Young loyalists need to listen to those who experienced the worst of the Troubles

In May 1972 Max Hastings was dispatched by the BBC to the streets of East Belfast to gauge the mood among the loyalists of the Woodstock and Ravenhill Roads after another bout of what had become an almost daily occurrence in the city – sectarian rioting. There was a new youth subcultural movement on the streets of Protestant working class districts and they were called the Tartan gangs. They were staunchly loyalist and had a notorious reputation for brutal violence. They were identifiable by the different clan patterns they wore as scarves around their neck, or in the fashion of football hooligans of the period, around their wrists.

The Tartan gangs proliferated in popularity after the Provisional IRA killings of three young Scottish soldiers in March 1971. The Woodstock Tartan had been involved in the trouble of the weekend preceding Hastings’ report and he observed in his narration that in other UK cities the gang activities of the Tartan would be almost uniformly discouraged and condemned by local adults. In the political situation of Belfast, 1972 Hastings noted that the ongoing turmoil and uncertainty had recast the young gang members as heroes and defenders of Protestant areas: ‘The trouble is that in the ghettoes the Tartans are given every encouragement to believe everything they say about the respectability of their activities.’ Much to Hastings’ obvious unease a group of women who he interviewed gave the green light to the young lads in their midst: ‘They’re a great bunch of boys’; ‘If the Tartan weren’t in this area, this area wouldn’t be standing at all …’; ‘These are our boys of tomorrow’; ‘It’ll come to the whole Protestant population [who will] have to come out and do what they’re doing to get anything in the country.’

I was reminded of these grim observations from almost fifty years ago as I watched footage of the recent trouble at Lanark Way in west Belfast. Young teenage boys, many probably born after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 were being egged on and cheered by adults who are unlikely to have been around during the worst of the Troubles.

In my 2016 book Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash I comprehensively studied the descent of young loyalists into violence during the early 1970s. Through oral testimonies, official records and newspaper archives I built up a picture of a community that felt under attack from republican violence. The first no-warning pub bombing had killed two men on the Shankill in September 1971. The UVF blew up McGurks bar in early December of that year killing 15 people, and the IRA then exploded a bomb in a furniture showroom on the Shankill Road as people did their Christmas shopping. A toddler and a baby were killed, and the ranks of the nascent loyalist paramilitaries were swollen with new, young recruits.

There was a tangible fear factor and the current Progressive Unionist Party leader Billy Hutchinson, whose autobiography I recently co-wrote, told me that the people of the Shankill were genuinely afraid that the IRA was going to invade the area and kill everyone. Stormont, which had been no friend to the Protestant working class was then prorogued in March 1972. William Craig, the leader of the unionist Vanguard movement told a huge rally whose speakers were marshalled by the Tartans that ‘… if the politicians fail it may be our job to liquidate the enemy’. Around this time the young loyalists began to carry out killings. Little attempt was made to rationalise where things were going; it was almost impossible in a climate where even a Methodist Minister, Rev. John Stewart, described the emerging situation as the ‘Protestant majority’s high noon’.

Unionist leaders are still adept at conjuring inflammatory language and in a zero-sum society where the First Minister can admonish loyalist rioters as ‘an embarrassment’ and in the same Tweet state that burning a bus out can ‘only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein’ one can only imagine how this filters down to those on the ground. Furthermore David Campbell, the chair of the Loyalist Communities Council – a brainchild of former Blair Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell – told a local radio show in February that it may be necessary to “fight physically to maintain our freedoms within the UK.” Although I understand he was admonished by the leadership of the UVF/RHC for this claim, the LCC has since advocated collapsing Stormont if the Irish Sea border remains in place. There has been no clear indication of what would replace the Northern Ireland Assembly and the threat of a ‘physical fight’ was chillingly ambiguous to those who are aware of the excesses of sectarian violence.

A former member of the Red Hand Commando that I was speaking to last week said ‘Bill Craig, Ian Paisley and Austin Ardill weren’t responsible for putting me in jail, but they certainly didn’t help the matter.’ These are direct warnings from history. We ignore them at our cost.

The situation in 2021 does not bear comparison to the early 1970s. Republican strategy has moved on exponentially since the hunger strikes of 1980-81 injected a vitality into the gradual shift from the armalite to the ballot box to establishment politics. On the other hand loyalists are a generation or two behind republicans in nearly every area of importance. While neither poorer Protestants or Catholics have truly benefited from the peace dividend, there is a transparent sense of hopelessness in places like the Shankill. Community organisation is more fractured than in the republican community where a Catholic ethos of cohesion stands in stark contrast to the individualistic nature of Protestant dissent. Republican west Belfast has had the Féile an Phobail for over thirty years and now attracts speakers and acts of international renown.

The physical contrast between the Shankill and the Falls is stark. The latter appears on the surface to be vibrant while the former has never truly recovered from decades of violence and poorly-planned redevelopment.

Into the mix the loyalist community has many anxieties. As well as the Irish Sea border there is the knowledge that nationalists and republicans are intent on a unity referendum and appear to be confident about its chances of success. Scottish independence was defeated in 2014 but Brexit has reconfigured the shape and future of the union irreversibly.

As a then 15-year-old in 1971 Billy Hutchinson was seen by older UVF men as a potential leader. Hutchinson and many other young loyalists were self-starters, organising small paramilitary groups from the Tartan. They didn’t need adult approval for what they were doing, though they had it in spades. It’s now people of Hutchinson’s generation – those who spent decades in Long Kesh – who are advocating the politicisation of young loyalists. Hutchinson has spoken repeatedly in recent days of not wanting young people to end up with life-changing criminal records.

In the twenty-three years since the Agreement of 1998 many of these young men have been conditioned to see that there is no future for them in the new economic landscape of Belfast. After many frustrating months of lockdown, and with the neurosis fed to young loyalists by those with a craven agenda it can only be hoped that the men of the early 1970s who were tutored in prison by Gusty Spence are now the people that these teenagers ultimately listen to.

Published by gmulvenna

Co-editor of 'The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); author of 'Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries: The Loyalist Backlash' (Liverpool University Press, 2016) Currently: -Collaborating with Billy Hutchinson on his autobiography -Curating and archiving photographs of West Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s taken by my late father-in-law Paul Molloy -Trying my hand at creative writing

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