On Saturday 27th June, an “anti-sectarian”, “anti-racist”, “anti-bullying” social media group posted a screenshot, taken from a Loyalist Facebook page, to which they added their own, particular analysis. The group “Them’uns” had observed that Gareth Cole, a PUP member from Carrickfergus, had written an article for a small, Loyalist-run publication, the “Loyalist Perspective”.
Gareth had shared the news of his article being published on his own Facebook page, which “Them’uns” had screenshotted and posted on their own forum. The comments which they made and the subsequent discussions which they have had with me, and others, are why this response has been written.
Before examining the underlying assumptions of what was said, it is useful to provide some context on who the group are, and what they seek to achieve via their online commentary.
“Them’uns” describe themselves as follows:
“This page seeks to expose the sectarian, racist opinions and behaviour of fleggers, loyalists, dissies and bullyboy thugs from whatever side they may come.
We refuse to accept that a small minority of morons can continuously disrupt the lives of ordinary citizens for their own bigoted ends. By exposing the mindset of these extremists, we hope to demonstrate the futile and backward nature of their thinking and, hopefully, have a laugh along the way.” (https://www.facebook.com/leathnach/info?tab=page_info)
A noble set of aspirations. There are, however, a few problems contained within this self-ascribed identity, not to mention the problematic readings of Loyalism, rehabilitation and justice which logically follow from the post of 27th June.
Firstly, are the group suggesting that only “fleggers, loyalists, dissies and bullyboy thugs” hold “sectarian, racist opinions”? Is such a partial reading not an example of the very bullying which they claim to oppose? Moreover, are all Loyalists and dissidents automatically sectarian and racist? If so, what is this founded upon? Is it something intrinsic to these groupings? If this is the case, such assessments have dangerous parallels with racism, which holds that groups contain intrinsic characteristics. Proceeding from this analysis, what are we to do with these deplorable individuals, given that they are irrevocably bigoted? Should we deport them? Where to?
Furthermore, what if “Them’uns” were to encounter non-sectarian dissident Republicans or Loyalists? Would they re-evaluate their position, and the group aims? Critically, would their group continue to exist should the complexity, and progressive thought within Loyalism, emerge and gain recognition? Depressingly, for a group whose raison d’être is that Loyalism is as they describe it, any attempt to provide a counter-narrative will be rejected, as it was on the 27th, and in the days since.
In concert with this, their nod toward inclusivity, in challenging sectarian opinions “from whichever side it may come” is little more than a fig leaf; of the last, ten posts on the page, nine were mocking Loyalists of one shade, or another. The tenth was a shared post from a page called “Tricolour at City Hall”, which advised nationalists not to burn Loyalist bonfires, lest it hamper their political objectives.
It becomes clear, therefore, that the aims of this group are to “expose the futile and backward nature” only of Loyalist thinking, with the attendant discriminatory behaviours which result from such aspirations. These views were evident in their prejudiced comments toward Gareth Cole, as they noted that,
“It’s almost that time of the year when the neanderthals celebrate the ability to make fire” (Them’uns 27th June, 21.10).
Such a response would be perhaps worth more, had the group read Gareth’s article before issuing their judgment. Yet, for this group, who understand Loyalism and sectarianism as mutually constitutive, there was no need to read the article. Their understanding of Loyalism is such that no further engagements with Loyalists, or investigations into Loyalist political thought, are necessary.
When challenged on their own intolerance, the group defended their statement by making reference to an incident from 2011, when Gareth had alleged that the mainstream media in Northern Ireland are not impartial, and suggested that, “it high time we blow utv and newsline up the fenion lovin b******s [sic]”.(Newsletter 2014).
The above comment is indefensibly sectarian in its content. And indeed, if people were fixed entities, holding the same views throughout their lifetimes, and incapable of change, or reform, then “Them’uns” would be wholly correct in surmising that Gareth is a sectarian Loyalist.
However, anyone with even a limited understanding of human nature will know that individuals can reform, rehabilitate, reform, progress, develop and mature. We recognise that people make mistakes, and, as an advanced society, we provide mechanisms for change and personal progress, and continue to include these citizens in our polity. These very concepts are why we in the United Kingdom, a liberal democracy, oppose capital punishment.
We cannot, therefore, confine people to normative prisons, where their past actions guide our present and future treatment of them. Firstly, it is unethical, as it denies human agency and rational autonomy. Secondly, by doing this, we remove the incentives to positively participate in society. If you will be forever judged on a past indiscretion, why should you seek to reform?
I have an additional response to this incident. The first is that I agree with Gareth that the mainstream media outlets tend to discuss Loyalism in somewhat base, narrow terms. Much academic work has focused on this, with Graham Spencer, Alan Parkinson and Malachi O’Doherty publishing work which argues for a more complex, deeper engagement from the media.
Indeed, in November 2013, Professor John Brewer led a workshop at Queen’s University, to discuss the need for “peace journalism”, in societies emerging from conflict: “‘Peace journalism’ is a relatively new term, associated particularly with the idea that societies emerging out of conflict require a form of journalism that constructively helps in building the fragile peace.”
There is scholarly support, therefore, for the idea that the local media do not fairly or constructively discuss Loyalists or their political representatives. However, where I disagree with Gareth’s comments from 2011, are the calls for violence. Any progress must be political, and crucially, must remain a non-violent struggle.
Unfortunately for the group, Gareth has developed, both personally and politically. PUP leader Billy Hutchinson confirmed as much, when Gareth ran for election in 2014. Hutchinson welcomed Gareth into the Party and worked with him to develop his political skills.
This is the final point which I wish to make. The PUP provide young Loyalist men and woman an alternative route to effect change. Through political advocacy, argument and action, Loyalists can articulate their vision of a just society. Without the PUP doing this, and politicising the Protestant working class, what is the alternative?
If we took our lead from “Them’uns”, who appear to despise Loyalism, in whatever form it takes, it would be bleak future for the Protestant working class. Luckily, there are little more than a limited voice, and present regressive attitudes, which sit in sharp contrast to the Progressive politics Gareth now espouses.