Posted By: April 30, 2014

Brian Feeney. Irish News ( Belfast). Wednesday, April 30, 2014.


IF you compare the pantomime in Larne at the weekend with pictures of the UVF in 1914 or the proto-UVF in 1912 you’ll notice important differences. The fact that the men who paraded on Saturday were on average markedly fatter round the middle and clearly not used to much physical exercise is not one. Nor have the faces changed. The best description of loyalists marching is the poet Philip Larkin’s. He worked here in Queen’s library for five years from 1950 and so had plenty of opportunity to observe the behaviour of locals. Of one ‘twalf’[Twelfth] march he wrote: “It was a parade of staggering dullness (every face wore the same ‘taking himself seriously’ expression) and stupefying hypocrisy.” None of that has changed.


What has changed completely from 1914 is this. The people marching on Saturday were on their own. No-one outside the North cared tuppence. Compare that to the posturing between 1912 and 1914. Then the orange order was led by members of the aristocracy. The grand master of Ireland was the Earl of Erne, the lord lieutenant for Co Fermanagh. The UVF were allowed to use the country estates of prominent figures to drill in. Personnel inspecting the ranks were sprinkled with colonels and the UVF was commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir George Richardson. They could count on the support of a couple of dukes. At the 1912 demonstration at Balmoral outside Belfast a couple of dozen Conservative MPs attended. The leader of the opposition Andrew Bonar Law reviewed the marching ranks. On Saturday you’d have been hard pushed to spot a unionist MLA let alone an MP,.


And of course no MP from Britain has a dog in the fight here. Unlike a century ago you’d have had difficulty finding an MP in any British party who even knew about the fancy dress parade in Larne.


In short, for political unionism and professional and middle-class unionists the events in Larne and similar events like the thousands marching through east Belfast in 1913 are an embarrassment. The participants are marching into oblivion because they have served their purpose and have no role to play.


It will take some time for the penny to drop. That was true a century ago too. The dopes plodding around fields didn’t realise they were being used in a Westminster political battle to prevent reform of the House of Lords (hence all the earls and dukes supporting them) and wreck the Liberal party. It took the unionist leader Carson until 1921 to cop on. Then he told the Lords: “What a fool I was. I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into power.” A century ago those people at least had political leaders in the persons of Carson and Craig, misguided and duped though they may have been.


Nowadays their descendants marching aimlessly around Unionist reservations like Larne or the Newtownards Road are leaderless. Oh yes, they have people puffed up with self-importance to bawl commands, the NCos of this world, but they have no elected leaders other than a couple of councillors. They have no viable political aim. There is no-one to tell them what one could be. If they vote at all they vote DUP for want of something better or to keep out the ‘other side’ but they don’t like the DUP and wish they could be rid of them but don’t know how.


In other words the lost sheep milling around on Saturday constitute a societal problem but it’s a problem restricted to the greater Belfast area where they have the numbers to put on a show of strength.


Paradoxically what was on display in Larne on Saturday was in reality a sign of weakness, a demonstration of lack of political power. I

he latest in a series of events, the flag protests, road blocks, the forlorn Twaddell camp, which are acts of manifest desperation by a lost tribe. They know they’ve been deserted by the British generations ago and the people who organised Saturday have contempt for the unionist politicians who have also abandoned them. Where to go?