Talking with Loyalists…is anybody listening? asks Dr. John Kyle
by Dr. John Kyle, PUP Councillor on Belfast City Council
Long before the ceasefires of 1994 or the George Mitchell talks, well hidden from the public gaze, Republicans, Nationalists, Unionists and Loyalists sat down to talk. More accurately they sat down to talk and listen. Listening to ‘the other side,’ hearing their experiences, and listening to their analyses was an important element of the journey from violence to the Good Friday Agreement. Slowly and painfully a measure of trust grew. Imperfect it may have been, but nonetheless essential for power sharing democratic institutions. Negotiation replaced armed conflict and the rest, as they say, is history.
If only it was. To many people, we seem to be dangerously close to drifting back into old enmities and a new conflict. Is history repeating itself?
Trust is once again a diminishing asset. Bellicose rhetoric damages it and makes listening more difficult. What is said is also drowned out by the language used. There is growing ignorance of the ‘other side’. Significantly, there is also as a yawning chasm between middle class Unionism and Loyalism.
By and large middle class Unionists simply do not understand Loyalists, they lack an appreciation of their everyday lives, their culture, their struggles, their deprivations, their fears and their aspirations. They are angered by the obduracy and stubbornness of Loyalists, dismissive of their concerns and scathingly critical of their actions. Their lives intersect infrequently.
The middle class obsession with preserving grammar schools reinforces class difference and social division, keeping communities apart. Surely it is time to look again at an educational system that reinforces class differences and separates communities? Children should be educated in socially mixed environments, and academic selection at age eleven militates against this. A socially mixed school environment has been demonstrated to have significant benefits for society as a whole. If we are serious about a commitment to ‘the common good’ then we should not socially and academically segregate our children at the age of eleven but rather allow them to grow up together.
Today, opportunities to talk and listen are few and far between, dialogue a distant memory. The problems of working class communities, educational failure, unemployment, suicide and addiction, and lack of suitable housing, are like a foreign country to many of the middle class. Why the Union Flag is so important to Loyalists remains a mystery and flute bands are without any redeeming features.
Condemnation can be cathartic for the condemner but rarely changes the condemned. Dialogue is what is needed. Knowledge leads to understanding and understanding offers the prospect of informed debate and ultimately negotiated agreement and conciliation. Surely this is what we want?
It is convenient to stereotype Loyalists. While some have engaged in organised criminal activity, they are a small minority and have been roundly condemned by the majority. To quote Gusty Spence ‘Gangsterism and corruption of whatever type must be resisted at all costs’. Furthermore, recent books by Peter Shirlow (The End of Ulster Loyalism?) and Tony Novosel (Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity) document clearly how some of the most progressive political thinking of the 1970s and 1980s emanated from Loyalists. Progressive Loyalist thought did not evaporate with the ceasefires of 1994 but it suits some to continually rubbish contributions from this quarter.
Too much acrimonious criticism has filled the airways in the past year. Perhaps it is time for ‘moderates’ to sit down and engage meaningfully with working class Loyalists.
Listening to them alone, however, is not enough. Dialogue imposes obligations on all participants. Effective dialogue requires talking and listening, but it also maters how the communication is done. For their part, Loyalists must learn to communicate without aggression and rancour. Too often the Loyalist message is lost in the style of delivery; it’s not just what you say, it’s the way you say it. It may feel satisfying to verbally batter your opponent but it doesn’t move us forward.
For there to be hope for the future in Northern Ireland, we need to develop empathy for each other: that means opening up dialogue with everyone, including Loyalists. But can you do that, and will you listen?
This post first appeared on the compromise after conflict blog page.