Northern Ireland: analysis of loyalism

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at
Wed Feb 26 03:14:50 MST 2003

The loyalist call for peace rings hollow

The UDA's change of heart will do little to stop sectarian violence

Niall Stanage
Wednesday February 26, 2003
The Guardian

The new men of Northern Ireland loyalism want to wipe the slate clean. As
the largest loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Defence Association,
announced a 12-month ceasefire at the weekend, its political advisers sought
to banish the image of sectarian thuggery synonymous with Johnny "Mad Dog"
Adair. They were, they proclaimed, peacemakers.

Irish nationalists have not been alone in reacting with the deepest
scepticism. The UDA has been by far the most active paramilitary
organisation in recent years - a fact conveniently forgotten by those who
insist on ever-more emphatic proof of the IRA's honourable intentions. Its
opposition to the Good Friday agreement has not diminished. And the decision
to christen the ceasefire "The John Gregg Initiative", in memory of the
paramilitary godfather slain earlier this month in a killing attributed to
allies of Adair, does not inspire confidence.

Gregg was most renowned for publicly expressing regret that he had failed in
his 1984 attempt to assassinate Gerry Adams. His "war" continued until his
death. His henchmen are believed to have committed the murder of Catholic
postman Daniel McColgan last year. And they are known to be engaged in a
campaign of harassment and intimidation.

For all that, the UDA's move is welcome. Some commentators have suggested
that it should even have happy consequences for the peace process, which is
set to reach, and probably breach, yet another deadline on Monday. The
Telegraph headlined its report on the weekend's events, "UDA ceasefire puts
pressure on the IRA".

This is wishful thinking on the part of unionism's supporters. The cessation
is important not because of its effect on the current crisis, but because it
suggests that the UDA is taking small steps towards the development of a
political strategy. Converting militant loyalists to constructive politics w
ill be a difficult job. The working-class Protestant communities from which
the gunmen sprang have been woefully led for generations. Throughout the
conflict, they were used and abused by mainstream unionists.

Class politics made the situation worse. Mainstream unionist politicians are
almost all middle class. They view the working-class heartlands as
repositories of thousands of easily won votes. But they have done little to
alleviate endemic social problems.

Despite this, it is nonsense to suggest that the Protestant working class
suffered just as much as their Catholic counterparts before the Troubles.
First, every arm of the state buttressed their unionist identity - an
abstract point that had implications in a riven society. Second, most of
Northern Ireland's main employers had overwhelmingly Protestant workforces.

Loyalist paramilitaries have always seen themselves as defending the status
quo against insurgent republicans. The problem for those who now wish to
encourage political development is clear. Loyalism's raison d'etre has been
the prevention of change. How does it cope with a scenario in which change
is inevitable? There is no easy answer; nor are there many grounds for

Nationalist areas are beset by similar problems, but they have a long
tradition of collective action; a vibrant community sector is well-placed to
reap the dividends of peace. Protestants, with their suspicion of anything
that carries even a whiff of socialism, are trailing far behind.

The development of a political programme that twins loyalism with
progressive social policies is still at an embryonic stage. Such a project
may be too contradictory to ever be successful. The Progressive Unionist
party, the political wing of the UDA's smaller rival, the UVF, has advanced
under the leadership of astute ex-prisoners such as David Ervine and Billy
Hutchinson. Still, its achievements are modest.

The history of the UDA offers even worse omens. John McMichael was one of
the first loyalist leaders to recognise the need for a coherent political
strategy. He was murdered in 1987 - the IRA claimed responsibility, but it
is now accepted that the killers had assistance from some of McMichael's
supposed comrades.

His son, Gary, later led the UDA's political wing, the UDP. Although the
party was involved in the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement, it
failed to win any seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It declined and
was disbanded in November 2001. McMichael, who endures a relationship of
mutual loathing with Johnny Adair, is rarely heard these days. He says he is
finished with loyalism.

The UDA ceasefire is a good start. But it is only a start. The prospect of
loyalism stepping into Northern Ireland's brave new world is unlikely. The
gunmen and the racketeers still lurk in the shadows.

· Niall Stanage is editor of Magill magazine in Dublin.

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