Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity-The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism.

This book is released at present but will be formally launched in early March.  It’s author, Tony Novosel, a professor of politics at Pittsburgh University has kindly answered some questions in relation to the book, posed by LKIO.

  1. 1.        There has been little or no interest in Loyalist Politicisation either from the past or at present?  How and when did you become interested?

 

As I said in the book, I had a very narrow vision of loyalism and unionism and did see it as fascist at worst and as a monolithic bloc that could never be anything but sectarian at best. It was only around the 1994 ceasefires that I began to read about the PUP and people like Gusty Spence, Billy Hutchinson, David Ervine and on and on.  There was a brief time in 1987 when I got hold of a copy of the UDA’s Common Sense document, that gave me another view of loyalism, but there was not much else that I thought about loyalism.  Anyway, because of what I read/heard after the ceasefires, I eventually arranged to meet Billy Hutchinson.  This really gave me a totally different insight into loyalism and its relationship to unionism.

I do remember one time in 1998 being out to dinner with some friends and telling them I wanted to do a history of the UVF.  But, at the time, it seemed little more than an idle hope because, there was little time for me to do any work on this until about 2006.  My work and personal life prevented that. But, it was always in my mind

 

 

  1. 2.       Were you surprised to find the amount of literature from the UVF/RHC of that time and of the forward thinking it contained?

 

 

I remember the first time (2006) I read some old issues of Combat, I found a long series on the United Irishmen. I was surprised by that.  I was also surprised that there was as much material of a progressive political nature in Loyalist News (RHC) Combat and Orange Cross.  I expected some, but not as much as I found.  I really didn’t expect to find the materials that called for integrated education in 1973 and again in 1974, the complete separation of religion and politics, or the materials on creating a “shared society,” along with a proposal for a new assembly that would’ve spread responsibility for running society to everyone.  Having said that, I was also found many articles and proposals that were very right wing in their orientation and more in line or even to the right of traditional unionism. But, it was intriguing to find those documents like “Proposals for the Assembly” – 1973 and 1974, “Within the Context of Northern Ireland” – 1974, The VPP Manifesto – 1974 and many of the articles of a progressive political nature.  One of the best pieces I found was in Combat in 1977.  This was an article called “Think or Perish.”  It was reportedly written by Billy Hutchinson and Billy Mitchell as a response to Gusty Spence’s 12 July 1977 speech in Long Kesh and was, in my opinion, the best analysis and critiques of the loyalist community ever written from within that community.   Spence’s speech and this article should be required reading for all within the loyalist community and the larger community in Northern Ireland.

 

  1. 3.       What has been the reaction of..(a)..loyalists and ..(b)..republicans..and (c)…others…to your findings?

 

 

I’ve done a number of talks within the loyalist community over the past 4 years and the response has been very positive.  In many cases people were hearing this history for the first time and from the reaction wanted to know more.  As I write in the book, many were hearing, for the first time, something about the positive actions that their community and/or organizations took to end the conflict and to try and find a new way forward.   So, they have heard about the findings in the book and have been very receptive. It will be interesting to hear what they think once they read the whole book.

I have done two talks in small groups with Republicans and loyalists in the same room and these have gone down well and have not had any negative response either during or after the meetings.  Over the past year I have met with some republicans in a small group and delivered my findings on the politics of this period.  In this meeting the discussion was around the findings rather than arguing over the facts and it was a very positive meeting.  This past summer I spoke as part of the ACT presentation at the Feile on the Loyalist Prison experience and this also seemed to go well.  I had no negative feedback from either meeting, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any.  It will be interesting to hear the response once republicans read the whole book.

Amongst others, especially friends, it’s been very interesting.  I had one person I’ve known for years poke his finger in my chest and tell me “You’re writing about the wrong side.”  Others I’ve known a long time are a bit upset that I did this project.  That’s both here and in America.  At the same time a great number of my friends in the nationalist community, while initially sceptical, have given me great support in this project and have grown more and more interested in it and are always asking me questions about what I’ve found and concluded.  This is the same with my friends in the unionist community.  Some were sceptical and more than a bit resistant, but many have become fascinated once they started asking me questions about my work.

My favourite responses have come in random conversations. On one occasion I ran into a friend of mine and she asked me what I was working on. I replied “loyalist political thinking.”  Her response was “Do they think?”  This past year I ran into a friend of mine on the street in Belfast and he was with someone from the media.  He introduced me to this person, who then asked me about my work.  I told this person “I did a research project on the evolution of loyalist political thinking in the 70s and 80.” The immediate response I got was “It is a very short book then.”  I just laughed and said “No. It’s about 220 pages.”

 

  1. 4.       Do you feel in light of the disclosures of positive and forward thinking from Loyalist it can dispel many of the myths currently held about their contribution or lack of it to the peace process?

 

Well, that is a good question.  There is no doubt that the information in the book does undercut if not destroy the traditional narratives of loyalism.  That’s undeniable.  The evidence is there and one has to accept that it is there.  We can disagree on the interpretation of it and its importance, but we can’t deny its existence.

However, having said that, many people come to the table with their own biases and “inherited histories” and so it will be difficult to break those down.  When dealing with this I am always reminded of the final line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.  After one character sets the record straight about what he had actually done years before, an act that had made his reputation, the reporter tore up the true story and said:  “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  I think that will happen here with some people.  But, I do think it is going to open up a field of study for younger researchers and people within the loyalist community to start examining the history of loyalism in a much more open way and beyond the narrow stereotypes that we have lived with for so long.  In fact, two researchers, after reading the final draft of the book, have called it “trail-blazing.” So, if they are thinking in those terms then that means this should open doors for others to walk through and continue to analyse loyalism beyond the stereotypes.

 

  1. 5.       Do you feel that if mainstream Unionism in particular had paid heed to the thinking emanating from UVF/RHC leadership at that time that we may have has a settlement before 1998?

 

 

I think, as the book, points out, the answer would be no.  Beyond the inability of unionism to engage with loyalism as a political movement, there were just too many obstacles, mistakes, problems, internal and external to the loyalist groups and their communities, and the simple reality of unionist/loyalist politics as well as the nature of the Provisional IRA’s struggle and politics, in this era for the progressive politics of loyalism, from the UVF and RHC and the UDA to have had any impact.   I make the point in the book that it would’ve taken a miracle for their work to have had an impact in ending the conflict.  That miracle was not going to happen.

I think that the only time their politics could have had any chance was in 1987, a slim one at that, with the convening the Unionist Task Force.  The eventual policy document that came out of this grouping, An End to Drift, contemplated power-sharing on the basis of the UDA’s Common Sense and the PUP’s Sharing Responsibility.  However, as we know the DUP and the UUP leaderships “binned” this proposal.   From that point on unionism and loyalism, to a certain extent, found themselves watching the evolution of a peace process that they had little control over.  However, I would argue the loyalist groups were much better prepared for the peace process than unionism.  That is too long to go into here.

Having said all that I would also argue that as forward thinking as these proposals were,  except for 1987, even if mainstream unionism would’ve adopted loyalist ideas, something I don’t believe was possible for it to do, I don’t think it would’ve made a difference because of all the other issues political loyalists faced.

 

Share

Comments are closed.