Ex-Blanket columnist and Radical Unionist commentator DR JOHN COULTER suggests that ex-combatants consider forming a Loyalist Athletic Association to give loyalism a new identity and direction within Protestantism.
Forming a network of sporting and cultural clubs – known as the Loyalist Athletic Association – is the key to loyalism re-establishing itself in Protestant working class and middle class communities.
In effect, loyalism would be copying the success which the Gaelic Athletic Association has enjoyed within the Catholic nationalist community.
One of the key questions which loyalism needs to address is how it finds a new direction and purpose within Protestant urban and rural communities in a post conflict society.
In previous articles, I emphasised how the UVF and Red Hand Commando need to form an Ulster Volunteer Association and Red Hand Association to provide key points of contact for ex-combatants, their families and friends in much the same way as the Royal British Legion caters for ex-servicemen and women.
I have also suggested modern loyalism adopt the political principles of Revolutionary Unionism as a constructive ideology to give loyalism a meaningful identity in this post conflict new Ulster.
While these two measures can give loyalism a real influence among the middle aged and elderly in Protestant communities, how can loyalism have a real influence with Protestant children, teens and twenties, and how can the generational gap be bridged?
For many decades since the formation of Northern Ireland in the 1920s, this role was performed by the Loyal Orders, especially the Orange and Black.
During the conflict, and especially since the turn of the new millennium, the marching band scene – particularly the blood and thunder flute section – has played a significant role in creating and maintaining a Protestant identity among the youth.
But look at the influence which the GAA has had over the generations in developing a similar cultural and sporting identity among nationalist young people as well as providing an effective bridge between the age groups. In GAA circles, the young, middle aged and elderly integrate efficiently.
The SDLP used the GAA as a covert stepping stone in the 1970s to build its profile in the nationalist community and eclipse the old Stormont-based Irish Nationalist Party.
Sinn Fein, too, since the republican hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981, has more cleverly manipulated the GAA to construct a political launching pad within working class nationalism, and especially in eclipsing the SDLP at Stormont and Westminster by eating into the Catholic middle class heartlands.
The core problem which loyalism faces is that the wider Protestant communities and specifically the Unionist parties do not have the same respect for ex-combatants and the loyalist paramilitaries as the IRA and INLA have been able to generate within the Catholic communities.
In Protestantism, if you wanted to defend Ulster, traditionally the first port of call was the security forces – the police and Army. Many Protestants – especially in the church-going community – frowned upon those who got involved with loyalist organisations, such as the UVF and RHC.
In republicanism, however, the control of the IRA and particularly the influence of prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families had very significant bearings on the direction and development of Sinn Fein. You need only compare the advancement of Sinn Fein in the nationalist community with the fate of the Progressive Unionist Party within the Protestant community.
Had loyalism enjoyed the same political development as Sinn Fein, it would be the political wing of the Combined Loyalist Military Command – not the DUP – which would now be in a power-sharing Executive at Stormont.
Even if representatives who give political advice to the UDA and UFF are added into the calculation, loyalism still falls very far short of Sinn Fein’s MEP, MP s, TD s, MLAs and councillors.
To maintain its existence, the Orange Order in particular is having to re-model itself as a ‘big family day out’ organisation.
The Ulster Scots organisations and groups – whilst very historically and culturally relevant within Protestantism and Unionism – are generally viewed as a knee-jerk reaction to nationalism’s politicalisation of the Irish language and culture.
The formation of a Loyalist Athletic Association (LAA) should not be misinterpreted as giving a green light to the UVF and RHC trying to infiltrate or take over existing sports clubs or community associations.
While specific organisations exist in Protestant heartlands, such as the Shankill in Belfast, the LAA would be a Province-wide network of sporting and cultural clubs.
Organisationally, it could function in the same way as the GAA is built throughout the island of Ireland, north and south. It should not be forgotten the historic role which the Unionist Clubs played in combating the Home Rule crisis of the early 1900s.
A similar attempt was made to rejuvenate that spirit in the aftermath of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 with the formation of the Ulster Clubs network. However, the Ulster Clubs Movement – whilst it could portray itself as having an historical link to the old Unionists Clubs – was merely a political organisation and deteriorated in influence because it lacked a cultural and sporting framework.
The LAA could also operate as an umbrella organisation to link many existing sporting and cultural clubs within the Protestant community. Just as the GAA has successfully developed the spirit of ’togetherness’ among nationalists, the LAA could become the social cement which binds the pro-Union community together.
The LAA will not be an overnight sensation. It will require years of hard work and dedication. Moreover, it will have to overcome the historical baggage left behind by the ’Big House Unionism’ mentality and influence of the church-dominated Fur Coat Brigade in Protestantism.
The LAA must not become a short-term flash in the pan group. The LAA venture has the opportunity to become a positive and lasting legacy for loyalism. And in the long term, the LAA need not be limited to Northern Ireland. It has the potential to expand into the South of Ireland and into Great Britain, especially Scotland.
The LAA could have a major role in steering young Protestants away from drugs and crime. The Christian Churches also have a major role to play in developing the LAA.
Many Protestant churches successfully run sporting summer schemes and Bible Weeks before their youth clubs and church organisations begin the new session at the start of the traditional school year. The LAA could become a vehicle to pool all these human and physical resources. The LAA would be a cause worth fighting for.