Has loyalist unity reached the historical end?

1985 protest AIA Larne

Protest over the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 in Larne, County Antrim; loyalist power workers at Ballylumford Power Station had helped bring down the political power-sharing experiment in 1974, so their banner was no idle threat to the government.

THERE is security in certainty.

Equally, there is insecurity where uncertainty exists or is perceived.

When I was at university I studied the impact of modernisation on societies in different parts of the world. Modernisation inevitably brought uncertainty and with it insecurity.

Northern Ireland was a clear example of how a process of modernisation impacted on society. The Northern Ireland of the late 1960s was inevitably changing and for some that was deeply unsettling. That uncertainty led some within the unionist community to respond to events through violence.  An earlier campaign in the late 1950s by the militant Irish Republican Army had fizzled out due to lack of support by the early 1960s.

But unionists remained afraid and the rise of an articulate and demanding Roman Catholic middle class, benefiting through the university education promoted by the British state, led to a growing sense of unease. In 1966 Peter Ward, a Catholic barman, was murdered by the loyalist terrorist group the UVF, an indication that this perceived threat was being taken deadly seriously and that the response would develop on predictably sectarian lines.

As events progressed, unionists banded together in opposition to external and internal pressures. But it was a complicated situation and there was no agreement on where the future lay or what it might be. This was a trend which continued. Unionists have argued the case for full integration with the rest of the United Kingdom, for devolved government (which they now have in a power-sharing arrangement) and even for independence from the United Kingdom.

In the past public banding was a common security for the Protestant community. David Miller in his excellent study “Queen’s Rebels”, in 1978, traced this back to the Plantation years of the 17th century, when the newly arrived Protestant settlers had to combine to ensure their survival. In 1641 rebellion broke out which sought to expunge them from the landscape, either by expulsion or, as more often happened, by murder.

1641 priest and rebel image The 1641 Rebellion was writ large on the psyche of Irish Protestants, who believed it showed that Catholics could not be trusted as they had attacked and sought to destroy the Plantation settlements of the early 1600s

This public banding took the form of militia, and the muster rolls from the 1630s still survive in the public record.  It was a military tradition which could also be seen in other areas where Protestant emigrants settled. In America, for example, militia mustered a number of times each year to ensure they were in practice and had weaponry to defend themselves, principally against Native American tribes which might choose to attack. Indian massacres were common as the frontier tussles began and the militia were stubborn, determined and usually effective.

In the Northern Ireland context Miller said “The community’s essence was that its members could trust one another, and no one else. It stood uneasily between those who could never be trusted (the Catholics) and a sovereign power which might be trusted only within limits.”

This sense of Protestant togetherness was not entirely true, as at certain points the Scottish and English elements of the settlement did not agree and were antagonistical to each other. Although there was unity during the Williamite and Jacobite wars, for example, in the aftermath of the Williamite victory, Presbyterians were impacted by the Penal Laws as much as Catholics and the Presbyterian aldermen of Londonderry were thrown out of office, something which led to bitter and deep-seated resentment.

But at times of what were seen as great common crisis, the public banding could be seen again; in the 20th century the issue of Home Rule was a major unifying force for most Ulster Protestants, although some remained radical enough not to entirely thrown their lot in with the more conservative elements of the Unionist camp. This banding resulted in the formation of a unionist army of around 80,000 – the original Ulster Volunteer Force of Sir Edward Carson, founded in 1913. The unionist leadership was successful in preventing governance by a Home Rule parliament in Dublin and for fifty years it had guaranteed stability.

However, the arrival of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, a sharp response from the state to demonstrations against it, instability and violence, the rise of the IRA, and direct intervention by the London authorities led to years of political uncertainty in Northern Ireland.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 and subsequent agreements might be expected to have resolved the issue of uncertainty; it has been said that ‘republicans were too clever to admit they’d lost and the loyalists were too stupid to realise they’d won’ in the aftermath of the Agreement.

However this may be, the truth is that in loyalist working-class areas there is a sneaking suspicion that those communities are ultimate losers. In his recent book “Very British Rebels? The Culture and Politics of Ulster Loyalism”, James W. McAuley notes the realities on the ground in Protestant East Belfast, where pupils living in the predominantly Protestant inner city working-class areas of Mount, Ballymacarrett and Woodstock failed to match the overall average of GCSE and A Level qualifications in 2006. There would have had to be between a 9% and 23% increase in grades for this to have happened.

Protestant underachievement in working-class communities is a well-known and difficult problem. McAuley says “…lack of educational success in Protestant working-class areas is a core social problem. Educationally four out of the five lowest achieving Wards in Northern Ireland are mainly Protestant, as are six out of the worst ten and twelve of the top twenty.”

This is in a society which continues to make proud boosts about having the best education system in the United Kingdom. Efforts have been ongoing to try and address it, including from the grassroots a position paper entitled ‘Firm Foundations’ from the working-class Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) which laid out a number of practical suggestions.

One of these was the ending of academic selection, which is not something that would win particular favour with parties which draw on a more middle-class Protestant electoral support.

The crux of that situation perhaps sheds some interesting light on the Protestant community in modern times. The present educational system includes a Grammar School system which the Protestant middle-class in particular is deeply committed to maintaining. The middle-class or aspiring middle class sees the Grammar system as a step up the ladder to achievement in later life, on the back of a better education.

But in Protestant working-class areas there is not the same consensus over education nor, one senses, is there any evidence of lasting thought being given to those areas, where underachievement is in danger of creating an educational underclass which, in an economic downturn, had little hope left.

This is where the issue of the Protestant ‘banding’ tradition is now of considerable interest. There are developments within society which suggest it has now less relevance.  There is a perception that the middle-class Protestant community has less in common with working-class Protestants in urban areas and there is no longer the type of patronage which once existed in the heyday of the shipyard and heavy engineering era, when apprenticeships could be found for young working-class loyalists. Equally there is not the same appetite among unionists for street protests, as was shown during the Belfast City Hall flag protests and also protests over the Orange parade stalemate in North Belfast.  It is also now questionable whether the Orange Order, which was a cement for the unionist establishment in the past, has the same political relevance. The days of a shared analysis of political danger, leading to the 1974 UWC strike, the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement protests and major disruption over parade issues appear to have gone.

This may well be because there is no unanimity over perceived threats anymore and, given different political interpretations as to the best way forward, no prospect of such unanimity.

A few years ago the main unionist political parties and Loyal Orders came together to oppose the Parades Commission and demand parades issues (particularly in North Belfast) be resolved.  This Unionist Coalition was to pursue what was called ‘a graduated response’ over the issue of parades. The graduated response did not, in the final analysis, happen, leading to much criticism within working-class loyalism and grassroots Orangeism.

But perhaps the truth was, as it had been over the Unionist Forum which had preceded it, that there is no common narrative or objective within political Protestantism and Unionism any more. Public banding may have become more difficult in any meaningful way for unionists because the future is no longer as clear cut as it may once have seemed.

That scenario is a dangerous one, for insecurity still exists and if it is not being addressed then a disruptive undercurrent within loyalist working-class urban communities will remain.  It is in everyone’s interest to resolve the unresolved and to heal past divisions if we want a better future for everyone.

12th 010

Public banding in a literal sense as Protestants march on 12th July; on the face of it parades and demonstrations provide a strong sense of unity but the question remains as to whether there is the strong consensus which used to exist within loyalism.

Why the threat of Securalism may affect more than the churches

april 2011 062THE WINDS of secularism have been blowing for some time now, and churches in our society are not faring well, truth be told.

Many churches do not seem to have succeeded in holding back a tide of change which has inevitably resulted in fewer people attending church. It has reached the point where more people actually watch Songs of Praise than attend church each Sunday in the United Kingdom.

I remember reading a book about the Jewish community and noting that in the United States, if not elsewhere, there was a definable community which was ‘culturally Jewish’ but not overtly religiously so. Similarly in the USA virtually all Americans say they believe in God and three out of four believe in immortality, but church attendances are not reflective of these facts.

In Northern Ireland the mainstream churches have faced enormous challenges as active memberships drop. A survey in 2014 of the Church of Ireland (Anglican) denomination highlighted that only 15% of those who claimed affiliation to the Church attended a service every Sunday. Over the past four decades, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has suffered a 40% membership decline.

The Loyal Orders, which are defined by their leaderships as faith-based organisations, face serious implications for their own memberships over the next number of years. A test on regular church attendance, which some of them have, may depend more on the spirit rather than the letter in terms of young people being encouraged to join, and there are likely to be other issues based around religious viewpoints, including over Sunday sport, for example. While the Orange Order is against Sunday sport, many of its members, particularly in urban areas, do attend sporting events on a Sunday.

Even church parades and services can lead to issues, as members of bands (which are not entirely within the control of the Orders) may elect, as many of them do, not to attend the service they have paraded to. The response to this from the Orders is sometimes to insist that the band members attend church – i.e. force them to attend, which is a bit draconian and hardly guaranteed to save souls.

As membership levels drop, the danger may be that those who are most religious remain and enforce rules which to them seem perfectly acceptable but which will, ultimately led to lack of recruitment and the decline of their organisations.

Taken alongside other factors, it is therefore possible to see the continued development of a ‘cultural Protestantism’ within the Protestant community in Northern Ireland.

Are many Ulster loyalists now ‘culturally Protestant?’

As securalism continues, it is difficult to argue against the assertion of academics James McAuley, Jonathan Tonge and Andrew Mycock (Loyal to the Core? Orangeism and Britishness in Northern Ireland, Dublin, 2011) that “Protestantism in Northern Ireland has become increasingly an ethnic badge rather than a genuinely religious aspect of daily life”. This has implications not just for churches but also for the Protestant fraternities. Few within those organisations could take comfort from the comment of one official (McAuley et al, p180) that he would ‘rather see a smaller Orange Institution than see it abandon the very high principles upon which it was founded’. In the midst of the ongoing developments in society, the wish may be granted sooner rather than later if the core issue cannot successfully be addressed in terms of membership.

There is also, in any case, a debate to be had over the ‘very high principles upon which it was founded’ as far as the Orange Order was concerned. While undoubtedly a Protestant fraternity, the earliest official rules of the organisation’s governing body are less strident than they later became in relation to Roman Catholicism, for example, so it is fair to say they were not tables of stone in 1795 and have evolved.

More importantly the organisation on the ground was, history tells us, founded in an inn after a sectarian battle at Loughgall. There are some clerics who try to gloss over the evolution of the order into the form it has taken today.

But there is some merit in David W. Miller’s assertion (Queen’s Rebels, 1978) that the Orange Order was a new and much longer-lasting aspect of the 17th century ‘public band’ within the Protestant community, a bonded group whose trust was largely in itself, certainly not in others around from a different ethnic grouping and just as assuredly not in any government or authority. As a ‘public band’ the organisation has evolved over the years into a quite respectable body. The question is whether it will learn to do so in the years ahead.

In the context of the churches, there is perhaps some sense that they have not helped themselves in recent years, as they have met with a relentless media and academic scrutiny.

New research and discoveries have served to undermine traditional and dearly held religious beliefs. There are questions over church doctrines and whether what the average member understands is in accord with what the hierarchies are aware of. There are debates over Biblical narratives, not all of which are literal. There are also undoubtedly more and more people becoming aware of these factors than ever before, driven by the internet and the media. Clearly these issues have the potential to be completely undermining, and there are some who are using them in that sense. But honestly and truth are needed from the church community in order to explain them. Failing to address questions over central issues of belief will only have one outcome.

Young people – the internet generation – have much more access to such discussions and debate and whereas in the past the churches collectively could have gotten away with a ‘just because’ attitude, that will no longer pass muster.  To some extent Protestantism may bear at least some responsibility for the outworking of securalism. Protestantism was all about individual opinions, about the ability to think for yourself.  In his book “The Secular State under Siege”, Christian Joppe makes the claim that the very basis of Protestantism had the seeds of secularism within it. The Roman Catholic Church, at least on this one, is away off in the smoke somewhere.

All of this might have wider implications from a community perspective. In our liberal western democracies with their weakened religious base, the desire to accommodate multi-culturalism, while laudable in itself, may also encourage fanatics such as ISIS.  Their aim is to establish their own particularly sickening regime on western society – if we are to take their words at face value. There can be little doubt that they view their opponents as morally and, one suspects, physically weak. Christian churches, with their ethos of reaching out to everyone, find themselves in a difficult place.

Another consequence of the decline in church membership and attendance may be surprising, from a community perspective. Robert D. Putnam in ‘Bowling Alone.The collapse and revival of American Community’ (New York, 2000) argues that “religious involvement is a crucial dimension of civic engagement. Thus trends in civic engagement are closely tied to changing patterns of religious involvement” (p69). There are also statistics that show those who attend church were more charitable in wider donations that the average Americans who did not. I am not aware of any similar research on this side of the Atlantic, so it is impossible to make judgment on whether there could be transference or not, but it must seem likely, given the same moral forces are at play. As church numbers decline, and there is increased pressure on congregations to maintain their properties and activities, there will assuredly be less time for external considerations for one thing.

The threat of securalism is not only one for the churches but may, inadvertently, have a knock-on effect in wider society. The churches, like them or not (and they have many and varied faults as institutions), have been foundation stones within our society: to some extent, for example, the Scottish nation was forged through the work of St. Columba of Iona, who converted the Picts to Christianity, then aligned them through intermarriage with the Scots and created a formidable and durable force.  The difficulty in undermining a foundation or seeking to take it away is that you ought to have a strong foundation in its place. It appears debateable among the rows, squabbles and court cases in many western democratic societies as securalism opposes faith viewpoints, that this is indeed the case.

Ultimately the losers, if this thesis is correct, will not merely be the churches but the people themselves. And the only winners will be those who claim the fringes, not the middle ground in our society.


A community Remembrance event in a local church; the links between church membership and community participation may well both be affected by the spread of secularism in society.