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Issue 40, July/Aug 1999

The Loyalist psyche

Loyalists, by Peter Taylor. Bloomsbury, 1999, £16-99 (hbk).

Tension has been mounting in Northern Ireland around the stalled peace talks, an increase in sectarian 'punishment' killings and beatings, and controversy over the Bloody Sunday inquiry, with Drumcree and the marching season just around the corner. With this backdrop, PETER TAAFFE, Socialist Party general secretary, reviews the recently-published book of the TV series, Loyalists, by Peter Taylor.

ON A RECENT visit to Northern Ireland, a leading member of the Socialist Party there told me that some of the Loyalist para-military leaders believe that they had carried out successful 'counter-terror' in answer to the IRA's long guerrilla campaign. This book confirms this view. Loyalists is based on the recent, very informative TV series by Peter Taylor. He underlines the analysis made by Marxists in Ireland and in Britain when the current conflict broke out 30 years ago: the majority Protestant population cannot be coerced into a united Ireland.

I first visited Northern Ireland in 1969 and helped to assemble the first small genuine Marxist forces there. I have revisited many times. Each visit has confirmed our original perspectives, as well as the analysis of the conflict made by Militant (now Socialist Party) and Militant Irish Monthly, at each stage. Our comrades have combined this with enormous courage in fighting against sectarianism and seeking to unite Catholic and Protestant workers.

A heavy price has been paid. Indeed, this book records the ultimate sacrifice made by a member of our party in Northern Ireland: "On 16 July a Catholic, Colm McCallan (25), died two days after being shot near his home in Legoneil. The IRA blamed the Ballysillan UVF and its commander, John Bingham". Colm McCallan was more than this. He was a dedicated fighter against sectarianism and for socialism.

One of the most moving episodes in Taylor's TV documentary dealt with Billy Giles, an ex-Loyalist prisoner. He spoke on camera about his experiences. Later we are shocked to learn that he committed suicide. The opening chapter is devoted to 'Billy', describing the circumstances under which he joined the paramilitaries and killed a Catholic workmate. He never recovered from this psychologically, but the trigger for his suicide was the shattering of his hopes on being released from prison: "He described (in his suicide note) how 'wrecked' he felt when his expectations were dashed, and he could not get a job despite his degree and his newly-acquired skills. He did, however, find government-assisted employment… but the wage amounted to little more than income support".

  Billy pointed out that he was a victim of circumstances created before he was born. Indeed, both Loyalist and Republican figures testify to the fact that they were prisoners of circumstances, created not by them, but by British imperialism which originally created and fostered sectarianism.

Taylor gives a general summing-up of the history of loyalism but concentrates, in particular, on the last 30 years. The role of Ian Paisley is heavily featured. His 'hero' is Carson who organised the original UVF against the threat of Home Rule just before the first world war. Unlike Carson, however, who organised 'illegal' forces and engaged in gun running (with the blessing of sections of the British ruling class and military), Paisley is seen as completely duplicitous in his dealings with the Loyalist paramilitaries.

This was shown even before the outbreak of the present conflict with the organisation of the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV) in the 1960s. Paisley gave his blessing to this and other para-military organisations but would take no 'public' responsibility for its formation or actions. After a Catholic was shot in 1966 (with the involvement of Gusty Spence, though he denied responsibility), a convicted UVF member declared: "I'm terribly sorry I ever heard of that man Paisley or decided to follow him". This has become a theme of the conflict over the past 30 years. Paisley would encourage the resistance of the 'hard men' but then ditch them as soon as the finger of suspicion pointed towards him.

  Working class life

WHAT COMES OUT clearly in the sections dealing with the civil rights movement and the clashes which resulted from that in 1969-70, is that the conditions of ordinary Catholic and Protestant workers were hardly different. Taylor spoke to Billy Mitchell about this:

"But as a Protestant, weren't you a first-class citizen?
"Absolutely not. There was no difference. The guys that I ran about with had the same conditions that I did so please don't call me advantaged.
"Bath night?
"Tin bath and a rub down like the people next door. There was discrimination but not just against Catholics, the ordinary working class were discriminated against just as much as any Catholic".

Of course there was discrimination against Catholics in job allocation, and a denial of full democratic and civil rights (with the well-known gerrymandering in elections), but this exchange underlines the completely false argument of the ultra-left groups who tried to show that the Protestant working class led a 'privileged' existence. What 'privileges' they had were minimal compared to the common exploitation and misery which both Catholic and Protestant workers faced.

Many of the areas of Belfast were mixed, with Catholic and Protestant workers living and collaborating together. Andy Tyrie, who was to become the commander of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), at an earlier stage participated in attempts to bring both sides together: "We actually set up a peace group between Catholics and Protestants (in Woodvale) in a church on Springfield Road".

The events of 1969 and the early 1970s have been well documented. But Taylor's account is spiced with some interesting details. We always argued that a section of the Southern Irish bourgeoisie, particularly Fianna Fail, played a role in getting the Provisional IRA 'off the ground'. When asked why he had helped to supply £100,000 through a chain of bank accounts in Dublin and the border town of Clones to assist the Provos, Neil Blaney - then a Southern Irish minister - did not disclaim responsibility but declared: "We didn't help to create them (because that was the result of the IRA's own internal dynamics), but we certainly would have accelerated, by what assistance we could have given, their emergence as a force".

The perception was of the Irish bourgeoisie, or a section of it, collaborating with the IRA to coerce by 'terror' the Protestants into a capitalist united Ireland. This was an important factor in the emergence of the Loyalist para-military organisations and their vicious, murderous campaign against ordinary Catholics, as well as the bloody bombing of Dublin itself.

Conscious sectarian actions, detailed in horrific detail in this book, were not, however, the preserve of the Loyalist paramilitaries alone. The bombing, on 29 September 1971, of the Four Step Inn, a Protestant pub, provoked outrage and led some, like Billy Hutchinson, presently a leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), to become 'active'. The IRA never claimed responsibility but it was widely assumed that the rise of a new IRA chief-of-staff, Seàn MacStiofàin, had led to a decision to abandon 'economic' targets for a bloody bombing campaign.

  These actions acted as a recruiting sergeant to the Loyalist para-military organisations. Repression of nationalists by the British state, together with the Loyalists' campaign, also served to drive many people into the ranks of the IRA.

Violence levels increase

TAYLOR DOCUMENTS THE rise of the UDA (which at one time rose to a strength of 50,000 members) as well as the UVF, and the increasingly murderous 'tit-for-tat' killing of Catholics in response to the IRA's actions. The old leadership of the UVF, including Gusty Spence who was in prison, deplored the indiscriminate character of this campaign. Spence considered himself a 'soldier' (he sent a note of condolences to the widow of Joe McCann, an Official IRA member killed in action against the British army).

The intention of the Loyalist paramilitaries to target 'well-known Republicans' soon changed into a naked sectarian 'terrorist' campaign against all Catholics. The book details the UDA leaders' decision to organise a special assassination squad, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). One of the UFF commanders makes clear its purpose in a dialogue with the author: Taylor: "So the nationalist Roman Catholic community was regarded as a legitimate target by the UFF, was it?'
'Well, in the end it was felt that the IRA gained very popular support within their communities and it was seen as a strategy that if pressure could be put on the IRA by their communities, then that would have an effect and that they would consider desisting from attacks on Loyalist communities'.
'So there was a clear strategy and methodology behind the UFF activities. It was as simple and as brutal as that was it?'
'Well it was simple and it was brutal, you know, but it was a tactic of retaliatory action against a community who was inflicting great pain in our community".
Taylor comments: "The UFF's strategy was to show the IRA that Loyalists could be even more brutal. The IRA might claim, when civilians were killed as a result of its operations, that it was a regrettable 'mistake'. The UFF made no such apology. Its killings of Catholic civilians were deliberate and could vary from a general reaction to IRA violence to a response to a particular IRA atrocity".

It would be wrong, however, to dignify the people who assassinated ordinary Catholics, like the notorious Shankill butchers and other psycopaths, with any kind of worked out 'strategy'. They were motivated in the main by sheer hatred of Catholics. Invariably fired up by drink they usually 'freelanced', acting independently of the Loyalist para-military leaders. The environment in which sectarian assassins are allowed to operate, is not unique to Northern Ireland, as the even greater recent bloodletting in the Balkans shows. Lodged in the pores of every class society are deranged individuals who when given the chance, particularly in a national, ethnic or religious conflict, will play this role.

  Even in the early 1970s, however, some of those involved in the Loyalist campaign put out feelers for a possible future solution. A UVF masked gunman said to Taylor on TV in 1974: "Some solution will have to be worked out between what the press call the 'men of violence'. The politicians can never give us peace. The men who pull the triggers are the only men who can take their fingers off the triggers. The Provisionals will have to accept that the Protestant people in Northern Ireland will not give up their Protestant liberties. Our objection is to the Provisional IRA and their supporters who are trying to take away our liberties and our traditional way of life at the point of a gun". There were even meetings between representatives of Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries where the idea of a federal or 'amalgamated' Ireland was put forward. But on a capitalist basis such a proposal was, and is, a non-starter. Therefore, the murderous campaign on both sides continued.

One of the bloodiest incidents was the bombing of Dublin and Monaghan by the UVF on 17 May 1974. This involved the biggest loss of life - 32 people were killed - in a single day in the whole of the current conflict. There were more victims than resulted from the 'Real IRA's' Omagh bomb in August 1998 which claimed the lives of 28 people. There was widespread suspicion that British military intelligence was involved in order to 'punish' the Dublin government for its 'inaction' in relation to the IRA. Taylor does not believe this, but is not conclusive on this point. It is indisputable that the British state or a section of it - the intelligence services - were in collusion with the Loyalist para-military organisations, and Taylor gives many examples. And it is doubtful whether the Loyalist paramilitaries could have successfully mounted such an operation without the involvement of the British state.

This does not mean, however, that the Loyalist paramilitaries were simply the creatures of the British state, as many Republicans argue. British intelligence forces used and colluded with them, but they arose originally from within the Protestant community. While leaning on the state they also led an independent existence with their own agenda and methods. The idea, put forward by the Republicans, that the withdrawal of support from the British state would lead to the collapse of the Loyalist paramilitaries is wrong, and is shown to be so by this book.

When Taylor questioned David Ervine, who was a senior member of the UVF in Belfast and is now a representative of the PUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the latter said he had nothing to do with the Dublin and Monaghan bombings but that Loyalists were "returning the serve". In other words, it was retaliation for the open or concealed encouragement 'by the South' of the IRA campaign in the North.

  In the sections of the book dealing with the 1974 Ulster workers' general strike, everything that Militant and Militant Irish Monthly wrote at the time is confirmed. When the strike first began there "was little evidence of mass support". Many Protestant workers in the shipyards were intimidated into supporting the 'strike' "by being told that unless they joined, they would find their cars burned out in the car park". Widespread para-military pressure was exerted, resulting in the killing of two Catholics and the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. There was undoubtedly the involvement of a section of the British state forces in backing the organisers of the strike. As defectors (such as Colin Wallace) have subsequently reported, some British intelligence forces were out to destabilise the Labour government of Harold Wilson, which was accused of having dangerous 'leftist' and even 'communist' sympathies.

Overall, the Ulster workers' strike demonstrated the enormous latent power of the working class but also the impossibility of imposing a solution against the interests of the majority Protestant population in Northern Ireland. Merlyn Rees was the Labour home secretary at the time. When he was asked by Taylor why he had not confronted the strike and ordered the army to break it up, he declared: "I didn't let them win. They were going to win anyway. It was like a coalminers' strike in Sheffield. It could not be done, that's the short answer. We couldn't do a Prague. You can't put down a popular rising by killing people. We're not Russia. The police were on the brink of not carrying out their duties and the middle classes were on the strikers' side. This wasn't just an industrial dispute. This was the Protestant people of Northern Ireland rising up against Sunningdale and it could not be shut down". The Northern Ireland 'peace process' PRISONS HAVE HISTORICALLY been 'universities of the revolution'. Led by Gusty Spence, a layer of imprisoned Loyalists embraced politics. In Long Kesh the idea of the formation of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) took shape. The emergence of this small party of Loyalists who initially moved in a socialist direction, was one of the most significant developments in the period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. Little ultra-left grouplets denounced the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland - as well as in Britain - for encouraging this development.

Yet this is not the first time in the history of Northern Ireland that working-class Loyalists have moved against the capitalist, Unionist hierarchy to form their own organisation. Under the impact of the work of James Connolly and James Larkin and the big strikes of 1907 in Belfast, we saw the emergence of the Independent Orange Order. To expect a working class steeped in religious suspicion of the 'other side' to immediately emerge like Jupiter from the head of Minerva into rounded-out socialist and class fighters is completely utopian. Nevertheless, under the impact of the class struggle and conscious socialist forces, class splits in Unionism have taken place, are taking place now, and will take place on an even bigger scale in the future. The question for Marxists is whether such a development should be encouraged, without any illusions about the consciousness of those involved, or the stage at which such movements are at.

  The 'peace process' - the Downing Street Agreement, and following this the Good Friday Agreement - is very well catalogued in this book, the road to 'negotiations' littered with one atrocity after another.

The gangsterism and corruption within the UDA is also set out in some detail. It is inevitable that racketeering will take place in uncontrolled para-military organisations, no matter what their original intentions are. Only a democratically-elected and accountable force, seeking to embrace both Catholic and Protestant, can assume real authority and free itself from the taint of gangsterism. But in the 1990s a change had taken place in the pattern of slaughter: "By 1992 and 1993, the Loyalist paramilitaries were killing more people a year than the IRA and now, unlike so often in the past, many of their victims were Republicans". Yet, as with the Israelis and the Palestinians, each atrocity compelled the participants to look into the abyss. They consequently drew back and, no matter how painfully and reluctantly, were forced into 'negotiations'. The British ruling class in its Downing Street Declaration stated: "The British government has no selfish or strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland: our role is to help, enable and encourage. Britain's purpose… is not to occupy, oppress or exploit but to ensure democratic debate and free and democratic choice".

The core of this statement contained in the first clause, though not the hypocritical claim of devotion to democratic debate and choice, vindicates the analysis made by ourselves and by our comrades in Ireland. The British ruling class, as opposed to 1921, did not wish to continue with its 'occupation' in the North. The problem was not the British army, but the intransigence of the Loyalists. This has gradually been borne in on the leadership of the IRA and resulted in the negotiations which have led to the present situation.

The 'counter-terrorist' role of the Loyalist paramilitaries was well understood by 'respectable' Unionist leaders. Their tacit support for these actions was spelt out by the Official Unionist deputy leader, John Taylor, who comments: "The Loyalist paramilitaries achieved something which perhaps the security forces would never have achieved, and that was they were a significant contribution to the IRA finally accepting that they could not win". Peter Taylor asks him why he says that. John Taylor answers: "The Loyalist paramilitaries in their illegal activity actually began to overtake the IRA as being the major para-military organisation and terrorist organisation in Northern Ireland. Indeed, in the year before the ceasefire by the IRA, the Loyalist paramilitaries had killed more people that year than the IRA".

  Both Republicans and Loyalists have put their own construction on the Good Friday Agreement. The Republicans claim that it is, in effect, a stepping-stone, through the involvement of the South, towards a united Ireland. The Loyalists bluntly declared, 'we won'. The raison d'être of the IRA's campaign over the last 30 years was to militarily force British imperialism from the North of Ireland and take steps towards a united Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement recognises, on the part of the Republicans, that this is impossible, as Marxists have consistently argued. The Loyalists can claim they 'won'. But what kind of 'victory' is it that means that the very conditions which led to the outbreak of the current conflict are maintained?

In Northern Ireland today, there is undoubtedly an appearance of 'peace'. But below the surface, and not fully detailed in the press or the media, a 'low-intensity', bitter sectarian conflict is taking place. There is a jostling and a struggle for 'territory' which, in the North of Ireland, does not take a 'peaceful' character. I was struck while being taken round Belfast by how polarised the communities are - much more than in the 1970s, never mind the 1960s - and how tenuous is the present 'peace'. The shadow of the Balkans, as far-fetched as this might seem, does lie over Northern Ireland.

The 'struggle' over the decommissioning of arms is a side issue when set against the potential catastrophe which could still beset Northern Ireland and spill over to Britain. There was no clause in the Good Friday Agreement that the paramilitaries had to decommission, nor was there any specified linkage between Sinn Féin taking seats in the Executive and the hand-over of weapons. Moreover, in other situations, for instance, in South Africa, the handing over of weapons has never been a precondition for the ending of a conflict and the opening up of a political process. Nor should it be in the North of Ireland. As the paramilitaries themselves comment, the best solution is not decommissioning but 'rust'; in other words, leaving the weapons in the ground.

Neither this nor the setting up of a new Executive, however, can solve the problems from a long-term point of view. Taylor ends his book by quoting Gusty Spence: "As far as Loyalists are concerned, the war is over. There is no need to prosecute it any more. Of course the war is over". Another declares: "The important issue is our children. A better future - jobs, security - a different way of life for them, especially those who have known nothing but bombs and bullets… I look forward to the day - whether it will ever come in my lifetime I don't know - when I can even have a pint on the Falls Road. Now that would be something to look forward to, wouldn't it?"

Unfortunately, the present uneasy peace could give way to conflict once more. Indeed, Drumcree and the onset of the marching season could see further polarisation. Only by removing the cause - capitalism - and by uniting Catholic and Protestant workers on the basis of a socialist programme, will it be possible to avoid a bloody rerun of the last 30 years. A Socialist Party comrade, while I was in the North of Ireland, said: "It is impossible to fully understand the situation, the psychology of different sides and of what is happening without living here". That is probably true. This book, however, can give a better understanding of Northern Ireland and, particularly, of the psychology and outlook of the 'Loyalists'. Only socialists, however, using Marxist ideas, can describe the situation accurately and provide a solution which, in Northern Ireland, means uniting Catholic and Protestant workers on a class basis.

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