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“Love Ulster”, loyalism and British policy

Andrew Johnson

23rd October 2005

On the 29th August, a special edition of the Shankill Mirror, a newspaper subsidised by the British government, was published bearing the banner headline “Ulster At Crisis Point”. This was the kickoff for an initiative billed as “Love Ulster”, which is scheduled to climax with a mass rally at WoodvalePark on 29th October. What lies behind this new loyalist campaign, and what does it tell us about how unionism is evolving in the current situation? 

In the first place, the symbolism of Love Ulster’s launch could not be missed. Bundles of the Shankill Mirror were unloaded from a boat at Larne port, in a clear echo of the UVF’s importation of German arms in 1914. One of those doing the heaving was South Belfast UDA boss Jackie McDonald. Orange Order Grand Master Bobby Saulters, speaking at the Love Ulster press conference, was asked what he thought of McDonald’s participation. Bro Saulters replied that he wasn’t aware of any paramilitary involvement. It must be assumed that Bro Saulters doesn’t read the Sunday World, which the UDA is currently trying to ban from sale in loyalist areas due to its unflattering stories about the organisation’s leadership. But still, even without the benefit of Jim McDowell’s scandal sheet, the world and its dog know that Jackie McDonald is a leading member of the UDA. We shall return to Mr McDonald in due course. 

Other figures in Love Ulster were quite clear about paramilitary involvement. John McVicar of the Shankill Mirror said: “The reality is that loyalist paramilitaries are part of the Protestant community. They along with a lot of other people were part of the conflict we have been involved in and they need to be part of the resolution. We have come out of 35 years of violence, things aren’t going to change overnight and we need to influence everyone in our community positively and that includes loyalist paramilitaries.”

One of the principal spokesmen for the campaign is Willie Frazer of the group FAIR, which claims to speak for “real victims” – that is, Protestant victims of republican violence. Frazer stated that loyalist paramilitaries would be welcome at the October rally, providing they attended in a personal capacity. Under questioning, Frazer argued that the rally was all about Protestant victimhood and loyalists hadn’t been killing Protestants, so that was all right then. Maybe Frazer’s brass neck is inhibiting his peripheral vision – not only does he refuse to call on loyalists to end attacks on Catholics, or ethnic minorities for that matter, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed that the UVF has killed four Protestants in recent months.

Love Ulster, hate taigs

What is the programme of Love Ulster? The special edition of the Shankill Mirror holds the key to this. One of the more eyecatching elements of the campaign has been a poster that abuses the memory of Pastor Martin Niemöller, imprisoned by the Nazis, a famous poem attributed to whom says, “First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist; Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist; Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist; Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew; Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.” The Shankill Mirror transmutes this to “In the 1970s they came for the B Specials – I did nothing; in the 1980s they came for the UDR – I did nothing; in the 1990s they came for the RUC – I did nothing; 2005, and they’ve come for the RIR – what can I do? Just say, ‘Enough is enough!’”

The rest of the paper is a brilliant exhibit of whinging and paranoia. “They” get everything. The job market is rigged against us by equality legislation – in particular, Protestant small businesses aren’t free to employ only Protestants. We’ve lost the police. We can’t march through areas where we aren’t wanted any more. Any reforms – even the mildest ones – are concessions to terrorism. To the extent that Catholics even appear in Love Ulster literature, it is invariably as crazed gunmen whose sole ambition is to commit genocide against Protestants who never did them any wrong – or if they did, they deserved it.

What is the programme? The programme is a return to the old Stormont, except they would do it right this time. No concessions. No restrictions on discrimination. It is no coincidence that Willie Frazer is a former election candidate for the Ulster Independence Movement, a small cult that specialises in spinning fantasies about the wee Orange utopia loyalists could have if they were free of British interference.

The implicit demand for a return to an all-Protestant police force shows an acute understanding of the nature of the Northern statelet. The RUC played a double role, not just in repressing the Catholic minority, but in providing social employment for unskilled Protestants. This is why the 50/50 recruitment policy recommended in the Patten report and adopted in a watered-down form by the British – the age cohort for police recruitment is 50/50, after all – has been a persistent target of unionist wrath. In fact, there is a popular urban myth doing the rounds in middle-class unionist areas to the effect that a friend of a friend’s son passed the police exam with flying colours, but didn’t get a job because he was Protestant. The story usually ends with a senior officer taking the kid aside and saying that he would love to have him in the force, but this quota...

The triple alliance

The launch of Love Ulster has met with a cautious response from the two main unionist parties. However, there is little doubt that if the campaign picked up significant support they would jump on the bandwagon – some low-level DUP people are already involved. After all, the content of Love Ulster, from the whinging over minimal police reforms to the lying about levels of deprivation, derives directly from unionism’s arsenal of grievances. And the 10-day loyalist riot in September merely underlined the close connections binding the unionist parties, the Orange Order and the paramilitaries – from the provocation of the Springfield Road march by the Orange, to the heavy involvement of the paramilitaries in the rioting, to the cover provided by respectable politicians in both the DUP and UUP. 

The triple alliance of the parties, the Orange and the paramilitaries has come to the fore on innumerable occasions in recent years. But, while the presence of bands with paramilitary links on Orange marches is plain to see, the constant apologetics for armed loyalism by respectable politicians, displaying their symbiotic relationship, is too often ignored. The Holy Cross affair in 1998 was a clear instance. The roots of Holy Cross lay in the expulsion of UDA members from the Lower Shankill by the UVF in a paramilitary feud. These UDA men then settled in the Glenbryn estate and sought to flex their muscles, their chosen vehicle being the mass intimidation of Catholic children walking to school. This action was defended – or, what amounts to the same thing, explained away – by politicians of both UUP and DUP. Chris McGimpsey, a supposed UUP “liberal”, was prominent among those saying that the small Catholic schoolgirls walking to their school were provocative; the same Chris McGimpsey sees nothing provocative in Orangemen, accompanied by paramilitary flute bands, marching through Catholic areas. 

There have been other examples. The racist pogrom against the Chinese community in South Belfast in 2003-04 appears to have started as a dispute between the Donegall Road UVF and the local Chinese business community, who had put up some resistance to extortion demands. The UDA, not to be outdone, got stuck in as well, not just on the level of violence but with the production of the notorious “Yellow Invasion” leaflet circulated in DonegallPass. There have been few charges and virtually no convictions resulting from the pogrom, with hardly anybody willing to blame the perpetrators and even anti-racist campaigners spinning the fantasy that English Nazis were responsible for racist attacks in loyalist-controlled areas. Again, the political wing of the triple alliance played its role. DUP councillor Ruth Patterson opined that residents of DonegallPass felt the Protestant character of their area was under threat. How that was possible when the local Chinese population had gone from over forty families to under ten due to loyalist intimidation, she did not say. Meanwhile, liberal unionist poster boy Steven King argued that to blame loyalists was to smear the entire Protestant community, and speculated about whether the Chinese were entirely innocent. 

The racist pogrom was followed in short order by mass intimidation aimed at the Whitehall Square flats complex at the top of the UDA stronghold of Sandy Row. This culminated in several hundred people, including bands, marching on the flats in a clear UDA show of strength. The young population of the complex may include some Catholics – nobody knows its sectarian makeup, which infuriates the loyalists even more. The UDA’s action was publicly defended by UUP liberal Michael McGimpsey, who claimed the paramilitary demonstration was a spontaneous expression of concern by Sandy Row residents. Furthermore, McGimpsey claimed that anyone who attributed a sectarian motivation to the intimidators was an anti-Protestant bigot. He sought to back up his position by recycling various urban myths – some wee woman told him a young lad on a flats balcony had shouted at her; somebody else claimed to have seen someone in a Celtic jersey on a balcony. This, on Planet McGimpsey, was proof positive of sustained republican provocation which had sparked off an understandable and moderate reaction by respectable Protestants. 

Sandy Row and the anti-Chinese pogrom are worth mentioning as they took place in the South Belfast fiefdom of Jackie McDonald, who is currently being built up as the acceptable face of the UDA. McDonald is said to be on first-name terms with Free State president Mary McAleese and regularly plays golf with her husband. More importantly, he is being heavily courted by both London and Dublin governments, to the extent that he could be described as British imperialism and Irish capital’s favourite paramilitary. But as we have seen, touting of McDonald as a loyalist Mr Clean is some considerable way wide of the mark. It seems more likely that he is being built up because of his political usefulness than any intrinsic merits he might have. 

British policy and loyalism

There have been a number of strands to British policy, and they have not always sat together harmoniously. For the last ten years, for instance, the Northern Ireland Office has been attempting to encourage the growth of a loyalist equivalent to Sinn Fein. This scheme has been almost a complete failure – the loyalist groups have never managed to create a political wing that even their own members would take seriously, let alone that significant numbers of people would support. In the early 1970s, during a time of massive sectarian polarisation, UDA-sponsored candidates in hardline areas like Sandy Row would routinely poll fewer votes than the UDA had members in the area. Even in the mid-1990s, huge amounts of sympathetic press coverage could not create a mass electoral base for the death squads. The few paramilitary-linked figures who were elected to local councils or Stormont were invariably people with a record of activism around bread-and-butter issues in deprived areas – candidates who were seen as simply paramilitary frontmen received derisory votes. 

But in recent years even this limited base has largely evaporated. The UDA has bowed to the inevitable and dissolved its front party, the UDP. The UVF-linked PUP has lost much of its support, and is rapidly succumbing to the Paisleyite tide. It was instructive that in the recent local elections, the DUP polled over two thirds of the vote on the Shankill Road while the PUP’s Hughie Smyth, who once had the highest personal vote of any councillor in the North, could only scrape back to City Hall on DUP transfers. The mathematics only confirm the underlying political trend, that the programme of Paisley is now the programme of unionism as a whole. The PUP’s fake “socialism” – so much ballyhooed by the more gormless elements of the far left – was always trumped in any case by its commitment to remaining part of the “unionist family”, and, having provided the muscle for Trimble and got precious little in return, it is now somewhat grumpily adapting to the new Paisleyite dispensation. 

This is not to say that the loyalist paramilitary groups themselves, as distinct from their satellite parties, have not prospered under the Good Friday process. Both of the main groups, but particularly the UDA, have been in receipt of vast sums of British government money in the guise of community development. Meanwhile, the UDA and UVF have recruited massively, using the flute band culture to bring in an entire layer of youth (paramilitary-linked bands also forming a crucial part of the alliance with the Orange Order). They have extended their empires into small towns and villages with no history of paramilitary activity – most notably the UVF in North Antrim towns like Dervock, Bushmills and Ahoghill, which forms the immediate background to the recent sectarian pogrom in the area. People in these North Antrim towns might like to look at the heroin epidemic in nearby Ballymena as a harbinger of what the UVF’s expansion is going to bring them. 

But while the British have aided the expansion of these organisations, this expansion also poses problems for them. The essential features of armed loyalism – bigotry, criminality and indiscriminate violence – have by no means abated over the past decade. As a result, the security apparatus has been preoccupied with managing loyalism. This has intersected with the need to either protect their assets within loyalism – or liquidate them if they go rogue. A definite pointer to British policy is the list of figures targeted by the Assets Recovery Agency. While the UDA’s North Belfast boss Andre Shoukri flaunts his wealth despite never having worked a day in his life, the ARA’s targets are marginal figures, dead men and people connected to the LVF. This last group is too small to be useful to the British, but significant and active enough to be an embarrassment, which would explain why the British are apparently happy enough to let the UVF wipe it out. The support being extended to the UDA may well flow from a “balance of terror” theory, according to which the UVF should be prevented from becoming the hegemonic loyalist group. It is worth pointing out that, in defiance of its own monitoring commission, the British government continues to recognise the UDA’s non-existent ceasefire. 

Fall of the godfathers

These military considerations, taken along with the fact that the loyalist groups are riddled with informers, help to shed some light on the sudden falls from grace of prominent figures in the murky world of paramilitarism. The late Billy Wright is a case in point. The charismatic Wright – mass murderer, drug dealer, born-again Christian, Orangeman and almost certainly a British agent – was responsible for the indiscriminate slaughter of dozens of Catholics in the Portadown area for many years. For most of this time he and his Mid-Ulster UVF appeared untouchable. Then, following the Good Friday Agreement, Wright denounced the peace process and split from the Shankill-based leadership of the UVF – who he described, incredibly, as “communists” – to form the small but vicious LVF. Wright expressed his support for the analysis of the DUP, who reciprocated by defending him against threats from the UVF. Following this, Wright was convicted of intimidation – which calls to mind Al Capone’s imprisonment on tax evasion charges – and then assassinated in prison under dubious circumstances. 

Then there was Johnny Adair, UDA boss of the Shankill. Adair, like his friend Wright, was untouchable. Then in 1995 he was convicted of “directing terrorism”, an offence specifically designed to put him behind bars. Quickly, however, he became useful to the British in their efforts to keep the UDA on side – he was visited in prison by secretary of state Mo Mowlam and freed in 1999. Eventually, however, he got to be too much of a loose cannon for the British. Coincidentally, he had also made many enemies by his megalomaniac attempt to make himself supreme leader of the UDA, expanding his empire by putting the Shoukri brothers in charge of North Belfast and cutting into other bosses’ fiefdoms. This ended with the assassination of the UDA’s East Antrim leader John Gregg. In 2003 the British returned him to prison, whereupon the UDA majority – now including the Shoukris, who were smart enough to see which way the wind was blowing – moved into the Shankill, kicked out Adair’s family and closest associates, and took over his empire. Adair is now free again, but exiled in England

Most recently we have seen the UDA’s murder of Jim Gray, formerly the organisation’s leader in East Belfast for 14 years. The media coverage, in true Sunday World fashion, has concentrated on the flamboyant Gray’s love of chunky gold jewellery and pastel knitwear. But there is much more to it than that. Gray, who was never convicted of any offence despite his very public role in the UDA, became a key figure in the Good Friday process. He made several trips to Stormont to meet successive British proconsuls, and fronted up a UDA PR exercise called the John Gregg Initiative. Then, in March 2005, he suddenly fell from grace and lost his position in the UDA. This was immediately followed by two noteworthy statements – one from Jackie McDonald stating that the UDA wouldn’t tolerate criminality in the ranks, and another from the Assets Recovery Agency that they were investigating Gray. The ARA investigation was generally taken as a reason for his fall, but the other way around is a more likely sequence. Now Gray is dead, gunned down outside his home while apparently under 24-hour police surveillance. 

Why British strategy won’t work

Britain’s immediate plans regarding the UDA are clear. Proconsul Hain, while announcing drastic cuts in the public sector in the North, has made it clear that big sums – £200 million has been mentioned – will be available to help loyalism “take the political road”. The money is being dressed up as going to regenerate poverty-stricken loyalist areas, but it doesn’t take a genius to read between the lines. The Provos have surrendered. The UDA will now be aided to legitimise its business interests, provided it can stop the more blatant criminality – such as its heavy dependence on drug dealing, pimping and protection rackets – while ridding itself of some of its more outré characters. Then if the UVF can be persuaded to follow suit, the North will be pacified. There will be lavish rewards for those who play ball. 

That’s the plan. It won’t work, for two reasons. First, it depends on the assumption that the UDA will clean itself up and stay on the straight and narrow. This is rather unlikely. Paradoxically, the Provos have been easier to buy off because they were less corrupt. Although they always had an element of corruption, this was relatively minor and subordinated to their political goals – the racket served the movement and not vice versa. So once the Provos had surrendered politically, the legitimisation of their assets and winding down of paramilitary structures – what is currently going on – was relatively straightforward. By contrast, criminality is so much part of the essence of the loyalist groups that the chances of them going straight are minimal. 

The more important point is linked to Britain’s overall strategy. What do the British want? They want the North stabilised, but they don’t want just any stability. They want to keep partition as well – this is also the programme of Dublin, hence the defeat of the Provos, who had no defence against Southern capital. They need to incorporate the Catholic middle class as a bulwark against a resurgence of anti-imperialist politics. But the nature of the Northern statelet means that any stabilisation must rest on unionism, as Britain’s popular base in the North. 

This gives us the outline of British strategy since Sunningdale in 1973. The SDLP – both the party of the Catholic middle class and an instrument of the Dublin government – was always reliably on side, as was the NIO’s front organisation, the small Alliance Party. The need was for a moderate unionism to cut a deal with the Catholic middle class. The trouble with that scenario is that unionism is not so much a political movement as a conspiracy to defend sectarian privilege. You can’t have a moderate unionism for the same reason you can’t have a liberal Pope. In the world of unionism the biggest bigot always wins. So we have had a succession of unlikely figures, from Brian Faulkner to David Trimble, painted up as great moderates only to be overthrown from the right. 

The impasse of unionism

Now we have a situation where the DUP forms the leadership of unionism. This puts paid to the search for moderates who could “consolidate the centre”. Instead, we have somewhat desperate talk about a “pragmatic” wing of the DUP – people like Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds – who, unlike the arch-bigot Paisley, might be willing to do business with Catholics. This is a wild misreading of the situation. 

In the first place, Peter Robinson already had a chance to modernise when he, along with the late Harold McCusker MP and UUP officer Wee Frankie Millar (son of legendary Belfast councillor Big Frankie) produced the Task Force report in 1987. This document was suppressed by party leaders Jim Molyneaux and Ian Paisley, on the reasonable grounds that modernising unionism was a dead end. What we have we hold. Shortly afterwards, McCusker died, Millar left politics for journalism, and Robinson has never said another word about it. 

This is the point about accommodating Catholics. Catholics always had a place under the old Stormont, only a subordinate one. As Lord Kilclooney has said, Catholics could have rights but not equal rights. There can’t be – as Love Ulster is demanding – a return to unalloyed supremacism because some crucial things have changed since 1967. Most crucially, the Catholic population is much more assertive and much larger. Unionism can’t impose its will on a 45% minority as it could on a 30% minority. The more intelligent Paisleyites – Robinson and Dodds among them – recognise this, but don’t have a solution. 

Britain’s approach at the moment has been to hand the DUP various goodies that don’t matter much in the scheme of things. Big Ian has been made a privy councillor and the DUP is getting seats in Blair’s appointed House of Lords. The DUP is also getting extra seats on the Policing Board, an oversight body with few teeth but many opportunities for grandstanding. But this doesn’t go anywhere towards the DUP programme. As DUP MP Gregory Campbell pointed out in an important statement, the DUP welcomed these goodies but wanted movement on crucial issues like parades, jobs and policing. 

Campbell’s position could be translated as follows. Exempting Orange halls from rates is all very well, but we want the Parades Commission scrapped and the right to march through Catholic areas guaranteed. We want the Fair Employment Act scrapped and measures put in place to restore Protestant privilege in the job market. And extra seats on the Policing Board are fine, but what we really want is an end to 50/50 recruitment and a return to an all-Protestant police force. 

The impasse is clear. The DUP can’t impose their programme on the British, and the British can’t implement the DUP programme without endangering the stability they desperately want. But British policy depends on keeping their loyalist base loyal, which is why the post-Good Friday process keeps being shifted to the right. It is quite obvious that there can be no solution within this process. The defeat of reactionary unionism is the precondition for any kind of political progress that benefits working people.



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