Need For Loyalist Engagement

 

  Article appeared in News Letter Tuesday 23rd October.

 

Need For Loyalist Engagement

Published on Tuesday 23 October 2012 10:36

Loyalists have been left disengaged by the peace process. Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson examine how to counter this impression.

 

Because of this, there is a perception of disengagement from the benefits of peace. But what is also evident is that loyalism does not really know how to respond to this or how to counter the overwhelming impression of being left behind. There are three potential areas which can be used to challenge this perceived dislocation: reconciliation, inclusivity and community politics.

 

Last month Sinn Fein representative Declan Kearney gave a speech ‘Uncomfortable Conversations: Dealing with the Legacy of Political Conflict’. In this speech Kearney made an appeal for broad involvement in a reconciliation debate and made some ambiguous points in order to use the concept of reconciliation (which he did not define) as a means for opening ‘a new phase in the Peace Process’. This phase, Kearney stressed, should be based on equality and encourage ‘new thinking’ that would lead to ‘forging new relationships’ as well as ‘building increased mutual respect and trust’.

Interesting here is how Sinn Fein is striving to use reconciliation to support and reinforce a key political aim: equality. Interesting too is how Sinn Fein have strategically tried to pressure unionists into voicing dissent at making ‘concessions’ since this gives legitimacy to the argument that equality is lacking and so further vindicates Sinn Fein’s position.

Clearly, Sinn Fein intends to use any reconciliation process as a means to expose opponents and thereby improve their own standing and there should be no surprises in that. But loyalists also need to get involved in this debate and work to shape a definition of reconciliation which has both resonance and relevance for their own communities and needs. Rather than shying away from what some have called ‘truth recovery’, loyalists can use the reconciliation opportunity to take some control of how movements in this direction are conceived, interpreted and used.

The language of Kearney, which has been reinforced by the comments of Martin McGuinness, is a tentative attempt to test the water on reconciliation but also to assert control over the debate by framing priorities and using it to underscore key objectives. Loyalists need to do the same, testing the Sinn Fein position and using it to frame their own narrative about reconciliation but also using it to create momentum; to develop a corresponding next phase and to dismantle the criminalisation picture in the process.

Logically loyalists have backed away from a reconciliation process because they think they will lose by it. But, this confidence deficit which is reflective of loyalism generally, is helping Sinn Fein to convey the impression that they ‘have nothing to hide’ whilst those who are resistant to a reconciliation process do. This must not go unchallenged.

Loyalists should not get drawn onto the terrain of equality which serves Sinn Fein interests, but instead advocate inclusivity. Loyalists cannot talk meaningfully about equality in comparable terms to Sinn Fein. No, the way into the debate about what loyalism can do to underpin peace and find a purposeful role in the ‘post-conflict’ environment can come from trying to reclaim the concepts of inclusivity and ‘a shared future’. This requires using each not just for loyalists but for all, promoting a new democratic voice which strives not to preserve traditional separations but to dissolve those separations by focusing on the common good and using disputes and differences about that idea to reinforce the value of a vibrant shared future.

The peace process was founded on the basis of inclusivity and loyalists can legitimately argue that this inclusivity has given way to exclusivity which inhibits the full engagement of others. Loyalists can also firmly assert that a shared future only has meaning if there is ‘real’ sharing and then develop definitions and positions about what that sharing might amount to and what positives can emerge from it.

Politics is more than electoral politics. It is concerned with power and its effects. Loyalists cannot argue that political arrangements preserve the mechanisms of sectarianism when they are currently seen as the main protagonists on this score, but they should not ignore the polarised voting patterns either. Perhaps what loyalists can do is work towards building a new generation of politically active representatives, who are not so ‘tainted’ by a paramilitary past and who can forge new relationships with others such as the NI Labour Party.

What is clear, is that a large number of people do not vote in Northern Ireland and that voting is less a matter of left versus right politics and more a matter of unionist versus republican politics. There are a wide range of activities taking place within loyalism which exist as community politics and which are rooted firmly in the immediate problems of locality. The question is how this work can be used to build an articulate and demonstrably positive left agenda which moves beyond the polarisations of unionism versus republicanism. Those who suggest that loyalists do not vote for loyalist representatives, because this is seen as taking votes from the DUP and so helping Sinn Fein, are failing to see beyond a political environment which is not meeting their needs. That perception must be reversed and leaders have to work at building a narrative which contradicts the prevailing disinterest. At worst, votes placed with others may force the DUP to do more for loyalist areas and at best it may open opportunities for other forms of loyalist representation. The logic of arguing that unionism does little for loyalism but that loyalists should continue to vote for it is both perverse and self-defeating. If loyalists want a greater say in the future of Northern Ireland it is only they who can get it. As one Sinn Fein representative put it: ‘You don’t score goals by staying in your own half’.

n Graham Spencer is Reader in Politics, Conflict and Peace at the University of Portsmouth and has written widely on loyalism.

n Chris Hudson is a Unitarian minister at All Souls Church, Belfast and has been a mediator between the UVF and the Dublin government since 1993.

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Wednesday 24 October 2012

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