What Makes Me A Loyalist?

Article first appeared on   Jasonrobertburke.blogspot.co.uk

What Makes Me A Loyalist?


‘The Principles of Loyalism’ have laid out quite clearly what it means to be a Loyalist and how this should be upheld, but what are today’s perceptions of Loyalism?  Are there practical and theoretical differences in Loyalism?  Is it more acceptable in today’s society to be termed a Republican as a legitimate political position rather than a Loyalist?  A brief look at the make-up of the Northern Ireland Assembly would suggest this to be the case, there are no MLAs who would describe themselves as ‘Loyalist’, while Republican representation continues to grow.



The term ‘Loyalist’ appears to be one which is used by the media today in order to categorise and pigeon-hole those unionists who were/are prepared to ‘misbehave’.  For this reason Loyalists are stereotypically ‘rough round the edge’ unionists, but crucially they are unionists, usually working class unionists.  Loyalist/Loyalism has become a derogatory and pejorative term over the years, none more so than today, there is probably not a worse time in the history of this country to be labelled a ‘Loyalist’ than today.  So-called ‘respectable’ political parties like the DUP and the UUP are branded ‘unionists’ while the Progressive UNIONIST Party and Ulster Political Research Group are ‘Loyalists’ due to the fact they don’t wear expensive suits, nor do they speak with a middle class elocution, even though the PUP has ‘unionist’ in its name and not loyalist…


The term loyalist invokes perceptions of paramilitarism including dark glasses, baldy heads, tattoos, even neo-nazism for some.  It generates ridicule because of dialect, education (or lack of) and an assumption that as individuals they are easily led.  Of course these elements do exist, but they have generated a damaging stereotype which has proved hard to dislodge.


Lack of political representation has allowed these stereotypes and prejudices to foster and go almost unchallenged, not to mention the void left behind by Gusty Spence, David Ervine, Billy Mitchell and men of that calibre.  Loyalism has (up to now) struggled to replace these mountains of men, who if alive today would have ensured Loyalism was looked upon very differently.  It is important to separate some myths from the reality here.  A lot of work is being done to represent working class PUL areas, people like Michael Copeland MLA and Cllr. John Kyle are trying their best in difficult circumstances, but are perhaps not quick to define themselves as Loyalists.  The PUP were defeated in East Belfast in the 2011 election in place of the Alliance Party who were relatively successful, this shows that the electorate passed up the opportunity to have true working class representation be it loyalist or otherwise.  Another factor is DUP scaremongering tactics during recent elections: “vote for us or you’ll get Marty as First Minister“.  This leads people to think that anything other than a DUP vote is a vote that is wasted.


This is providing of course that people actually exercise their right to vote.  The people who claim to have no representation are precisely the same people who do not vote, for example a voter turnout of less than 40% was recorded in the Avoniel area of East Belfast in 2011.  Voter apathy and voter inertia have led Loyalism to a crossroads, it is vital that the loyalists of this generation use their vote, and use it as a basis in which to navigate their way out of a political mess.


We have looked on in envy as the Sinn Fein party mobilised its vote with the help of the British government.  Their representatives are comprised of people from within their communities, people of ‘good stock’, and so it is arguable that the same political disengagement does not exist in nationalist/republican communities.  More than that, their activists do work hard for their community, there is no substitute for hard work and dedication, especially with the added motivation of working towards the goal of Irish unity each day.


Loyalist communities have typically lacked vast numbers of ‘political activists’, willing to work hard for the political cause.  Instead loyalists have found themselves in community work, youth engagement, or perhaps just going about their daily business in private with no aspiration of community involvement.  All of the aforementioned are admirable and are in no way counterproductive, however the fact remains that in republican communities the equivalent personnel are far more likely to be involved in the ‘political struggle’.  Complacency may be to blame in unionism as a whole, after all, the Good Friday Agreement was bought by unionism as a settlement, and end to the troubles and the closing of a chapter, it was sold by republicans however (quite openly it must be said) as a ‘staging post to an independent Irish Republic’ a new phase of political warfare, and the opening of another chapter.  Loyalists today are far more likely to join a flute band or an Orange Lodge to manifest their beliefs rather than get involved with party politics, and those who do can be easily head-hunted by bigger parties with a lure of jobs and seats, therefore leaving behind a void of talent in our communities.


Marching bands and Orange parades are indisputably part of unionist DNA, but at what point does a marching band or an Orange parade become loyalist?  Perhaps this is something for outsiders (media and nationalists) to answer, but it does seem that the idea of labelling people en masse is carried out much too easily.  Loyal Order parades are ‘unionist demonstrations’ whereas the bands involved in these parades are termed ‘loyalist’…where does the difference lay? In many cases the membership can overlap, and so depending on which organisation you turn out for on a given day you will be labelled differently by the press and by the public. Violence surrounding parades is inevitably caused by ‘loyalists’, parade supporters are invariably ‘loyalist’, but in rural counties with accordion and pipe bands accompanying the Orange Order the parade is inevitable of a unionist nature.


Parades have been contentious as far back as Dolly’s Brae and since famous characters such as William Johnston of Ballykillbeg.  Since the early 1990s however parading disputes have been taken to a whole new level, more often than not orchestrated by Sinn Fein.  A classic tactic which has been used to great success is to create a flashpoint, raise the tension, and grind the marchers down by demonising them as sectarian to anyone who will listen.  The end result?  The parade is untenable.  Garvaghy Road, Ormeau Road, and Dunloy are to name but three areas which were conceded to this tactic, however on many occassions the marchers did let themselves down and were silly enough to fall into traps carefully laid out by so-called residents groups and the media.


Bandsmen and marchers do not set out to offend other communities, to say otherwise is factually incorrect.  When considering
bands we should remember that some of these musicians are at the pinnacle of their field, we have a wealth of talent in our marching bands which we can not allow to be written off as simply sectarian.  When considering ‘blood & thunder’ type bands one should bear in mind some of the characteristics of the people involved, politically disengaged, from areas of low educational attainment, unemployment, and perhaps above all some of the worst affect people from our recent conflict.  We should therefore not be entirely surprised when these groups of young men engage in over-exuberance or perhaps distasteful activity while on parade.  One thing is for sure republican protests and Sinn Fein manipulation is not going to help clean up the act of a handful of bandsmen, it has to come from within and I do believe that a lot of good work is ongoing so that the marching band fraternity can move forward with its own house in order.  Marching bands (quite literally at times) fly the flag for loyalism across Northern Ireland and the the rest of the United Kingdom, it is imperative therefore that they conduct themselves accordingly.


I am writing this piece as a working class unionist, as a bandsman, as a political activist, and if that makes me a loyalist according to other people then I make no apologies for it.


The Wise Man


2 Responses to What Makes Me A Loyalist?

  1. South Belfast

    The Wise Man presents a very thoughtful paper and one that could be developed to engage working class Protestant communities into identifying their culture and political view. The difficulty Loyalism is facing is that we are so far behind Republican tactics that we want change to happen right now. It will take time to make the change Loyalism needs to address the issues and sustain the connection to Britain. Therefore our future lies in the educational development of our youth. I read with great interest how Sinn Fein Youth are holding their own Junior Ard fheis in the Felons. This event is hosted during the planned celebrations to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of Gibraltar. Surely events like this could have been included in the celebrations planned around the formation of the UVF.
    We start small and slowly develop and make our ancestors proud.

  2. Gareth Mulvenna

    This is an interesting and timely piece. I was doing a bit of writing the other night and was listening to an interview I carried out with the late Billy Mitchell in June 2006. This is what I wrote (obviously only a draft and part of a substantial book chapter)…

    Billy Mitchell was taken aback somewhat when asked the question ‘What is loyalism?’ His response highlighted both the class and community dynamics which he perceived to be at the core of loyalism and working class Protestant culture in Belfast: ‘What is loyalism?! For me it’s about…loyalty to the state…its working class unionism – that’s the way the media have defined it. Unionism is about civic unionism, loyalism is about the working class. Loyal to your community and the democratic wishes of your community…that’s basically it.’ When pushed further on what loyalist identity meant to him he stated,

    ‘Identity transcends the boxes, you know? For instance in cultural stuff I was brought up in an era where Irish culture had absolutely no problems for me – I would regard myself in that respect as an Irish unionist. I’ve no problems with Irish culture; I’ve problems with the provisionalisation of it. I have some affinity with spoken Ulster Scots but I have very little time for the politicisation of it. We grew up with the hamely tongue or the language of the hearth – it was bate out of us at school. My musical taste…I have no problem with Irish music whether its ‘diddly-dee’ music or traditional Scottish music. Basically if you’re talking about culture, my culture in music is blues! Blues, and strangely enough classics – the like of Katherine Jenkins. I have a problem with people talking about your cultural identity…I have problems with people trying to piegeonhole me; because I’m as comfortable playing the bodhran…as I am playing ‘The Sash’.’

    Mitchell’s musings on his identity were telling. As a working class Protestant who had been heavily involved with the UVF and progressive loyalism one might assume that he would have been keen to speak at length about what loyalist identity meant to him and reinforce his political convictions. It was notable however that he used the opportunity provided to talk about loyalist identity to instead describe the layers of his own identity. Loyalism was a big part of Mitchell’s life, of that there can be no doubt. It was, however, only one part. The other interests he described were as normal to him as they might be to other working class Protestants. To what extent then does loyalism inform the Protestant working class in Belfast?