Understanding Northern Ireland Without Prejudice: A Follow-on to ‘Unheard Voices’.
Following the ‘Unheard Voices’ article which was shared across social media on Saturday and Sunday, we have received some encouraging feedback. A broad range of people, from within and outside of Loyalism, read the article and recognised the internal reflection process which is taking place amongst East Belfast’s Protestant working class. They welcomed the engagement of local people in those issues which affect them, and the civic ways in which those needs were articulated.
This was the reason I wrote the piece, to share the positive and critical thinking which took place in the Strand Arts Centre that evening, and by doing so, allow those people a voice, and begin to unsettle the comfortable assumptions which some commentators hold about Loyalism.
However, we have also received, indirectly I might add, some less than encouraging feedback. These responses are the ones which I hope to address now. As always, I am open to challenge, criticism and counter-argument, both publicly and privately. I will make sure my email address is included when this article is shared. This is not intended to be a ‘final word’, but a step towards a transformative conversation.
The first item I would like to refute is the suggestion that, given my support for Loyalists, I am either connected with, or have been bought off by, the UVF. This is not only a dangerous, not to mention libelous statement, but it also reveals a great deal about the individual who made such a claim. What this means, is that in speaking up for the working classes of East Belfast, I am responding to either partisanship, fear or bribery. Further, the underlying assumption at play is that the working classes of East Belfast are so abhorrent, so beyond reproach, that I could have no other motivation for writing positively about them. What type of person would suggest such a thing? Not a liberal, one would hope.
In addition, the assertion that anyone who discusses Loyalism in a positive way is under the control of paramilitary forces, insults not just me, but a whole school of academics. There are a number of writers, who have worked with Loyalists and produced scholarly research which moves beyond the intellectually lazy assumption that Loyalists are simply ‘thugs’. Professor Peter Shirlow, Professor John Barry, Professor Kieran McEvoy, Professor Jim McAuley, Dr. Connal Parr, Dr. Gareth Mulvenna, Dr. Tony Novosel, Dr. Graham Spencer, Dr. Richard Reed, Dr. Aaron Edwards, Stephen Bloomer and many more besides, have taken the time to work alongside Loyalist communities. Are they all in the pockets of the UVF? Are they simply deluded, these academics? Or do they recognise that Loyalism, like all identities, is complex, and that Loyalists, as citizens and human beings, deserve to be listened to?
The second item I am addressing is the casual, yet also dangerous, mis-reading of my article. I wrote that the discussions on the 27th centered around people’s hopes of securing social housing, decent jobs and schools for the area. Most people read this for what it was; the articulations of a community who have considered their circumstances and strive, not unreasonably, toward those things which all of us do. A home, stable employment, and to live in a vibrant community. I challenge anyone to find sectarianism within these aspirations.
Those who strive to end the politics of ‘Orange and Green’ often point to those things which we all share, and argue that closer attention to these would begin to heal communal rifts. The people of East Belfast agree with them. The common ground is there, if you wish to see it. However, some saw this as a ‘shopping list’ or ‘list of demands’, and critiqued the locals of East Belfast for asking for such things.
Local people observing the area in which they live, reflecting upon community needs, and asking for a say in how resources are applied; is this sectarian? Is it tribal, or paramilitaristic? I don’t think so. It is commonly referred to as participatory budgeting. Cllr. John Barry of the Green Party recently submitted a Motion of Notice to North Down Borough Council to have participatory budgeting implemented there. If he is successful, the people of North Down will have a say in how to use part of the Council’s budget. My question is this: are the people of North Down sectarian for wanting to be involved in how their community is run? Or is it only sectarian when Loyalists do it?
I have spent some time considering why quite a routine article provoked such a hostile response in some areas. There are a number of reasons that a working class community speaking up might make these commentators uncomfortable. It did not fit with their world view. Loyalists are meant to be apathetic, they aren’t meant to know about politics, their areas of expertise are flags, bonfires and parades, right? So far, so prejudiced.
If you are reading this, and consider yourself a progressive, tolerant, liberal figure, you might think, “I can’t be prejudiced, I’m a feminist, I’m pro-choice, I support equal marriage, I want a multicultural Northern Ireland”. These are all laudable qualities, and I share them with you. As do, notably, the PUP. However, all of these traits do not sit comfortably with the routine denigration of any community. That includes Loyalists.
When reflecting on the possibility that Loyalism might be progressive, you might also want to ask yourself how Cllr Julie-Anne Corr was successfully nominated and elected, by those backward Loyalists whom you despise. Or indeed, how one can attend both the Twelfth and Gay Pride. Such complexities are no doubt unsettling, but to remain blind to them is to perpetuate prejudice.
Despite the demand, often issued from the liberal middle, that Loyalism abandon its ‘irrational’ attachments to flags and parades, and focus on the real, bread and butter issues, when Loyalists do so, as they did on the 27th, they remain, in the eyes of our great liberal comrades, the ‘sectarian thugs’ whom they have always been.
This refusal to modify one’s position in response to new information, is anathema to rational thought, one of the pillars of liberalism. Indeed, it is of particular interest to me, because, like many, I would like to see Northern Ireland build a genuine and inclusive peace. I believe that to do so, we should begin to seriously listen to others. Not just the others who agree with us, which is reassuring, but a form of stasis. We should be listening to those whose views and beliefs we disagree with. For the ‘liberal middle’, whom this article is addressed to, the ‘other’ is Loyalism.
There are, of course, no obligations to challenge our own preconceptions. We are free individuals, and can nurse our bigotries and reassure ourselves that there is little point engaging with our opponents. This might bring comfort but it won’t bring progress However, for the self-appointed ‘progressive thinkers’ of Northern Irish society, there is an obligation to listen, and to be self-critical. In claiming to be non-sectarian, rational thinkers, these people invite us to challenge their statements, and reveal their internal inconsistencies.
These people dismiss Loyalism as violent, uneducated, obsessed with flags, intolerant, racist, right-wing, sectarian and regressive. This, they are certain of. They have formed these opinions, perhaps from personal encounter, but more likely from the tired and recycled media narratives of Loyalism, which ought to be confined to the history bin.
However, when confronted with the notion that Loyalists are actually more concerned with living in houses which aren’t riddled with damp, or reforming a school system which is systematically failing young, Protestant males, or indeed, having some shops to visit near their homes, how do our great, liberal peacemakers respond?
They don’t. What was said cannot be called a response. Because a response requires that one reflect on what the other has said, and frame their own contribution accordingly. They have already decided what Loyalism is, and nothing we, or Loyalists say, will alter this. To these people, and I am grateful they are in a minority, I finish with this: if you, the self-styled saviours of our wounded and divided society, cannot listen to your fellow citizens because their identity disgusts you, then you are not part of the solution. You are the problem, and you should be utterly ashamed to call yourself a liberal.