to win a goldfish on the 12th of July field. It means I enjoy the marching bands and meeting friends and family on the kerb as the procession passes. It means I have immense respect for the service men and women in her Majesties Armed Services. It means Christmas dinner gets interrupted to watch the Queen. I enjoy and take comfort in my community’s traditions. However, I believe in the political maintenance of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so I am a Unionist too. The idea that one must choose between one and the other is a ploy by middle-class unionists to distance themselves from the working-classes and is often used tactically. It is patronising drivel. This Loyalism Vs Unionism trend is one I detest, and is one which I believe, sadly, Professor Novosel has fed with the narrative of his book as it is a distinction he seems to use frequently, an unfortunate laziness in his writing style perhaps.
This book is by no means a loyalist propaganda piece. Novosel makes no bones about venturing into the darker side of Loyalist history. Through interviews with ex-combatants he explores the coup which occurred in 1974/75 within the UVF following the electoral failure of the Volunteer Political Party (VPP) which led to the organisation taking a frightening lunge to the far right of the political spectrum. Novosel turns over many uncomfortable stones and writes frankly about the savagery often committed in Loyalism’s name. Subject matter such as the Shankill Butchers and Loyalist flirtations with overtly racist groups such as the National Front (NF) is in no way airbrushed.
But the highlight of the entire book for me lay in the exposure of some of the most revolutionary and progressive thinking to have been committed to paper. This thinking culminated in the Shared Responsibility document which was published and polished in many redrafts throughout the 1970’s with the final draft presented in 1985. The Shared Responsibility Document proposed shared government, an empowered assembly and essentially everything which would eventually come to pass, everything which over twenty years later Big-House Unionism, Republicans and no fewer that three Governments would claim credit for (whilst side-lining Loyalism). The exploration into the fields of education and employment, the mechanisms of government show the most remarkable foresight and lays waste to the lazy Republican narrative of the knuckle dragging prod.
In conclusion this book is of massive significance not only to those of us who are of the Loyalist culture, but to anyone who genuinely wants to understand Northern Irelands past. One thought which has not left my head since reading the book is this… With propaganda having played such a supporting role in the Irish Republican movement, do they have the benefit of such frank analysis? The Irish Republican narrative places such emphasis in the romantic story that it has evolved through propaganda coated richly with further propaganda, with a side order of propaganda with some additional propaganda thrown on for good measure. We Loyalists look at our flaws, we have no choice! Every one else looks at them for us! Somewhere along the way I believe we lost sight of how truly noble we are as a people. Novosel remedies this. Somewhere along the way we may have even started to believe what others have said of us. Novosel counters this. Unlike the Official IRA, the PIRA flatly refused to consider a compromise peace with the authors of Shared Responsibility. Novosel writes frankly of a window in our history when things were at their most bleak, and when Loyalism made a courageous attempt to draw up potential answers, but failed due to want of a peace-partner.
Northern Irelands Lost Opportunity induced in me all the same spine-tingles the Principles of Loyalism did. When a person is used to an environment in which his/her community is habitually blamed for every ill a clear and frank glance into the (very different) reality is a remarkable experience. Made all the more important when one considers we are once again at a juncture where those in Government find it much easier to blame Loyalism than to Govern.
Before my final read-through and submission of this essay I visited one of the said book shops in Belfast. Professor Novosel’s book was not on any of its shelves.