Loyalist culture, Unionist politics: a response to Stephen Howe

About the author
Graham Walker is professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of A History of Ulster Unionism: Protest, pragmatism and pessimism (Manchester University Press, 2004).

Stephen Howe’s two-part openDemocracy essay “Mad Dogs and Ulstermen: the crisis of Loyalism” is largely concerned with Loyalist cultural expressions and discusses them illuminatingly and provocatively. However, the arguments and speculations might have been more compelling if the political dimensions had been drawn in more detail. By that I mean the debates around Unionist politics in Northern Ireland (what might be called “capital 'U' Unionism”) and those around the reformed and reforming United Kingdom (“small 'u' unionism”) to which any discussion of Loyalism must relate.

Graham Walker is professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast

He is responding to Stephen Howe’s two-part openDemocracy essay “Mad Dogs and Ulstermen: the crisis of Loyalism”

Part one of the essay is here

Part two is here

In this respect, I think Stephen's article is shaky on political history. He refers to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP’s) “total indifference” in the past to the Protestant working class. Not so: the governing UUP prioritised the working-class interest, as witnessed by its fidelity to the “step-by-step” approach to social legislation and welfare benefits emanating from London. This severely tried the patience of the party's middle class and the bulk of its activists, especially in the post-1945 era when the Labour government's welfare-state legislation was reproduced.

When, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Unionists showed themselves incapable of bringing the level of unemployment down to the British average a serious loss of confidence in the party was felt by the Protestant working class. An always-brittle relationship was fractured and never truly repaired.

This had significant consequences as the 1960s wore on and the then prime minister Terence O'Neill struggled to keep the already vocal and ambitious Reverend Ian Paisley in check. The Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), before it was barged off the road by civil-rights protests, was beginning to make the Labourist culture of the Protestant working class an electoral asset. I agree with Stephen that the NILP are “unsung heroes”; I would also suggest that the Protestant working class should be given back the Labour history to which they contributed as part of the UK working class.

A problem of perception

I think Stephen's point about Loyalists being misunderstood and stereotyped is crucially important. In this connection I would argue that it is time to question the promiscuous use, in scholarly and journalistic writing, of the term “privileged” as applied to the Protestant working class. It is both inappropriate and unhelpful. The term is invariably used casually and pejoratively, without any attempt to specify or contextualise. The purpose of its use is to condemn and belittle.

The historian Marc Mulholland has written of the Unionist government “pampering” the Protestant working class during the 1960s. I wonder if he would use this term to describe the Conservative government's propping up of the shipbuilding industry on Glasgow’s Clyde in the 1970s? Would those who are fond of labelling the Protestant working class “privileged” use the same term about those whose only realistic target in life was a job in a similar industrial outfit in Clydeside, Merseyside or Tyneside?

The term “privileged” precludes a proper understanding of the Protestant working class and the politics of that class. It precludes appreciation of its own self-image and view of the world. It prevents us appreciating the dislocation and demoralisation suffered by the Protestant working class over the past quarter-century, an experience which Stephen acknowledges they shared with the working class across the water.

Stephen's paper raises the issue of Britishness and the strength of that identity. I think it is stronger than he believes; in fact, given the lengths many commentators have gone to in trying to convince Ulster Protestants that they are not British, or don't deserve to be, the wonder is that it remains so strong. For a long time, even sophisticated scholarly analyses got away with setting Northern Ireland speciously at odds with notions of British homogeneity which were and are utterly misleading. The Unionist community in general seeks only to feel that it belongs to the UK as of right and that its contribution to the making of the UK and to British history and identity is acknowledged.

This is not to deny that Britishness presents political difficulties for Unionists/Loyalists. Part of the problem is the amorphousness and “non-specific” quality of the United Kingdom and the very diversity and complexity of British identity (though these qualities can equally be regarded as the identity's strength). There is little that is solid to reflect back the strength of Ulster Unionist loyalty and conviction.

In other parts of the UK local identities are usually primary, with Britishness at best an overarching layer, thought to be useful for protection in terms of the National Health Service and the welfare state more generally, or of a stronger voice internationally. Ulster Protestants, however, seek the security and protection of the British link because of the Irish nationalist threat, and this makes them wish for a Britishness which is more coherent, more conscious and proud of itself, more solid. In this they are unlikely to get their wish, but I would argue that they are nonetheless entitled to assume their place in the multinational, multiethnic UK, forming one of the series of partnerships which constitutes that entity.

The Protestant working class remains the cutting edge of an identity and an outlook which has to be accommodated on its own terms to a far greater extent than even the new nationalism or new Republicanism seems prepared to accept. The cultural manifestations of working-class Loyalism may be many, various and incongruous but there is still a core of political beliefs which is highly relevant to the ongoing refashioning of the UK and of Britishness. There is a need for more of an east-west focus in “Irish studies” as well as in the contemporary search for peace in Northern Ireland.