A dialogue is needed between unionism and loyalism to create a positive, vibrant and attractive Northern Ireland
Of the images that defined the negotiations on the Good Friday Agreement, one symbolizes the possibility of collective unionism.
In it, David Trimble is flanked by representatives of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party who enter Parliament’s premises during the final stages of negotiations. Partly an attempt to neutralize DUP, it claims that Trimble did not represent unionism outside of its own base, but the image nevertheless represented a moment when closer relations between unionism and loyalism no longer seemed unthinkable.
The image was one of shared conviction and not just shared convenience. It emphasized how the dominant unionist party of the time, the UUP and the Loyalists, wanted the GFA to take place and there is no doubt that it would not have happened without the Loyalists.
Now long gone, the statue stands as a reminder of a new missed opportunity, and the predictable dividing lines between unionism and loyalism returned soon after the GFA was completed.
In subsequent years, loyalism has been consistently reduced to a criminal entity and has been portrayed as an obstacle to peace, stability and progress. Continued media attention for illegal activities understandably discourages union members from coming into contact with loyalists and forms of compulsive paramilitarism continue to kill those living in areas where it lurks.
Regardless, the number that continues to use the badge of paramilitarism to exploit others is small (presumably less than five percent of those who maintain some association with paramilitary groups) and acts of great collective kindness and respect are evident Being in loyalist communities during the Covid pandemic, with thousands of meals and support for hundreds of elderly and vulnerable people, the stereotype remains that loyalty is nothing but bad news.
Whose responsibility is it to address this problem and does it make sense to commit to the development of a new collective unionism better suited to ensure the development and continuation of Northern Ireland and the Union?
Of course, the division is the responsibility of both unionism and loyalism, but since unionism benefits from this separation more than loyalism, it is clear that loyalists must enter into dialogue first. To support this process, we would argue that the labels “loyalist” and “loyalism” should be removed, keeping “unionist” and “unionism” the core markers of national loyalty and collective identity.
When loyalism no longer exists, there are clearly no more loyalist problems, only union members. But the shift to a more collective representation that meets the needs of both loyalists and union members depends mainly on new voices and representatives emerging in loyalism capable of challenging unionism and making it more creative and imaginative in how it Union serves and Northern Ireland more generally.
Once the label of loyalism has disappeared, more constructive and pressing discussions can take place about unionist identity, Britishness, the Union, developing relationships both inside and outside Northern Ireland and enabling new expressions in areas such as sport, literature, music, comedy, business, education or politics.
And those discussions should support the promotion of a more diverse and inclusive society, where the importance of compromise, ambiguity, hope and ambition shapes what is said, how it is said and when it is said.
Things are moving under the popular image of loyalist militancy and problems, and if loyalists want the long-term security of the Union to continue, such a move is essential.
Initial change can be subtle, for example with young people not as attracted to symbols of a conflict as they once were, because that conflict slips further into the past. At that point, issues of personal rather than common identity begin to surface, and expectations for the future are more affected by concerns about environmental damage than loss of life from communal violence.
If the idea of equality means anything, it is that class does not matter and that social mobility and ambition are open to everyone
These changes change attitudes and create new concerns. As new opportunities emerge, questions inevitably arise about access and availability. Until now, much of this has been interpreted as part of a “peace dividend” and determined by others who are predominantly, although not entirely, the middle class. As such, many loyalists feel left out of the socio-economic benefits of peace and consider the idea not with interest but with contempt, removed from its appeal and excluded from participating in the better future that it believes has arrived.
If the idea of equality means anything, it is that class does not matter and that social mobility and ambition are open to everyone.
However, the reality is very different. The ability to enjoy both increases dramatically with confidence, opportunity and support. Social groups do not start at the same point in the progression process and therefore mechanisms should be put in place to help those most disadvantaged. Here outside help is needed and not as an imposition, but as a facilitation. It is also an area where union members and unionism can and should do much more.
What is needed is active, focused, coherent strategic thinking, kept simple, and it constantly resonates with those for whom it is intended to serve and help. And the best way to ensure this is when the voice of the locals is included in mainstream discourse, respected for its contribution, and then acted on for its credibility.
All too often, the focus and defense of that past was the goal of the unionist identity. But what really needs defending and nurturing is the future
When people have an interest in change, they are more likely to support and own it. Separated from change and reduced to mere spectators or consumers, they are less emotionally attached to the prospect of success or failure and so indifferent to the potential benefits that may arise.
All too often, the focus and defense of that past was the goal of the unionist identity. But what really needs defending and nurturing is the future. A future built not on a continuation of stasis, but on a new language, new relationships and energetic discussions to help push for diversity and ambition. A preoccupation with preserving identity rather than cultivating identity reflects deep-seated fears about changes in the constitution and how a legacy process could proceed. Although it is unlikely that both will happen for economic and security reasons.
Undoubtedly, the best way to address concerns about the future of Northern Ireland is to enhance the Union’s appeal by welcoming those who do not see themselves as unionists, but are also reluctant to support a united Ireland. The role of the NHS during the pandemic brings a positive message about Britain from which union members should learn and the charter’s emphasis on respect and dignity should be a political model for any decent society.
Hard and rigid views on identity usually keep others out more than welcome them. New trust depends on softening identity and opening up to others. This does not mean that we discard the core of a person’s values and history, but recognize that such values and history change and that it is better to influence that change than to be imposed by others.
With reports of loyalist backlogs still being published and the peace-keeping industry providing comparative performance and non-achievement statistics, it may be wise to remember that statistics and policies do not change attitudes, but dialogue does. This must now urgently take place between unionism and loyalism in order to develop a positive, vibrant and attractive Northern Ireland.
Dr. Graham Spencer is a political conflict reader at the University of Portsmouth and Reverend Chris Hudson is based at All Souls’ Church, Belfast.