Christian Churches Can Help Loyalist Integration

Dr John Coulter is a former columnist with The Blanket. From a Protestant background, he is a commentator on Unionist and Loyalist politics. He is a member of the NUJ.

If theChristianChurchesacrossIrelandwant to integrate the loyalist working class properly into society, they need to ensure they do not adopt a Biblical-style Pharisee attitude towards such Protestants.

All too often, middle-class, church-attending Unionists have literally ‘turned their noses up’ at working class loyalists who have been jailed or even arrested in connection with the conflict.


In practical terms, it is the Protestant denominations which need to adopt the historic Unionist motto, For God And Ulster, and stop treating the loyalist working class as if they have Biblical leprosy.

The real attitude allChristianChurchesshould adopt towards the loyalist working class can be found in the Beatitudes, which Jesus Christ preached during the Sermon on the Mount. However, the support which individual churches and clerics have provided for the loyalist working class should not go unrecognised.

Generally speaking, working class loyalism feels politically abandoned by middle class Unionism. Like the DUP and UUP, theChristianChurcheshave a moral obligation to get the loyalist working class to re-engage with both politics and society.

With the double-dip recession biting hard, it is no wonder many in the loyalist working class view both theChristianChurchesand faith with suspicion, given the history of the conflict. In blunt terms, how many working class Protestants have ended up in prison or the cemetery because they followed the blood-stirring sermons of fundamentalist preachers?

For generations, the middle class and upper class-dominated Unionist parties relied heavily on working class Protestant votes to remain in power. Even in the 1960s, many working class loyalist housing developments – both rural and urban – lacked the comforts of an inside toilet. High-brow Unionism only wanted the working class when Stormont andWestminsterelections came around.

Many working class Protestants were natural Labour voters, but to the Right-wing elite who ran the Unionist Party, socialism was a dirty word and part of a fictitious communist plot to dump Loyal Ulster into a unitedIreland. Indeed, the so-called Unionist Labour movement was only launched by the Unionist leadership to combat the emerging threat from the old Northern Ireland Labour Party.

Is it any wonder that when many loyalists found themselves in prison, they often turned their backs on church-dominated, Right-wing Unionist politics, and pursued the political path of loyalist socialism. Unfortunately to many loyalists, Christianity became associated with the firebrand theology which had landed many of them in jail.

Setting up pious soup kitchens, holding fund-raising car boot sales in safe areas, and giving out Christmas hampers is not firm evidence of the Churches re-engaging with the loyalist working class. The Churches need to get out of the pews and into the communities. Christ Himself was not found in the upper echelons of the synagogues; He was found with the people on the streets.

Ian Paisley senior built his Democratic Unionist Party by giving a voice to two voiceless sections of Protestant opinion – the working class and fundamentalist Christians. However, the DUP’s biggest political coup was to overtake the Ulster Unionists as the main Unionist Party. To do this, it had to take over the UUP’s natural political ground – the Protestant middle class. This the DUP achieved in the 2003 Assembly poll.

But the DUP has made a fundamental political error which its Stormont Executive coalition partner, Sinn Fein, has not. For Sinn Fein to become the leading nationalist party, it had to eat in substantially to the moderate SDLP’s natural hunting ground – the Catholic middle class.

This Sinn Fein has achieved, but without abandoning its Catholic working class republican heartlands. Further proof that Sinn Fein has been able to maintain its grip on its Catholic working class strongholds is that parties and so-called political movements representing the dissident republican position have not been able to take Sinn Fein seats.

In the loyalist community, the parties which gave political advice to loyalist paramilitaries have not had the same electoral success as Sinn Fein within the republican community. If the mainstream Unionist parties are perceived to be abandoning the loyalist working class, then maybe parties such as the Progressive Unionists should mobilise the Protestant working class by working with the Christian Churches, not the mainstream Unionist parties. 

Sinn Fein has always had a love/hate relationship with the Irish Catholic Church. But there has only been one Catholic Church. Denominationally, Protestantism is split into more than two dozen different Churches, all claiming to represent the Reformed Faith. In this respect, there is a variety of opinion towards the Protestant working class by such Churches.

Practically, the parties and organisations which offer political advice to the loyalist community should seek to work with those Churches and clerics who have the plight of the working class at heart. The challenge for former and existing members of loyalist groups is to set aside any past notions on Christianity and work with these Churches and clerics.

It is time for a new coalition to be formed within the Protestant working class communities, whether urban or rural. That coalition should be between sympatheticChristianChurchesand loyalist groups – not the loyalists and mainstream Unionist parties. The Beatitudes in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount could be the basis for discussion on forming such a coalition.


2 Responses to Christian Churches Can Help Loyalist Integration

  1. Mark Gordon

    I really enjoyed John Coulter’s article and have to agree with him that all too often Christians are afraid to come out of their comfort zones to engage with communities. For many, Christian engagement is pigeon holed into a safe compartment namely ‘Outreach without reaching out’, or without having to get one’s hands dirtied. Over the years I have witnessed certain Christians spend their energies and substance in prison ministries only to be vilified for working with ‘the likes of them lot’ or wonderful Christian workers like the late Billy Mitchell being repeatedly castigated for his role, while his critics failed to recognise his efforts as a peacebuilder in helping bring about the present day peace process. I hope as a Christian that I can make a difference working in a Protestant working class community, engaging with ex-prisoners and ex-combatants to help bring about changes that benefit this community. Christians who really want to make a difference need to be different and think differently.

    • Mark – thanks for your comments and a perspective we don’t readily hear too often.
      Having worked with Billy for years he most certainly ‘breaks the mould’ with his attempts at peace-building and reaching out. Sadly, the mainstream church community have, by and large, failed to do likewise and would still be judgmental about people with paramilitary backgrounds. And whilst that should be no surprise to any of us, it is not reflective of being christian minded. Equally so, none of us can be dismissive of those within the church who are gradually trying to reach out. However, people like yourself who I know from experience are not afraid to ‘get their hands dirtied’ can only make a positive difference and it is encouraging that you will continue what you are attempting to do in place like Bangor and beyond – William.