WHO SET THE REAL LOYALIST AGENDA DURING THE CONFLICT?
Ex-Blanket columnist and Radical Unionist commentator DR JOHN COULTER asks loyalists to thoroughly examine the influences on their agenda during the Troubles, urging them to probe the role of the British Establishment.
How many combatants ended up in jail or the grave because they were used by the British Establishment in London to implement the Westminster Government’s agenda for Northern Ireland?
This is a major question which the UVF, Red Hand Commando – indeed members of all loyalist armed groups – must ask themselves when putting their role into an historical context, not just for the current generations, but for future generations.
Quite often it has been suggested that the loyalist groups were merely implementing the selfish political agendas of either ‘Big House’ Unionism, or firebrand fundamentalist Protestantism.
For many years, the Unionist Party was effectively a political ‘closed shop’ for working class Protestants. Even to attend many Unionist Association meetings run by the Unionist aristocracy, people needed a formal, printed invitation.
This method ensured the meetings would be filled with the so-called Fur Coat Brigade of Unionism.
However, once O’Neill and Chichester-Clark as Northern Ireland Prime Ministers began their policies of reform, the ultra Right of ‘Big House’ and ‘Agricultural Family’ Unionism would leak Unionist meeting tickets to working class loyalists, and especially supporters of Rev Ian Paisley’s fledgling Protestant Unionist Party, later the DUP.
When firebrand working class fundamentalism entered the mainstream of Unionism, many loyalists found themselves caught up with the emotion of hot-headed speeches and in many cases blindly followed the tub-thumping agendas into a jail cell or icy grave.
While these two agendas were to the fore in explaining how many ‘got involved’ with violent loyalist groups, there is a third agenda which must be addressed – that of the British colonial Establishment.
While the majority of loyalists see themselves as an integral part of the United Kingdom, many within the English Establishment in London still viewed Northern Ireland as a colonial part of the Empire, much like India, Palestine, or Africa.
The defeat of the IRA during the 1956-62 campaign was not a victory for British colonial strategies, but the inability of the IRA leadership to get its terror campaign beyond the Ulster border itself.
In short, 56-62 was a border confrontation and failed for two essential reasons – the IRA’s inability to develop the terror into other areas of the Province, especially Belfast, Londonderry and in traditionally Protestant towns.
Secondly, the Unionist Government at Stormont had the military advantage of the B Specials, who knew their specific localities indepth. Up to date and highly accurate intelligence from the B Men was a major reason for the 56-62 terrorist catastrophe for republicans.
There was no need for the Westminster administration to implement a colonial-style military solution using regular troops because the RUC full-timers and B Specials were sufficiently equipped in both weaponry and intelligence to keep the IRA contained to the border region.
In pure defensive terms, there was no need for a UVF, Red Hand or UDA as a counter-terrorist measure as the ‘home-grown’ solution provided by Stormont with the B Men as the pivotal plank worked effectively.
The Troubles which erupted in the late 1960s became a radically different terrorist challenge. Republicans had learned by their earlier mistakes.
For them, an armed struggle had to involve not just the border, but the whole of Northern Ireland and even mainland Britain.
Unlike 56-62, republicans matched their terror war with a political campaign, first to get the B Specials disbanded, then Stormont axed, and eventually getting the Ulster Defence Regiment merged.
Republican strategy was to cut out any Unionist ‘home grown’ link to defeating the IRA. Based on their colonial experiences, the British Government believed it could then defeat the IRA with a military solution as it had fought the Mau-Maus in Kenya, the Stern Gang in Palestine, and nationalist militants in India.
With this scenario in mind, the loyalist armed groups took on a different perspective. Internment and Bloody Sunday had back-fired badly against the Westminster Government.
The IRA presented itself as the defenders of the Catholic people. The British Army simply could not shoot Catholics randomly as it did in Londonderry in 1972 – but it could encourage the loyalist groups to follow this agenda.
The British agenda for a military solution was simple – kill enough Catholics and moderate nationalism will turn against the IRA and demand a ceasefire.
Did the London Establishment encourage the loyalist groups to go beyond their traditionally defensive agenda and pursue a pro-active strategy against Catholics as if Ulster had become the Northern Ireland version of Kenya?
Republicans screamed ‘collusion’ to high heaven, especially when UDA spy and British agent Brian Nelson brought in one of the biggest weapons consignments for loyalists since the famous Larne gun-running for the original UVF in April 1914.
By arming loyalists, was the British Establishment unveiling Plan B of its agenda – the targeting of republicans themselves? Was the British agenda a twin-track approach – killing Catholics to expose the IRA and INLA’s inability to protect the nationalist population, while at the same time eliminating key republicans?
While this may seem that loyalism was dancing to the British Establishment’s tune, could it be more an accurate picture that loyalism became independent of this British agenda of influence and began to formulate its own military strategy?
The British Establishment had used its own agents and moles within republicanism to both eliminate those key republicans who would pose a barrier to a ceasefire and push the so-called Sinn Fein peace strategy within republicanism.
The Loughgall ambush in the 1980s in which eight senior and experienced members of the IRA’s East Tyrone Brigade were wiped out by the SAS has been attributed to a mole within the IRA.
But was this East Tyrone Brigade ‘set up’ from within the republican movement because the Sinn Fein leadership knew it might defect from the mainstream organisation and form an independent terror gang?
With the massive South African arms shipment under their belts, loyalist groups could double the amount of successful attacks on Catholics and republicans.
Was this a case of the British Establishment taking a back seat while the loyalists acted out their own agenda?
It is now vitally important that when loyalism is analysing its role in the conflict it precisely examines all influences on its agenda, and not simply the obvious factors of ‘Big House’ aristocratic Unionism and fundamentalist sermons.