Latest initiative won’t fix fractured loyalism

Posted By: October 15, 2015

Allison Morris. Irish News (Belfast).Thursday, October 15, 2015
As Jonathan Powell continued to smile while straining his ears to understand my west Belfast accent as I put a question to him regarding the new loyalist unity initiative this week, I realised he was that unusual thing in politics, a half glass full type of person.

Tony Blair’s former right hand man is now a peace building expert who travels the world dealing with conflict situations and helping in the aftermath of peace accords.

His experience is based on the fact he spent almost nine years of his life in deep negotiations to help bring an end to over three decades of conflict as the then British prime minister’s chief of staff.

The Blair administration managed to get the deal over the line by negotiating with republicans and reaching compromise on key issues.

Despite loyalist political involvement at the time, with hindsight it seems it was mainly a deal negotiated between the British and Irish governments who both worked on convincing republicans of its merits, with loyalism not given any long- term consideration.

Politically the Good Friday Agreement was a huge undertaking and agreeing a way forward required some seriously tough decisions.

Among them was the early release of all paramilitary prisoners, which angered and distressed many victims and freed hundreds of men and women convicted of serious crimes with no proper mechanism to deal with how they would be integrated back into society.

Despite this the most controversial aspect of the agreement has been relatively successful with only a handful of the 450 or so people released ever returned to prison for other offences.

Some of those former prisoners as we now know went on to pursue political careers and in Sinn Féin’s case hold senior positions in government.

The political success of Sinn Féin may make it seem as though republican communities have benefited more than others from peace but perception is not reality.

Almost all deprivation indicators still show areas of most social need are those in mainly nationalist areas. Educational underachievement is a major problem for working class young men in both communities not just loyalist although that is often the perception.

Loyalists feel they’ve been short-changed by the peace process not because they’re doing any worse financially but because they’ve been constantly told they’re losing out by mainstream unionist politicians who use it as a way to terrify them into submission.

Loyalists have often been the plaything of unionism dating back to when the late Ian Paisley rabble-roused them onto the streets before his transformation from demagogue to chuckling first minister – a turnaround that left many of those who had followed him up to the top of the hill confused and directionless.

More recently both unionist parties bear responsibility for encouraging, through an inflammatory leaflet, the flag protests that descended into chaos and street violence, indoctrinating a new generation of young people into paramilitary groups.

Powell’s interest in this current initiative, calling itself the Loyalist Communities Council, is said to stem from his guilt that loyalists were ignored by the Blair administration during those intense negotiations.

He seems totally genuine in his concern for how those communities have been pushed further into the margins of society in the 21 years since the loyalist ceasefires.

On the journey to the Park Avenue Hotel in east Belfast on Tuesday afternoon we passed numerous freshly painted murals of masked loyalist gunmen. The presence of such military inspired murals at this juncture is a sign that loyalism has unresolved issues of the most serious nature.

The statement issued this week on behalf of the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando was short on any real details, talk of disbandment now dismissed the LCC instead talks of a disenfranchised community.

Already grassroots loyalists have dismissed the project as offering nothing for them, there simply aren’t enough community jobs to go around to appease everyone.

Buying peace is unwise because without an endless pit of money no matter how much is thrown at a problem it’ll never be enough.

In fact employment for the chosen few will only create further resentment long term.

Engaging working class people and encouraging them to use their vote to elect people who will represent them rather than use them like useful idiots is a worthwhile project.

Loyalism is fractured, damaged by the legacy of feuds and power struggles that have left former friends now sworn enemies while former enemies are now friends.

There are those involved in the LCC on an academic level who are filled with hope and good intentions.

However, given the failure of similar unity projects, the lack of any real direction and the absence of significant sections of loyalism at this week’s launch, unlike Jonathan Powell, I don’t share their optimism.