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Where is the love? Loyalist rally flops

JM Thorn

4th November 2005

In the run up to the inaugural Love Ulster rally, organisers had predicted that it could attract the support of up to thirty thousand people. However, such predictions proved to be greatly inflated. For the rally, held in west Belfast last Saturday (29 October), only attracted two thousand. When you factor in the fact that the march along the Shankill Road to the rally point of Woodvale Park was padded out by twenty loyalist bands, the turnout is even more disappointing.

The Love Ulster rally, coming in the wake of loyalist rioting over the rerouted Whiterock Orange parade, was to be an indicator of the level of dissatisfaction within the Protestant community at the direction of the political process. Organisers made a direct parallel between this rally and that mounted against the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985, which brought nearly a hundred thousand people into Belfast city centre. Indeed, the Love Ulster rally was originally scheduled for Belfast city centre. That the organisers switched the venue to the Woodvale Park was probably an indication that they did not believe their own hype.

The poor turnout at the rally shows that the current level of dissatisfaction and militancy within the Protestant community is nowhere near to what it was at the time of Sunningdale in 1974, or the opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. It cannot even be compared to the unrest over Drumcree in the mid-1990s. Though the rioting by loyalists in September has been described by sections of the media as among the worst in thirty years, compared to that which happened over Drumcree it was relatively minor. The rioting over Drumcree was much more widespread and sustained, and mobilised greater numbers of people. In contrast, the September riots were confined to a limited number of areas around Belfast, and involved mostly members of loyalist paramilitary groups. There is no evidence that this unrest reflected a political shift towards more militancy within the broader Protestant community. For all the fear mongering about the imminence of a united Ireland, the majority of Protestants clearly don’t see the constitutional position of the Northern Ireland sate within the UK as being under threat. This is reflected in the positions of the main unionist parties who are focusing on the concept of “Protestant disadvantage” rather than the constitutional question.

To some extent the Love Ulster campaign has accommodated to this. At the launch of the campaign the focus was on the threat to the union and the slide to a united Ireland, but by the time of the rally it was on how Protestants were losing out. Speaker after speaker complained about how Protestants were getting a raw deal, and how republicans were getting concessions. However, no evidence of Protestant disadvantage was presented, and the so-called concessions to republicans looked very meagre when compared to political positions they had abandoned. There was also the perennial call for unionist unity. This was delivered by the head of the Orange Order Robert Saulters. Tellingly this was in the form of a statement that was read out as he was away on business. Also absent were any representatives of the main unionist parties.

If the rally demonstrated anything it is that Love Ulster really isn’t a serious campaign. It does not reflect a more militant mood within the Protestant community. If anything it is another attempt to move loyalists towards politics, as its main components are the UVF and UDA. However, the real focus of this attempt is coming form the British government with its strategy designed to weed out the “bad” elements within in loyalism and promote the “good” elements. An example of this has been the latest loyalist feud, when the state gave the UVF a free hand to wipe out its smaller LVF rival. The charmed lives of some of the high-living UDA “brigadiers of bling” are coming to an end, either through assassination or imprisonment. In contrast, those who are moving the in direction the British want are set up as community leaders and given millions of pounds to distribute.

Also, the unionist parties do not really need a campaign like Love Ulster; they can articulate the concept of Protestant disadvantage better than the loyalists. They may use and incite the loyalists at times to advance their cause, but they are not going to be bound by them. The loyalist tail doesn’t wag the unionist dog. For the unionists the focus is not on the streets but on the British government as they lobby for the end of whatever limited gestures, such as the Parades Commission and 50:50 recruitment to the police, which the peace process has made towards equality. In all this Love Ulster is a sideshow.


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