Where to for Loyalism?
I have met many loyalists over a very long time. In prison. Out of prison. In secret or in private talks going back to the 1970s. And many times since then. I like to think that some of us became friends. Or at least we became friendly. Some loyalist leaders played a crucial role in the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement. They deserve great credit for that. That was then. Unfortunately some of those involved have died or are no longer active. In other instances more progressive elements have been replaced by a younger cohort, with little interest in politics or experience of prison or conflict. Twenty five years after the Good Friday Agreement the main loyalist organisations remain in existence. Why?
Maybe for some it is a way of life. For others it is a lucrative way of life especially for those who are involved in the illegal drugs trade. In many cases it is impossible to distinguish between the two. There is not even a pretense that they are interested in anything other than racketeering, extortion, drug pushing and money making. But not all loyalists are like that.
Incidentally, the scourge of illegal drugs is not confined to any one section here. It is a huge problem also in other communities across this island with some of the gangs involved flying ‘republican’ flags of convenience and also cooperating with their ‘loyalist’ counterparts in criminal activities. In my view this is a policing issue which requires a more urgent and strategic focus by the PSNI and An Garda Síochána.
So what is loyalist paramilitarism about today? In the past the main loyalist organisations were run as ‘counter gangs’ by British and RUC Special Branch. In fact some were established or resurrected by British Intelligence agencies. This is now a matter of public record. So is collusion. There was also a crossover between membership of the old B Specials and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) and loyalist paramilitaries. The main unionist political parties also maintained a close relationship with the main loyalist paramilitaries. In fact the DUP set up its own paramilitary groups including Ulster Resistance which went on to import arms from the Apartheid regime in South Africa in 1988. To my knowledge Ulster Resistance has never been properly investigated by our media nor did it engage with the Commission responsible for putting weapons beyond use.
So why are loyalist paramilitaries still in existence? They obviously still recruit. So too, it seems, do so called republican dissident groups. Those who genuinely disagree with Sinn Féin should do the decent thing and pursue their aims peacefully and politically. There is no reason for armed groups to exist.
For its part when the IRA formally ended its armed struggle in 2005 it stopped recruiting and left the stage. Sinn Féin has effectively filled that space and is the only republican movement nowadays. Sinn Féin is committed to purely political modes if struggle. It also has widespread popular support.
Loyalist working class people have no such organization, even in skeletal form to represent them. Since the death of David Ervine, the loss of Billy Hutchinson’s seat in last year’s Council elections and the resignation of Dawn Purvis some years ago there seems little chance of loyalism organizing itself politically and separately from the main unionist parties. This is despite their intense hostility towards in particular the DUP. They freely vent against the way they have been used and abused in the past. They give off about the failure – or refusal- of the main unionist parties to secure services for deprived areas. And then they go off and electioneer for the very same parties which exploit them in this way.
At the same time there are individuals including former loyalist prisoners, and some of the above, doing their best to improve conditions for their communities, which like their working class republican counterparts suffer greatly from disadvantage and poverty. In my opinion these are decent people as much opposed to the drugs trade and wanting better opportunities for young people as the rest of us.
There are numerous other activists in the civic and community sector, across Belfast loyalist neighbourhoods, particularly the women’s sector, with no paramilitary connections whatsoever, doing great work to tackle sectarianism and inequality. There are also former loyalist prisoners, alongside republicans, doing important work in Belfast’s so-called interface areas to ease tensions especially at times of heightened difficulties.
Getting them to go beyond this is extremely difficult. Maybe they don’t have the influence or the inclination at this time to do more. Maybe others would make life too difficult for them.
For our part those of us who are committed to the aim of uniting Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters should not give up on our loyalist neighbours. We can agree to disagree on the constitutional future of this place while coo-operating on social and economic needs. That means being avowedly anti-sectarian. At a personal level. At a community level. And eventually at governmental level.
Peace requires respect for Palestinian rights
The four day ceasefire in Gaza and the release of hostages, including Emily Hand the nine year old Irish/Israeli child, was a welcome development. Every effort must now be made to ensure the release of all hostages. But this must include those Palestinian hostages – now numbering in their thousands and including many children – some of whom have been interned by Israel for years.
The attacks by the Israeli army on the families of Palestinian hostages is reprehensible. The occupation of northern Gaza, the indiscriminate attacks on civilians, and the ongoing attacks against Palestinian families on the west Bank is evidence of the Israeli government’s determination to maintain its apartheid system. A Palestinian population almost equivalent to the entire population of the North has been forcibly displaced as refugees. Over 15,000 people are now believed to have been killed in Gaza and almost half of these have been children. The dreadful images of broken bodies, of shocked and wounded and orphaned children have moved millions around the world to cry STOP to Israel’s genocidal slaughter of innocents.
The public claim by Israel that its military objective in Gaza and the west Bank is to destroy Hamas and to provide security for its future is false. Neither of these will be achieved. Israel’s current strategy has strengthened Hamas support among Palestinians. No one with any sense can believe that the last six weeks of industrial level destruction in Gaza will have improved Israel’s security.
On the contrary Israel is becoming increasingly isolated internationally. Around the world millions are on the streets week after week demanding a permanent ceasefire and justice for the Palestinian people. The EU political consensus is breaking down with some government’s criticising Israel and others now openly advocating for Palestinian statehood. Moreover, Israeli efforts to find allies among Arab states, has taken a significant battering.
Thirty years ago – after the Oslo Accords the Middle East peace process held out the real potential for a two state settlement. As Seamus Heaney so wisely explained it in our own place in 1994 after the IRA cessation – it was a space in which hope can grow. That’s what happened here. Against all the odds. Because there was leadership to nurture the hope. But in the Middle East it was not to be. Successive Israeli governments, and especially those led by Netanyahu, have deliberately undermined that latent possibility choosing instead to expand its theft of Palestinian land. They have institutionalised an apartheid system of control and domination as inhumane and pervasive as that of South Africa. The desire for an exclusively Zionist state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan has become for many – but not all Israelis – the dominant aim of Zionism.
Whatever process of negotiations and peace efforts emerge out of the current crisis it will only succeed if the Zionist dispossession, occupation and apartheid regime is ended. National self-determination and equality of opportunity and respect for the rights of Palestinians - alongside the rights of their Israeli neighbours, has to be the bedrock of any peace process.
The Far Right must be challenged
The horrifying stabbing in Dublin last week of three children and a woman from Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire and the subsequent street violence was shocking. And the bravery of those who tackled the attacker is to be commended. The burning of Garda cars and buses and the looting of shops must be condemned. But that is not enough. There are real questions about how these events were handled and about the lack of resources, policing capacity and intelligence.
The people of Dublin’s inner city are decent people. The far right represents only a tiny fraction of the population. But as in Europe and elsewhere they are a violent fraction eager to foment division, promote disinformation, and encourage racism and hate. They must be opposed, challenged at every opportunity. So, well done to all of those who participated in the trade union sponsored rally at the GPO on Monday.
Those involved in the violence will undoubtedly, as the Government has promised, face the full rigours of the law. But a thorough investigation is also required of Garda handling of the events. And a multi agency led strategy of social inclusion is also urgently needed so that all of our young people have equality of opportunity.