The Fresh Start agreement provides a unique opportunity for genuine transformation initiatives. The opportunity is there for loyalism to create positive pathways in order to bring previously disengaged communities or organisations into the realm
of purely democratic activism, undertaken in the spirit of lawfulness.
It is a chance for current loyalism to leave future loyalism on a sound footing; equipped to fight effectively on a lawful community, civic and political battlefield. It is also a chance to provide care and help for those suffering from mental health or other issues as a result of the conflict.
This positive work should not, as has often been the case, be viewed by loyalism as simply an opportunity to access money. Endless funding streams may benefit a select few gatekeepers, but it does nothing to build the capacity of the grassroots.
Many have watched in despair as initiatives- such as the Social Investment Fund- are used as little more than a slush fund, benefitting a select few community organisations- hand picked without any transparent bidding process- and providing no tangible benefits for the most disengaged sections of the community.
Resources and financial assistance should not be dependent upon political subservience, erecting posters for the Government or acting as cheerleaders for same. Too often resources are delivered as a reward for political support; rather than as part of a genuine desire to encourage positive community empowerment.
Many victims, survivors and also ex combatants suffer from daily mental health issues, employment/travel issues and a lack of educational opportunities. These issues must be addressed in order to start a genuine process of community empowerment.
Loyalism must, however, be alert to, and aware of, the dangers of becoming reliant upon financial incentives. Such an approach only encourages a ‘cash for culture’ trade off process. In such a situation loyalism is frozen out of the political arena; the price of such lucrative financial incentives is often that loyalism must know their place in the pyramid, which is as a willing underclass of big house Unionism. This is not empowerment or progression, it is paid suppression.
The aforementioned cynical use of financial streams by the political status quo- to buy political support and suppress opposition- should also be robustly challenged.
Resources should be, and must be, made available to support the needs of disengaged communities and empower- in the spirit of a Fresh Start – those who genuinely wish to engage in positive transformation work.
This work, however, must be matched by genuinely transformed attitudes towards loyalism by the policing and justice apparatus.
A progressive fresh start cannot run parallel with a regressive policing and justice strategy. The use of emergency provisions- such as diplock courts, informers and super-grass trials- is not conducive to incentivising previously disengaged sections of loyalism to proactively engage in the new dispensation.
This is not, however, to say that loyalism- or any other section of the community, including many state sponsored crime gangs- should receive special treatment. It is to say that loyalists should be treated equally under the law and held equally subject to the law.
Using soft intelligence to allege that a loyalist is linked to an organisation such as the UVF- that is on ceasefire, and not engaged in terrorism- as current justification for a Diplock court, for non terrorist related offences, is especially draconian and poses challenges for the spirit of the Fresh Start agreement.
Diplock courts were designed to deal with terrorism related offences during the conflict, and Section 1 of the Justice and Security Act 2007 left behind the option of this provision due to the ongoing threat of dissident republican terrorism.
Instead of being used solely for terrorist related offences; we now find that loyalists are being hauled before Diplock courts under Section 1 of the Justice and Security act for non-terrorist related offences.
These are matters for which any ordinary citizen would face a jury of their peers; but for those who PSNI believe may have been former combatants, they still cajole the PPS- who, as always, are willing participants in every witch hunt against loyalism- to issue Diplock court certificates. How, in the spirit of the Fresh Start, is this everyone being treated equally under the law?
If one accepts the bona fides of those engaging through the mechanisms outlined in the apparently progressive Fresh Start; then a draconian and regressive policing and justice strategy- which pursues loyalists differently than other citizens- is simply quite the opposite.
The current policing and justice attitude towards loyalism is not, however, the same thing as legacy issues; and it is important that the two issues remain largely separate.
Legacy issues require positive leadership and commitment on all sides in order to find an agreed way forward, being especially mindful of the needs of victims and survivors of the conflict.
Policing in the present is distinctly different from policing the past, however, the two become entwined when loyalism’s past becomes the baseline for justifying what are effectively emergency provisions in the present. This is when the present is policed by the past, and that is not only regressive- but entirely at odds with the trajectory of the Fresh Start agreement.
For those committed to the Fresh Start, community engagement must be genuine and transparent. The move into the new battlefield of community activism and/or purely democratic politics must be real; you can not coerce, intimidate or attack you own community to force them to bend to your will.
You cannot demand that a community acquiesce to your every wish, and if they refuse, then physically attack them. Again, that is not community engagement or empowerment- but aggressive suppression of your own community.
There is much positive work ongoing within loyalism. Ironically, this genuine transformational work is usually under-resourced and under the radar.
Resources are more often than not directed towards those who know their place in the contrived pyramid- which demeans loyalism as nothing more than a political support base for big house Unionism.
Those who have benefited handsomely from resources during the ‘peace process’ have more often than not been those who were willing to suppress any ambition within their own community which ran contrary to the status quo.
If the Fresh Start is to to prove effective then resources and assistance need to be channelled into the genuine and positive transformational work that seeks to empower communities and encourage political engagement and civic activism.
Loyalism must always work from the baseline of encouraging community progression, not suppression.