Tony is a good friend and his work is a benchmark against which all future studies of loyalism and the Protestant working class in Northern Ireland will be judged. The launch took place at Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre in Donegall Street.
I spoke first and was followed by Mark Williamson from Rathcoole People’s Group and Billy Hutchinson who spoke eruditely and warmly about their own experiences as loyalists and their friendships with Tony. Credit must go to Harry Donaghy for doing a great job of chairing everything.
I have included the text of my contribution below:
I had an exhausting conversation with a friend last week. I’m sure many of you in this room will be familiar with how some of it progressed. I was telling my friend about Tony’s book and inevitably we got talking about the prison experience of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Despite being an anarchist and an advocate of working-class solidarity my friend fell into the Pavlovian trap of stereotyping loyalist prisoners as bench-pressing hulks while painting an almost romantic picture of the republican wings as being inhabited by members of the Fabien society. For anyone who has read Tony’s book, and surely this is the main reason we have come here today, my friend’s observation is of course based on nothing more than conjecture and a lack of nuance. Tony’s book dispels the notion that loyalists were uneducated, scheming thugs. And it does so in an even-handed manner. Tony has admitted himself that he had a black and white view of Northern Ireland before he took the time to understand the dynamics and machinations behind the loyalist cause.
Any of us who have attempted to write about loyalism and the Protestant working class with a degree of understanding or empathy have often been met with dismay or outright contempt. I’m sure Tony won’t mind me mentioning the fact that he quietly confided in me a few months ago that he was somewhat worried about the reception his book might get. I reassured him that he had nothing to worry about, and that the quality and credibility of his research meant that his work is unshakeable. That is true, but at the same time that I was reassuring Tony I was still smarting from an experience writing for The Guardian newspaper online. I had attempted to demonstrate how loyalists might be feeling about the union flag being taken down from the City Hall. I attempted to demonstrate that that the flag was only a symbol of a wider malaise, and one which had deep-rooted historical factors behind it. In response a reader who perhaps knew something of my background had accused me of suffering from a case of ‘Stockholm syndrome’. When I categorically reassured that reader that I had never been kidnapped by a loyalist, his or her response was typically humourless – “I meant psychological Stockholm syndrome!” And they claim that loyalists are the dour Calvinist ones! Another reader, obviously with access to my bank account, was distraught – “It doesn’t surprise me that Queen’s University funds people like Mulvenna to write this trash” she said. I’d just like to put on record that despite my proud association with the university, Queen’s do not fund me in any way. She continued – “I am so glad that my beautiful Irish children will not grow up to be exposed to Mulvenna’s bile.” I’ll not go into the story about how when I started my Ph.D. an American colleague asked a friend of mine was I in Combat 18, because I “study loyalism and have a shaved head.” There are many things I tried to do to hide premature baldness, though even for me joining Combat 18 seemed a tad extreme.
I’d like to return to the point I made about the wider malaise within the loyalist and Protestant working class community. I think that the current malaise does have its roots in the decline of traditional industry and also the newer industries that were promoted prior to the conflict. I do think it has roots in a lack of educational attainment. It is clear from my own research that the early 1970s were not an easy time for Protestant working class communities in Northern Ireland. Everything that had seemed certain in their worldview was dissolving in front of them. This is the point in time where their shared commonality with the British industrial working classes began to slowly erode. Circumstances meant that people were forced to retreat further into their separate ethnic identities and communities. It’s not often that I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with a member of the DUP, but in May 2011 Alex Easton hit the nail on the head during an Assembly debate on Protestant working class educational attainment. In introducing the motion he stated that,
I also believe that due to the impact of the period that is commonly referred to as ‘the Troubles’, we missed a huge opportunity to rebuild and rejuvenate society. Prior to those events, which are largely believed to have started in 1969, we saw the death of our local industries. The shipyard, Shorts and many other noteworthy local industries decline, leaving a huge gap in the labour market. As those industries declined, many Protestants who were traditionally employed in them lost their job and their way with no one to help them.
Easton could, however, have gone further. Why did the Protestant working class lose its way at this stage? A major factor was that many influential figures in loyalist communities upped sticks and left. The grip of civic guardians such as those involved with the Protestant churches and consequently the Boys’ Brigade and other uniformed organisations was dissipating; indeed many of these so-called community leaders fled Protestant working class areas as the temperature rose, seemingly content to leave the emerging problems of violence and high unemployment behind. Trade unionists who would have provided reasonable voices and strong leadership qualities in Protestant neighbourhoods were overtaken or subsumed by the emergence of more militant workers groups, notably the Loyalist Association of Workers.
These changes in the character of the community had a dramatic effect on the Protestant working class, and it left their relationships with the rest of the British industrial working class ambiguous and almost dead in the water. Most workers in similar industries on the mainland just didn’t understand what was happening in Ulster. The Boys’ Brigade which was still so popular that it celebrated its centenary at Ibrox Stadium in August 1983, managed to draw membership from young people in Ulster. However the civic culture which still clung on despite deindustrialisation in other parts of Britain, more or less died on its feet in Protestant working class areas of Northern Ireland.
Although the opportunity for a normal functioning working class culture was lost, Tony usefully highlight’s David Boulton’s 1973 observation that ‘This story of the U.V.F. is not a tale of protestant terrorism. It is the story of how the protestant working class was forced in extremes to take off on a voyage of self-discovery. It is a voyage that is not yet over – indeed, it is barely begun. But that it has begun, and that there can be no going back, is the light shining in Ulster’s present darkness.’ There are many who would find the idea of the U.V.F.’s emergence being described as a ‘shining light’ repugnant. Despite what Boulton has said, its story is one of terrorism, but it is also one of progressive politics, social capital and community self-help. The young men under Gusty Spence’s direct tutelage during their incarceration became fine proponents of the Belfast Agreement, while others have dedicated their life to aiding the civilianisation and reintegration of members of the UVF and Red Hand. In turn this process seeks to help the younger generation of working class loyalists move in the right direction. A new somewhat civic society is emerging during this messy post-conflict era.
Tony’s book will help to clear the mist for the uninitiated. It is a study of the emergence of a brand of working class politics which was frustrated by violence, hectored by anti-Communist propaganda and mainstream Unionist fears and left bereft by the untimely deaths of figureheads such as David Ervine and Billy Mitchell. The fruits of the politics which emerged during the scope of Tony’s study may not be apparent electorally in 2013, but their influence and effects at the grassroots is crucial and undeniable.