A Question of Loyalty?

ImageSince Sunday the streets of North Belfast have reverted to the old stereotypes of Northern Ireland circa 1972. Or 2005. Or 2011. Take your pick. Loyalists and Republicans have once again communicated a complex message to people in the rest of the United Kingdom, but what lies at the bottom of this most recent toxic explosion? The broad picture is easy to comprehend. The agitating of the dissident Republicans is dramatically simple – they feel that the ancient Fenian tradition of ‘blood sacrifice’ has been surrendered by the Sinn Fein powerbrokers who now sit in Stormont. As always with Republicans the first item on the agenda is the split and the dissidents are adamant that rather than adopting parliamentary means paramilitary muscle is the only way to gain a united Ireland.

            Trying to understand the particularities of the recent trouble in North Belfast is less straightforward. The area in which the rioting has occurred since Sunday evening has always been a flammable geographical spread. The Lower Shankill estate abuts the predominantly Catholic Lower Antrim Road and Donegall Street. This episode has become a hotbed of personal vendettas between the rival communities in the area.

During the traditional Orange festivities on July 12th this year a band, the Young Conway Volunteers, from the Shankill area stopped outside a Catholic church in Upper Donegall Street and were caught on film marching round in circles while playing ‘The Famine Song’. Apologists on the Unionist side fancifully stated that the band was entertaining the assembled throng by playing The Beach Boys standard ‘Sloop John B’ whose tune the song under scrutiny is based upon. Nelson McCausland, a DUP MLA from North Belfast stated in his blog that the marchers were taking a natural break to allow the County Grand Lodge officers at the front of the parade to lay a wreath to the war dead at the Cenotaph at the side of the City Hall. This begs the question as to why the YCV were playing any music at all. Such a solemn part of the day’s celebrations should be marked with appropriate reverence. Interestingly this didn’t appear worth consideration in any analyses of the day’s events.

The nearby Republican protestors who objected to the behaviour of the YCV display as much lack of nuance as the Loyalists that they attempt to castigate at every turn. In North Belfast it is only necessary to throw a little petrol on a problem to make it an explosive crisis. So, the tempo for the rest of the summer had been set. When Republicans marched past the Orange Hall in nearby Clifton Street on Sunday Loyalists saw an opportunity to ‘return the serve’ and demonstrate their objections in the same violent manner in which Republicans had behaved following the events of 12th July in Ardoyne.

The Loyalist community are suffering because of the ‘No Surrender’ mentality which once served them and their forebears so well. Rather than view Sunday as a chance to go hand to hand with the police and create more negative images for the press they would have been better served – indeed better advised by their political and community leaders – to take the moral high ground. If Nelson McCausland, for example, has the best interests of the Protestant working class people he claims to represent at heart he would have been in the midst of the Loyalists in the Lower Shankill on Sunday giving them counsel on how best to channel their energies. The crux of the problem is that the Loyalist community view the apparent double standards of the Parades Commission as another deviant mechanism designed solely with the destruction of their culture in mind. One need only look at the number of parades which successfully pass off in Northern Ireland during the summer to see that this is far from being anywhere near the truth. The DUP are content to re-emphasise the negative narrative surrounding the Parades Commission in order to appear staunchly pro-Loyalist while sharing power with Sinn Fein.

Loyalist community workers who have worked so hard in attempting to transform Protestant working class communities in the post-conflict era need the help of the politicos in the DUP in calming people’s nerves. The Protestant working class are an integral part of the United Kingdom and British culture yet the current malaise in which they are once again engaged only serves to set them further back in a broad spectrum which is multicultural and becoming increasingly intolerant of anachronistic displays of Britishness.

The upcoming march on September 29th which will celebrate one hundred years since Ulster Day and the reaffirming of Northern Irish Protestants’ British identity is already being heralded as another almost certain flashpoint by some in the DUP. Rather than anticipating another disastrous episode Protestant politicians should be providing people on the ground with a sustainable and non-confrontational vision of their future. Loyalist and Protestant identity in Northern Ireland was copper fastened by the pledges of people like Lord Carson a century ago. It is unlikely that this culture will fall away overnight. It must however be best advised how to adapt and integrate comfortably into a rapidly changing United Kingdom.

    

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