Sam-Chalky-White is a 57 year old member of the Democratic Unionist Party and a former loyalist prisoner. He has a background in community development work in East Belfast and is hotly tipped to replace Gavin Robinson on the Belfast City Council.
The Contemporary loyalist unlike in the past, no longer appear confident and superior. Compared with the days of the Ulster Workers’ Strike of 1974, or the huge loyalist demonstrations against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s, the loyalist protests over the Union flag have been very small affairs.
The things loyalists once held dear – Britishness, the monarchy, no longer mean much to the British establishment, which has found new ways to maintain its rule in Northern Ireland. That said, Sinn Fein has been drawn into the peace process via the Good Friday Agreement signed in April 1998; these republicans have signed up to a new, reformed six-county state. The reward for this compromise has been increasing ‘parity of esteem’ in terms of identity politics and symbols.
Many working-class loyalists, however, have never really accepted the peace process and view it as Sinn Fein and republicans waging war by other means. Watching Sinn Fein becoming the largest party on Belfast City Council was bad enough for loyalists; seeing Sinn Fein successfully have the Union flag removed from City Hall was too much to take, hence protesting throughout the province.
While some commentators think the distinction between ‘loyalism’ and ‘Unionism’ revolves around attitudes to violence, class was and is a much more significant aspect. Loyalist paramilitaries are deeply rooted in the poorest sections of the Protestant working class. That said, out of that loyalism has been an underappreciated expression of Protestant working-class consciousness. Today, the resentment of young working-class loyalists towards middle–class Unionists in their leafy suburbs is concerning, and is part of what makes up the siege mentality on display in the flags protest. Loyalists increasingly view Unionist politicians in the same way they view republicans, the cross-community Alliance Party and British politicians: as untrustworthy enemies, still, the recent unionist pact has installed a relative arena of trust giving way to more in depth cultural safety and less marginalising within loyalist communities.
While many loyalists, what is happening in loyalism today as a bold move to embrace the peace process, I argue it differently. Ulster loyalism is a dramatically fragmented force that has been dragged towards embracing the Good Friday Agreement. When Britain needed an aggressive, supremacist majority to guarantee British rule, loyalists played that role to the core. Now Britain needs loyalists to behave differently in order to secure the status quo; it needs them to adopt the therapeutic language of accommodation and respect for diversity. The loyalists who ignore the new script and refuse to adapt to their old ally’s new demands will find that their devotion to the British state cuts little ice.