Billy Mitchell on identity

I was doing a bit of writing the other night and was listening to an interview I carried out with the late Billy Mitchell in June 2006. I only got to talk to Billy that one time as he sadly passed away the following month.Billy was the author of the seminal document ‘The Principles of Loyalism’. Written in 2002 it is essential reading for anyone wishing to gain an insight into the social, political and paramilitary loyalist thinking which emerged from within the UVF.

This is what I wrote (please bear in mind that this is only a draft and forms part of a substantial book chapter)…

Billy, on the left.

Billy Mitchell was taken aback somewhat when asked the question ‘What is loyalism?’ His response highlighted both the class and community dynamics which he perceived to be at the core of loyalism and working class Protestant culture in Belfast: ‘What is loyalism?! For me it’s about…loyalty to the state…its working class unionism – that’s the way the media have defined it. Unionism is about civic unionism, loyalism is about the working class. Loyal to your community and the democratic wishes of your community…that’s basically it.’ When pushed further on what loyalist identity meant to him he stated,

‘Identity transcends the boxes, you know? For instance in cultural stuff I was brought up in an era where Irish culture had absolutely no problems for me – I would regard myself in that respect as an Irish unionist. I’ve no problems with Irish culture; I’ve problems with the provisionalisation of it. I have some affinity with spoken Ulster Scots but I have very little time for the politicisation of it. We grew up with the hamely tongue or the language of the hearth – it was bate out of us at school. My musical taste…I have no problem with Irish music whether its ‘diddly-dee’ music or traditional Scottish music. Basically if you’re talking about culture, my culture in music is blues! Blues, and strangely enough classics – the like of Katherine Jenkins. I have a problem with people talking about your cultural identity…I have problems with people trying to piegeonhole me; because I’m as comfortable playing the bodhran…as I am playing ‘The Sash’.’

Mitchell’s musings on his identity were telling. As a working class Protestant who had been heavily involved with the UVF and progressive loyalism one might assume that he would have been keen to speak at length about what loyalist identity meant to him and reinforce his political convictions. It was notable however that he used the opportunity provided to talk about loyalist identity to instead describe the layers of his own identity. Loyalism was a big part of Mitchell’s life, of that there can be no doubt. It was, however, only one part. The other interests he described were as normal to him as they might be to other working class Protestants. To what extent then does loyalism inform the Protestant working class in Belfast?

A biography of Billy Mitchell:

The Principles of Loyalism:


1 Comment

  1. Interesting post – Principles of Loyalism is a very powerful document.

    As to what is loyalism – I think he’s nailed it – it is loyalty to your community, conceived at both a local and national level. Its a working-class culture because the middle-class don’t need community – if you have investments you don’t need solidarity.

    As to how much it ‘informs’ the Protestant working-class – not sure ‘informs’ is the right word. Loyalism is something people do – it only exists as long as people keep doing it. In working-class Protestant areas, everybody participates to a greater or lesser extent, and this is not entirely a choice. Loyalism is not just a set of practices, it is a discipline, because it is the means by which the community creates solidarity and ensures its survival. Therefore there are sanctions for those who fail to participate. These may range from gentle humour to extreme violence, but perhaps most significantly, just exclusion from the networks which are essential for survival in deprived circumstances. Having said that – probably most participate with enthusiasm, even if only occasionally. The Orange Order is still larger than all NI political parties put together, and it is dwarfed by the marching band movement and band supporters. This is because loyalism offers routes to prestige, emotional fulfillment and significantly a rewarding and affordable social life which are not available through other channels. Moreover, because loyalist organisations and events provide the central social structures in working-class areas (neither churches nor trade-unions have the strength they once had), its virtually impossible to get anything done in such areas without engaging with loyalism.

    Finally, I am not sure it is right to say loyalism was only a part of Billy Mitchell’s life. The other aspects of his life were all mediated by his loyalism (and vice-versa) – it cannot be partitioned off. When he listened to blues, or played the bodhran, he was still a loyalist. Indeed, my own experience is that the more deeply implicated in loyalist practice people are, the freer they feel to enact other identities, which may include trade-union or peace activism, playing traditional music, singing Irish songs or supporting the Irish rugby team. For instance, when much-loved Ballycraigy bandsman ‘Whistling’ Willie Baird recently passed on, his fellow bandsmen chose to remember him by posting a video of him playing ‘My Lovely Rose of Clare’, rather than a loyalist tune. His (and their) loyalism, his Irishness, and indeed his class identity, were not separate parts of his life – they were all implicated in each other.

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