Where Is The Loyalist Rebellion Going?–Dr. John Coulter


The Union flag dispute has sparked a Loyalist Rebellion. Former Blanket columnist and Radical Unionist commentator, DR JOHN COULTER, maintains that this Loyalist Rebellion must follow a democratic path to avoid the creation and eruption of a violent dissident loyalist movement. In this exclusive article for Long Kesh Inside Out, Dr Coulter outlines the political routes for the Loyalist Rebellion.

This year will be crucial in the direction which the Loyalist Rebellion takes, and the burden of responsibility could fall on the shoulders of three Unionists – Billy Hutchinson, leader of the Progressive Unionists; Lagan Valley MLA Basil McCrea, and South Down MLA, both leaders of the so-called McUnionist Party.

This unlikely Gang of Three will have a key role in persuading those involved in the Loyalist Rebellion to pursue an entirely democratic route. The Loyalist Rebellion erupted last December with the totally crazy vote of Belfast City Council to remove the Union flag over City Hall from all-year round to designated days.

Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the subsequent St Andrews Agreement in 2006, the loyalist community has watched as year after year, the republican movement has scored concession after concession for the Catholic community.

While mainstream Unionism argues over which party represents the natural successor to Edward Carson and James Craig, Provisional Sinn Fein worked tirelessly to secure considerable financial benefits for its people.

In the late 1960s, the Catholic community took to the streets using the ethos ‘enough is enough’, taking part in the so-called Caledon Squat, then forming the Civil Rights Movement, which was later hijacked by the Official and fledgling Provisional republican movements.

A generation later in 2012, the loyalist community uttered the same sentiments of ‘enough is enough’ when the Union flag was removed from City Hall. Perhaps the analogy facing the loyalist community could be best summed up from the classic war film about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, entitled ‘Tora, Tora, Tora’.

At the end of the film, rather than being jubilant about the success of the Japanese air attack on the American fleet, one of the Japanese commanders laments that all the raid accomplished was to awaken a sleeping giant. How right he was following the total defeat of Japan four years later after the atomic attacks on two Japanese cities.


Loyalism is now that modern-day sleeping giant which has been awakened in Northern Ireland, and the flag protests symbolise that the Loyalist Rebellion is underway. A new mobilisation is taking place in the loyalist community not witnessed since the signing of the notorious Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985.

Already that mobilisation has created the Ulster People’s Forum, a new working class party – the Protestant Coalition – and the mainstream Unionist leadership’s frantic efforts to re-engage with the loyalist community in a project known as the Unionist Forum.

With the 2013 Marching Season about to step into full stream in a few weeks’ time, the onus now falls on democrats within the loyalist community to ensure this Loyalist Rebellion moves in a positive, peaceful, democratic, and constructive direction.

Unlike the republican community, the Loyalist Rebellion must never be allowed to deteriorate into a situation where a so-called dissident loyalist terrorist faction emerges. Sinn Fein deputy First Minister is on record as referring to republican dissidents as “traitors”.

While in public, there seems to be no love lost politically between mainstream republicans in Sinn Fein and dissidents in the Real IRA, New IRA and Continuity IRA to name but three of the rapidly emerging dissident terrorist factions.

Senior PSNI officers are constantly warning about the security threat posed by republican dissidents. However, some conspiracy theorists could put forward the suggestion that the mainstream and dissident republican factions are working hand in hand and that the public slagging match between the rival factions is merely a public relations stunt.

During the conflict, the Provisional IRA carried out a Nazi-style ‘Night of the Long Knives’ elimination of the troublesome breakaway republican faction, the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation. Many loyalists could quite rightly ask the question – surely the Provos still have the capacity to wipe out the dissident factions?

In a matter of days, loyalism will commemorate the landing of King William III at Carrickfergus on his way to his historic victory at the Boyne. But loyalism needs to decide if it will follow the democratic or violent paths.

There is now looming the real danger that loyalism must find a political solution to its current dilemma before a significant number conclude that the only way forward is to copy the Provos a reignite a terror campaign.

That’s why the three politicians mentioned in my opening paragraph are crucial to preventing this violent scenario taking place. A real eye-opener for me was watching the reaction of ordinary grassroots loyalists at a recent Unionist Forum public meeting in the Shankill area of Belfast.

As a life-long member of the Ulster Unionist Party growing up in the Paisleyite heartland of North Antrim, I was well used to the heckling campaign of Paisley supporters against our party and family.

But that evening in the Shankill was like history repeating itself, except this time, it was the DUP in the firing line of heckling from working class loyalists. Even the Orange Order representative was enduring some flak from the audience.

A clear conclusion from the Unionist Forum meetings was that the establishment Unionist parties – the DUP and UUP – have lost touch with grassroots Protestants. It is clear, too, the Loyalist Rebellion is not simply about a mobilisation of the loyalist community politically, but the creating of a fresh alignment within loyalism.

The Progressive Unionist Party under Billy Hutchinson is witnessing a new rejuvenation in the loyalist community not seen since the first Assembly poll in 1998 when Mr Hutchinson and the late David Ervine became MLAs.

While in subsequent years, both seats were lost, the mainstream Unionist parties failed to adequately represent the loyalist working class. During his time on the Assembly Commission, my father and North Antrim UUP MLA, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, also represented the PUP on the Commission.

One of the biggest mistakes which the Ulster Unionist Party has ever made was to turn its back on either a coalition or merger with the Progressive Unionists. With the rival DUP stealing the UUP’s traditional middle class Unionist voters, the UUP failed to return the serve by eating into the loyalist working class electorate using its PUP partners.

The end result is that the UUP is staring political oblivion in the face having lost both its working and middle class voter bases. The DUP is currently in the same political mire under Peter Robinson which the UUP found itself in during the David Trimble era.

While a revamped PUP under Billy Hutchinson could solve the political direction issue for the loyalist working class, what about a solution for the disenchanted Unionist middle class? The Unionist middle class was once the bastion of political Unionism and in some cases, no matter what the quality of the candidate, Unionism could rely on the quantity of the votes. That luxury is no longer the case for Unionism.

With a UUP lacking coherent policies (you need only look at the splits in the party over the issue of gay marriage compared to the DUP’s clear stance) and a DUP under fire from the loyalist working class because of its cosy Stormont relationship with Sinn Fein, is there a third alternative within Unionism?

Is there the possibility the media-driven project by McCrea and McCallister – commonly dubbed the McUnionist Party – could actually become a revitalised third force within the Unionist family? McCrea and McCallister have openly portrayed their party will be a moderate Unionist movement.

It’s key to success will be to provide realistic policies which will secure the Union, reap the benefits of the peace process for the Unionist community, and provide a workable constituency service for people on the ground.

Basil McCrea especially is a media darling; the Press love him if for no other reason than he can be used to give a political bloody nose to the establishment Unionist parties. But how long will the honeymoon with the media last? McCrea and McCallister need to win seats, otherwise their media-spun liberal Unionist movement will face the same fate as another liberal Unionist movement – the now defunct Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, once fronted by former Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner.

Another attraction of the McUnionist Party is that it is something different from the DUP and UUP. It needs to sell the message of constructive Unionism, so would a PUP/McUnionist Party uniting the loyalist working and middle classes be a workable political vehicle?

A Hutchinson/McCrea/McCallister ticket could certainly present a very credible centre left/liberal alternative to the existing confusion and lack of direction within the establishment Unionist family.

Pundits may point to the demise of other smaller Unionist parties in the lifetime of the current Assembly, such as the United Kingdom Unionist Party, Northern Ireland Unionist Party, and the United Unionist Assembly Party. But all of these movements represented negative Unionism and had their origins in the so-called ‘No Camp’ of Unionism which was opposed to the Good Friday Agreement.

Even the DUP transformed itself from the champions of the ‘No Camp’ at the Good Friday Agreement to the champions of the ‘Yes Camp’ under the St Andrews Agreement.

What is in no doubt is that Unionism because of the Union flag dispute will go through another period of realignment. The loyalist community will have a number of democratic alternatives to choose from.

However, there is also the possibility the PUP/McUnionist coalition could flounder in the same way as the original PUP/UUP coalition plan slammed into its own political iceberg. That plan was wrecked for two main reasons. Firstly, elements within the UUP’s snooty Fur Coat Brigade could not bring themselves to work with working class loyalists. For this faction in Unionism, it was a case of ‘The working class can kiss my ass!’

Secondly, because of the PUP’s association with the UVF and Red Hand Commando, there was an element in the UUP who adopted the approach of keeping loyalism out in the political cold. This element did not differentiate between IRA and INLA terrorists and those who were members of loyalists groups, such as the UVF and Red Hand Commando. This element could not see the political common sense of creating a mainstream democratic platform for the political spokespeople of the loyalist paramilitary organisations.

So if Billy Hutchinson’s PUP is given the cold shoulder by the middle class supporters of the McUnionist movement, where does the PUP go? The other alternative is for the PUP to enter a coalition with the DUP and UUP.

The Unionist Forum meetings indicated strong support for more Unionist co-operation rather than Unionist unity at this point. Loyalists, in this case, should push for the reforming of the 1970s Unionist Coalition – also known as the United Ulster Unionist Council or ‘Treble UC’ – which represented four different Unionist parties at that time.

Under such a Unionist Coalition, rather than all shades of Unionism competing against one another and fragmenting the Unionist vote, the Unionist parties would only run enough candidates to match the reasonable number of seats they could win. The Unionist Coalition would also agree which parties would contest what seats in certain constituencies.

While the Unionist Coalition worked effectively for the two 1974 Westminster General Elections and the 1975 Convention election, by the time of the 1979 Westminster poll, it had fallen apart over rows as to who should be ‘Top Dog’ and leader of the UUUC.

Another route for loyalists is for the PUP and its opposite number within the UDA/UFF, the Ulster Political Research Group, to enter a coalition of Unionist parties and act as an opposition to the current DUP/Sinn Fein partnership government at Stormont.

This coalition would consist of the PUP, UPRG, David McNarry’s UKIP, Jim Allister’s TUV, UUP, Independent Unionists and the new McUnionist and Protestant Coalition movements. The main platform of the Opposition Unionist Coalition movement would be to form a radical alternative to the DUP/Sinn Fein dominated Stormont Executive.

Whatever the choice, it is vital the Loyalist Rebellion remains on a purely democratic path. The British and Irish governments as well as the Stormont Executive all have a collective moral obligation to ensure this remains the case, as a violent loyalist uprising is in no one’s interest.

The consequences of the Unionist family not bringing loyalism in from the political cold and allowing the Loyalist Rebellion to develop into a dissident loyalist movement functioning as a mirror image of the dissident republican movement bear a chilling resemblance to interviews given to me in the late 1990s for my Masters thesis and a book project, The Orange Card.

The Orange Card was to have been published in late 1998, but was stopped by a senior representative of the hardline anti-Catholicism movement, the Caleb Foundation, which was formally launched that year.

During research for the book, I discovered strong links between the proposed Caleb Foundation and the Independent Orange Order. Caleb was named after the Biblical Old Testament Israelite spy of the same name.

When the then Independent Orange Order Grand Master, the late George Dawson, found out The Orange Card was going to expose these links and that one of my conclusions was that Caleb was nothing more than a recruiting front for the Independents, he initiated a successful campaign which stopped the publication of the book.

Ironically, in October 1998 when the Caleb Foundation was formally launched, its inaugural chairman was George Dawson! Other prominent Independent Orangemen at that time were members of Caleb’s ruling Council of Reference.

It is my intention to publish The Orange Card as an e-book in the future. I intend to dedicate the e-book to Dawson’s memory as unfortunately he died of cancer in 2007 shortly after being re-elected as a DUP MLA for East Antrim. On numerous occasions since 1998, I have written about the links between the Caleb Foundation and the Independent Orange Order, but neither organisation has denied my claims.

This interview with an individual identified as a loyalist strategist was given to me in 1997, the year before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and three years after the ceasefire declared by the Combined Loyalist Military Command.

He said: “Since the creation of the Ulster state, Unionism has always been a defensive philosophy. It has always relied on its numerical strength – on political brawn rather than political brains.

“The reality is that if you want to eliminate republican pressure on this part of the United Kingdom, then you must strike at the very source of the republican cancer – not the Falls Road, but Dublin and the Republic of Ireland.

“If the South gets a taste of what the IRA has inflicted economically upon Northern Ireland, then it will probably ease off the pressure on both Northern Ireland Unionism and the British Government – maybe it will even be forced to abandon Articles Two and Three of the Republic’s constitution, which claims jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

“The difference between the LVF and the UVF is that the former favours a first strike against the Republic … the latter tends to base its operations purely within Ulster’s borders.

“With the exceptions of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in the Seventies, the UVF has tended not to venture south. With the LVF there is now the real possibility that the so-called propaganda myth of the Protestant backlash could now become a bloody reality.

“In past years, the majority of Unionists have been content to place the security of the state in the hands of the security forces, the RUC, the UDR and the British Army. But many Unionists also feel the hands of the security forces have been tied politically and militarily in the war against republican terrorists.

“If I was to change a few words in the republican armed struggle scenario, then you might gain an insight into this particular hardline Unionist thinking.

“In the Troubles, it was the republican movement engaged in an armed struggle against British imperialism which was maintaining the Union. Republicans bombed London and mainland Britain and murdered pro-Unionist politicians.

“Instead of the republican movement, we have the loyalist movement; instead of British imperialism maintaining the Union, we have Irish imperialism maintaining Articles Two and Three of the republic’s constitution; instead of a sustained bombing and murder campaign in mainland Britain, we have a loyalist no-warning bombing campaign in the Republic of Ireland – as the breakaway Loyalist Volunteer Force has always threatened.

“The real practical usefulness of the Orange Order to Unionism and loyalism would come in such a doomsday scenario.

“There would be no doubting the potential of the Orange Order to be an intelligence gathering organisation, and also its role involving the mobilisation of the wider Protestant population in much the same way as Edward Carson and James Craig used the Order in the Home Rule crisis of 1912 to 1914.”

The loyalist strategist who gave me this interview 16 years ago is now dead. While many of his observations in 1997 may be no longer relevant to the political scene as it exists in 2013, the ethos of a Loyalist Rebellion developing into a terror campaign against the Republic of Ireland is alarming and a situation which all loyalist politicians must seek to avoid.

This interview is contained in my MPhil thesis entitled: “The contribution of the Orange Order to the development of Pan Loyalism during the period 1968 to the present day.” The thesis was completed at Queen’s University in 1998 in a chapter entitled ‘Orangeism and the use of violence.’


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