Strategic Alliances: Defeating Sectarianism..Dr. Tony Novosel

There are all types of Political Prisoners housed in the Camp and the miracle of the matter is that there is a great absence of factional tension. Men of common sense know that all are Prisoners and have resolved that Sectarianism must not be allowed to rear its head in Long Kesh.  . .the unanimity which exists might travel further afield.

Joint Camp PROS (Public Relations Officers)[1]

“In Long Kesh we, Republicans and Loyalists, have attempted to bridge the gap by engaging in constructive dialogue without conceding principles.”[2]


On the 17 April 1991, the Combined Loyalist Military Command called a ceasefire to provide breathing space for the Brooke talks then taking place in Northern Ireland.  The CLMC maintained this ceasefire until 4 July 1991, even in the face of an IRA campaign that killed 13 people and resulted in bomb attacks on Protestant housing estates.[3]


While this ceasefire did not immediately thrust loyalism in to the political arena, as many politicians and political parties ignored it, it did show that loyalism could think politically, act in a disciplined manner and was a force that had to be included in any settlement that would take place in Northern Ireland.  This undercut the Provisional IRA narrative that the conflict was only between it and the British government. In this account, loyalists were not independent actors; they were simply puppets of the British state.  (This narrative still exists and may even be stronger today than it was in 1991.)  As a result of this and other factors, Sinn Fein and the IRA, who were already questioning the effectiveness of the armed struggle, issued the following statement at Bodenstown in 1992,


We know and accept that the British government’s departure must be preceded by a sustained period of peace and will arise out of negotiations. We know and accept that such negotiations will involve the different shades of Irish nationalism, and Irish unionism engaging the British government either together or separately to secure an all-embracing and durable peace process. We know and accept that this is not 1921 and that at this stage we don’t represent a government in waiting.[4]


This is not to say, that the Provisionals based their analysis strictly on what the CLMC did in 1991. However, one cannot escape the obvious conclusion that the Provisionals, in the wake of the CLMC ceasefire and, again, other factors, realised that they would have to engage with “other” community in Northern Ireland, in any sort of settlement.


Fast forward to the summer of 2014 and the 12th of July marches in Belfast and the Apprentice Boys march in Derry/Londonderry.  The Unionist political parties, the Orange Order, the paramilitaries and ordinary unionists put aside their political differences and disagreements to ensure that the parades went off peacefully. They acted within the context of the law and made sure that there was no repeat of the violence of 2012-2013. Furthermore, they put their message across politically.  At the same time, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, the Orange Order and the Black Preceptory have developed The Maiden City Accord to deal with parading, a document that has even gathered support from Sinn Fein.  In other words, contrary to the narrative of unionists and loyalists as simple bigots, backwoodsman, and sectarians who cannot think or act politically, these groups have acted in a concerted, lawful and political manner to make their point. Just as in 1991, this concerted and disciplined action undercut the popular narrative of unionism and in particular loyalism.


It has also caused concern for Sinn Fein as was evident on the 10 June 2014, when Gerry Kelly coined the phrase ‘pan-unionist front’[5] when talking about what unionism demanded.  Billy Hutchinson recognised Sinn Fein’s concern about this ‘unionist unity’ on the 10 August 2014, when he referred to Sinn Fein’s use of this term in his speech at Twaddell.  While arguing that this is a cultural war, something that Brian Spencer has called into question on, Hutchinson made it clear that the united front would continue and all unionist and loyalist actions would be done through concerted and democratic action.  In other words, unionism and loyalism would use the law and the democratic process to deal with any attacks and/or ‘perceived’ attacks on their community from Sinn Fein.  This is crucial for this analysis.


As it was in 1991 and then 1994-1998, loyalism is now in a position again, in its alliance of convenience with unionism — and we should be in no doubt that it is an alliance of convenience — to inject itself in to the political arena and to act politically to represent its own community and, I would argue the entire community of Northern Ireland.


How do they do this?


Well, we have witnessed something that many people on all sides did not think could happen; ‘unionist unity.’ In other words, a strategic alliance has developed that ignores all the issues that separate the various groups and parties within unionism and loyalism.  This is very important. Ask yourself, what unites TUV and the PUP other than “culture” and “nation?”  How do the progressive loyalists and unionists square their alliance with conservative loyalists and unionists, except on the national and cultural question?  The answers are that they have little that unites them and you really cannot square the alliance. However, because of the perceived attack on the whole unionist/loyalist community they have put what separates them aside and now are working together to protect the interests that they believe are important to all of them.  Thus, groups and individuals that have very little in common, have put aside what separates them to defend what unites them.


This brings us to the main point of this piece.  We know that loyalists and republicans in Long Kesh worked together on areas of common interest without sacrificing principles and they did it while minimizing conflict and containing sectarian feelings. The historical record demonstrates their cooperation over visitation, food and even treatment by the guards, as well as the creation of the Camp Council and the Downtown Office scheme.  They did this, in their words, ‘without conceding principles’ or descending into sectarian violence.


As mentioned above, we now see this same phenomenon taking place within unionism as unionists and loyalists now engage in constructive dialogue and bridge their gaps to work for the future of their community.


This then begs a most important question.  If those with radically different conceptions of nationality situated in the most extreme of circumstances inside Crumlin Road and then Long Kesh could overcome divisions to work together, as well as contain sectarianism; and those within unionism and loyalism can now put their very different conceptions of Northern Ireland aside to work together, then why can this not ‘travel further afield?’[6]  By this I mean, why can those on both sides of the divide, not engage with each other on the issues that affect all the citizens of Northern Ireland?  Is it impossible to act like unionists and loyalists are doing now in the ‘pan-unionist front’, and the prisoners did in Long Kesh? In other words, is it not time to put to the side, those issues which they know that they cannot agree on and that only prevent any progress in Northern Ireland, to work on the very real problems that affect everyone’s life?


Everyone’s concern must be, as Dr. John Kyle put it last year at the PUP Party Conference,


We’re not opposed to Protestant poverty, we’re opposed to poverty. We’re not opposed to Protestant unemployment, we’re opposed to unemployment. Unemployment is a curse and wherever it is in our country or our city we are working to get rid of it.  Sectarianism is looking after yourself and if we act only in narrow self interest then morally we’re bankrupt. Sectarianism is corrosive and damaging to our communities and we don’t need it.


This is particularly important now, under the Conservative-LibDem Coalition. In Northern Ireland, the Con-LibDem alliance, committed to the austerity programs, which we know are now discredited, cuts the NHS, Education, Welfare, Arts and on and on. Where is the response? The divided communities cannot act in concert because of the national question and lingering and sometimes outright sectarianism that exists in both communities. Consequently, the government continues its assault on the welfare state.  These attacks, in particular the cuts to education, social welfare and the NHS affect everyone.  Therefore, there has to be a coordinated response to these attacks.


So, how do we break out of the narrow confines of only caring about Protestant or Catholic poverty or Protestant or Catholic problems?  This is where the strategic alliances come in.  I would argue that this means, as someone here told me many years ago, the creation of “a society where you’ll see some unholy alliances, an alliance against those who’ve benefitted from the “Troubles” by keeping the lower classes apart.”  I would argue that it is now time for this “unholy alliance” and the creation of the alliances across party lines and sectarian and ethnic divisions to work for the betterment of all the people of Northern Ireland on the key social, economic and educational issues. Like the prisoners in Long Kesh, you do not need to surrender your principles to work on issues that are important to everyone. However, you need to suppress sectarianism and be willing to put aside the irreconcilable differences to work on common interests.


I believe everyone in Northern Ireland recognizes that the moment has come where talking about the problem/s stops and the difficult work of finding a way to solve the social, economic, and educational issues, begins.  The strategic alliances across the many divides may be the start of that process.






[1] “The Long Kesh Visits,” Orange Cross 51 (March 1974).

[2] Garland, Roy, Gusty Spence (Belfast:  Blackstaff Press, 2001), 282-283

[3] Taylor, Peter, Loyalists: War and Peace in Northern Ireland, (New York:  TV Books, L.L.C., 1999), 216-217.

[4] Jim Gibney, “Annual Bodenstown Speech 1992 Address by Sinn Féin’s Jim Gibney” Sinn Fein, June 1992,, (7 May 2011).



[6] “The Long Kesh Visits,” Orange Cross 51 (March 1974).


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