In the first part of this openDemocracy essay I examined the crisis of Northern Irelands working-class Protestant communities, as exemplified in the severe rioting of the second week of September 2005, through three of their cultural expressions: music, visual display, and political rhetoric. In the second part, I extend the argument by framing these phenomena in the context of contemporary discussions of identity, modernity, and postmodernity in Ireland.
The religious intolerance and insane violence of political gangsters like Johnny Adair are part of what happens when the decay of one form of cultural modernity (the northern Irish variant of an urban, working-class Britishness) clashes with the rise of another (a north Atlantic, if not global, popular culture) and the resultant hybrid is refracted through an intensely local, territorial, violent and sectarian milieu.
openDemocracy published part one of Stephen Howes incisive, challenging essay on Loyalism in Northern Ireland on Wednesday 28 September
For some years now, a complex, sophisticated discussion has been proceeding about the nature of modernity in Ireland. Numerous political, social and cultural theorists, politicians and literary critics, songwriters and filmmakers, media pundits and contemporary historians have intervened in and helped to shape it.
These contributors may come from a broad variety of intellectual and political positions often, indeed, sharply antagonistic ones but nonetheless all have largely concurred that concepts like tradition, modernity and modernisation (or for that matter postmodernity and globalisation), have taken on unique, complicated, perhaps especially problematic inflections under Irish circumstances. Simple, linear models of change - from tradition to modernity or postmodernity, or from colonial to postcolonial are still encountered in the literatures of Irish sociology, history and political economy (and even more in journalistic comment), but this discussion has subjected them to ever more vigorous scrutiny.
In Ireland today, assumptions that the traditional is merely residual, that modernisation processes are unitary and unidirectional, are widely questioned if not largely discredited. A far more complex conversation has taken their place. Popular debating positions within this conversation have included three claims:
- that modernisation in Ireland has been an inherently flawed, inauthentic or doomed project
- that Irish society in some sense moved straight from the traditional to the postmodern without ever fully experiencing modernity (or modernism) on the way
- that Irish modernisers are vainly trying to catch up with someone elses past, and that it is the upholders of certain kinds of cultural tradition who actually hold the keys to the future
The first two claims carry an especially direct political charge: namely, that modernity, postmodernity and/or globalisation in Ireland have been (or should be) associated with becoming post-nationalist, with embracing cultural hybridity, with European integration, and with fundamentally reappraising discourses of gender and of organised religion.
Some critics see in these propositions an association with a universalist, post-Enlightenment philosophical stance, and a liberal or social-democratic politics; others draw the conclusion that the alleged failure of modernity in Ireland is precisely attributable to its association with universalist intellectual and political attitudes of this kind. In this perspective, Irelands postcolonial position and unended embroilment in the legacies of empire (a first world country, but with a third world memory, in the words of one such critic, Luke Gibbons) make stances of this kind peculiarly inappropriate or damaging there.
Between Dublin and Belfast
Almost all these intense and complex arguments, however, have taken place in and about the Republic of Ireland. Even where they have referred to earlier history (including the period before the partition of the country in 1920-22), their analysis of culture and society has focused almost exclusively on nationalist, Catholic Ireland and is infused with a pervasive assumption that this is all of Ireland.
Despite several recent attempts to think of developments on both sides of the Irish border as parallel or linked crises of modernisation, the north is almost entirely missing from the conversation. Northern Catholics play a minor and rather inglorious role in the republics discussions, one framed by a pervasive (and ill-evidenced) assumption that they are more traditional in their social, cultural and religious attitudes and (naturally) in their views on the national question - than their southern co-religionists. As for northern Protestants, for Unionists and Loyalists, they are simply absent from the debate.
Modern writing about the republic thus engages in intense argument on the meanings of the modern, the postmodern, the traditional, the emergent, the residual, and such complex alternative coinages as David Lloyds non-modern. Yet for almost all analysis of the north (and especially of Unionism and Loyalism) a simpler and cruder picture still suffices, counterposing the traditional to the modern and reducing each to a few simple stereotypes: the sash, the bowler-hat, the lambeg drum, intolerance, fundamentalist Presbyterianism (and violence and sectarianism) versus dialogism, New Unionism, integrated education, parity of esteem secularism (and peace, and tolerance).
The very terms of debate modern, modernist, modernising, postmodern, traditional, archaic are themselves problematised and closely interrogated in relation to the Republic of Ireland (and for that matter, almost everywhere else in Europe, if not the world), but largely still accepted and deployed almost uncritically for Ulster. The predominant attitude is that expressed in Maurice James Craigs oft-quoted Belfast poem:
O the bricks they will bleed and the rain it will weep,
And the damp Lagan fog lull the city to sleep,
Its to hell with the future and live on the past:
May the Lord in His mercy be kind to Belfast.
Meanwhile the recent wave of anti-modernist and/or postmodernist argument in and about the republic, offering positive reappraisals of tradition, of the supposedly archaic or residual as represented by very influential critics like Seamus Deane, Luke Gibbons or David Lloyd has no apparent equivalents among northern Protestants. Among them, defence of tradition can be heard not in the sophisticated cadences of transatlantic cultural theory, but only in the dour or strident tones of the Orange Grand Master, the Free Presbyterian preacher, even the Loyalist gunman.
The branding of a culture
Some of the roots of this bifurcation seem obvious, indeed over-familiar. Three evident facts, which henceforth can be taken as read, suffice to make the point:
- that much even of the best scholarly writing about Northern Ireland, and especially about Loyalism, misunderstands, oversimplifies and stereotypes its subjects
- that Loyalists are routinely condemned to be thus misunderstood both by others ignorant hostility and by their own immobility and inarticulacy
- that scholarly debate in and about the Republic of Ireland has long taken roads utterly divergent from those travelled by students of Northern Ireland
Yet there are also undeniably good reasons for the lack of sophisticated interrogation of alternative modernities in Northern Ireland; for some of the stereotypes are not entirely misplaced. Northern Irish society is, indeed, in important and obvious ways old-fashioned: both inward-looking and backward-looking.
Moreover, it is not entirely wrong to observe that Loyalist self-understandings and self-presentations of their culture and history not only others claims about them are often rigid, narrow, even bigoted. The sectarian elements in Ulster Protestant popular culture - from Orange parades to Loyalist songs, emblems and murals - can neither be ignored nor easily separated out. To say that Loyalist culture is only about sectarianism and supremacism as commentators like
Ronan Bennett have repeatedly done is, bluntly, a lie. Yet as historian
In short, if Irish nationalist cultural expression has appeared more fertile, more diverse and vigorous and infinitely more globally marketable - than its Loyalist counterparts, this is not only, or perhaps even mainly, a result of media bias. By the same token, if rich and complex expressions of alternative modernity have not been discerned in Belfast or Ballymena as they have in Cork or Clonakilty, this does not stem solely from the myopia of analysts in the republic or elsewhere.
The difference appears in almost parodic form in recent west Belfast cultural events. The annual festival centred on the Catholic working-class heartland of the Falls Road has a strongly Republican (that is, supportive of Sinn Fein and sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army) and cultural-nationalist agenda; and few would dispute that it is, in effect, organised and controlled by Sinn Fein itself. But it is also highly successful, well-established and artistically diverse. It features many international performers, and attracts many tourists as well as (deservedly) substantial Arts Council funding.
In stark contrast, an attempt to mount a Festival of Protestant Culture on the neighbouring Shankill Road in 2000 was not only a far smaller, shabbier affair that seemingly made no effort to appeal to non-locals; it was almost exclusively and overtly paramilitary in orientation. Indeed, its climactic parade dissolved into a riot, which in its turn precipitated a bloody feud between rival Loyalist paramilitary groups.
Stephen Howe is professor of the history and cultures of colonialism at Bristol University. His most recent books are Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verso, 1998), Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002).
Also by Stephen Howe in openDemocracy:
Edward Said: the traveller and the exile (October 2003)
American Empire: the history and future of an idea (June 2004)
Dying for empire, Blair, or Scotland? (November 2004)
The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation (November 2004)
Israel, Palestine, and campus civil wars (December 2004)
Boycotting Israel: the uses of history (April 2005)
If you find Stephen Howes informed, acute, and fair-minded analyses of contemporary global issues valuable, please consider donating to openDemocracy to help us keep our content free
It was not always thus. For the most striking paradox of alternative modernities in Ireland is that it was Protestants and Unionists who once saw themselves as the main modernising force there appropriately so, since their social experience was intimately linked with industrialisation, commercialisation, secularisation and indeed modern political nationalism. All these phenomena were, in their origins and early elaborations in Ireland, disproportionately Protestant.
Now, northern Protestants are quite generally seen from London as well as from Dublin, and by many from within their own ranks - as the most archaic, backward-looking of all social groups, forces or currents of opinion in contemporary Britain or Ireland. With the Republic of Irelands dynamic, pluralistic Celtic tiger (if slightly tarnished by social strains and worries) on one side, and multicultural Cool Britannia (if slightly worn after eight years of Blairism) on the other, Northern Irelands economy and its Unionist culture are visualised as uniquely stagnant.
Variants of modernity
How to disentangle this paradox? One approach may be via an influential formulation of the wider, global argument on alternative modernities. Both Charles Taylor and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar suggest a crucial distinction between socio-economic modernisation and cultural modernities.
For Taylor, there are two basic ways of understanding modernity. The first is culturally based: it sees the advent of modernity as the introduction of new languages through which ideas of personhood, of the good or of what is natural are understood. The second is acultural: it sees modernisation as development as the ending of a traditional society and its replacement by scientific and bureaucratic rationality, secularisation, the doctrine of progress, individualism, industrialism, contractual and market-based relationships.
The dominant theories of modernity, says Taylor, have been of the acultural type (and this is surely true of the classic sociological discourses of modernisation in Ireland). But the dominance of this understanding has had its costs; not least in that culture-based views of modernity are at least potentially pluralist we can see our modernity, based on a particular language, as just one among several whereas acultural ones tend toward the monolithic.
Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar pursues a similar train of argument, suggesting that ideas of cultural modernity, as opposed to societal modernisation, are critical, indeed oppositional. They originated in an aesthetic initially Romantic protest against the philistinism attendant on the socio-economic modernisation process; and although their critical edge may have been much blunted by subsequent mass-media appropriation, it retains potential today.
It is readily apparent that this train of thought fits at least the self-images of Irish culturalist critics of modernisation, from Patrick Pearse to Seamus Deane. But in applying it to northern Loyalism, an ironic counterpoint emerges.
Urban, industrial northeast Ireland developed only relatively few and thin distinctive (as in unique to that region) expressions of cultural modernity. These were the kinds of cultural displays and artifacts nowadays ordinarily celebrated, or derided, as Protestant culture: the loyal institutions, their parades, banners and rituals; local variants of British military marching-band music; a specific repertoire of mural paintings, popular songs and so on; above all, a set of historical narratives and images. There was nothing at all unusual in the fact that these were rarely understood as artifacts of cultural modernity, but rather as ones of tradition.
Also far from unique in a comparative perspective, but perhaps unusually (indeed disastrously) intense, was the extent to which many of these expressions came to be understood at least by outsiders - less as modes of self-interpretation, self-definition or celebration than as means of exclusion, control or aggression: in short, as sectarian.
There was a good reason why these formulations of a distinctive cultural modernity among northern Protestants were relatively few and thin. The work they were designed to do was fairly restricted: it was not required to go all the way across the terrain of the modern, for a large part of this terrain was already occupied by four other cultural formations.
The first was cultural forms and self-understandings which were not specifically Ulster Protestant, but generically Irish: though the extent of this shared cultural territory was steadily eroded through the first home-rule crises, partition, differential experience during the second world war, and the post-1969 conflicts. This dwindling sense of shared Irish cultural space to which the post-partition cultural policies of both Dublin and Stormont governments actively contributed has been well traced by historians like Dennis Kennedy and Gillian McIntosh.
The second was trans-communal conceptions of a regional identity specific to the north. Various writers have at different times sought to emphasise and build on this portion of the cultural landscape, following the influential example of Ulster poet John Hewitt; their work involves a search for a way to de-sectarianise the idea of Ulster and link it to a renewed sense of place, of physical environment and of trans-communal (largely rural) folkways.
The most recent serious effort in this direction is Marianne Elliotts attempt historically to trace an Ulster identity which once embraced the regions Catholics, and in her eyes could and should do so again.
A third district of northern Protestant cultural territory which, too, has been the site of strenuous recent efforts at revival was closely affiliated to Scottishness.
The fourth and more significant than the first three was mainly English, then British, then increasingly north Atlantic. This succession of interwoven influences came to dominate not because it was of intrinsically greater worth or appeal than the others, but because in it, a particular variant of the cultural modern was most powerfully associated with societal modernisation and, indeed, globalisation.
The implication of this approach for the attempt to explain what has been happening to the cultures of Unionism and Loyalism is that the main focus should not be on the specific forms of cultural modernity which Ulster Protestants developed, but on the way in which socio-economic modernisation impacted on these; not, once again, on Orange parades, lambeg drums or the revival of Ulster-Scots dialect, but on how a particular local variant of an international (though naturally, mainly British) urban, working-class culture grew up in the north and toward what has been happening as that culture decomposed.
Nation, class, politics
The paradoxes and ironic reversals, the heterogeneities and incongruities, the minglings of archaic and contemporary exemplified in Loyalist culture are just as evident in its political rhetoric. Here too, a picknmix approach often seems in evidence, with Loyalist paramilitaries and their political spokesmen adopting fragments of everything from an old Labour brand of social democracy to neo-Nazism.
Theirs has not been a very literary or theoretical political culture: certainly not when compared to its Republican counterpart. The Union Jack Shop on the Newtownards Road, for example, advertises a huge range of Loyalist merchandise jewellery, clothing, sportswear, flags, badges, teatowels, mugs, keyrings, music tapes in support of the different paramilitary groups. It does not, however, stock more than a handful of books; and those few are popular works on the Ulster conflict, not on cultural or other historical themes, nor ones reflecting a distinctively Loyalist worldview.
Its equivalent on the opposing side, the Sinn Fein shop on the Falls Road, also sells a fair amount of nationalist and paramilitary kitsch; but it also offers a substantial, and politically quite diverse, range of books, pamphlets and journals. The few Loyalist militants who have become authors such as Billy Hutchinson and Michael Stone have not matched the commercial success of Gerry Adams or Danny Morrison; nor has their tendency produced intellectually weighty prison writings of the kind that nationalists and Republicans, from John Mitchel to the Irish Nationalist Liberation Army (Inlas) Thomas Ta Power, have. And although many Loyalist prisoners especially from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVFs) ranks - pursued higher education behind bars, this was never on the same scale as among IRA inmates, nor was it accompanied by anything like the Provisional IRAs impressive prison library.
In part, the difference is to do with class. Loyalist paramilitaries were recruited almost entirely from urban, blue-collar - or even lumpenproletarian backgrounds. Middle-class, rural and small-town Protestants, if they wanted to fight back against the IRA, were far more likely to join official state forces than underground gangs. IRA volunteers, too, have been mainly working-class: but their ranks clearly included people from a wider range of backgrounds. And partly as a result of the legacy of sectarian job and housing discrimination itself, poorer Catholic districts contained more diversity of occupation and aspiration than their Protestant equivalents.
Moreover, working-class Loyalist communities probably exerted more internal pressures towards social and intellectual conformity, against educational aspiration or political dissidence, than their English or Scottish counterparts (and, perhaps, their Catholic neighbours).
The result was that independent political thinking from within Loyalist paramilitary ranks emerged relatively late, and often in fragmentary or uncertain forms. Its evolution and varied manifestations still await an adequate account; here, two specific themes are especially relevant to the discussion of Loyalism and modernity in Ireland discourses of threat and identity.
Discourses of threat
The first is the response of Loyalist political discourse to the sense of threat, decline and fragmentation in working-class communities in Northern Ireland.
Some elements have sought to embrace this as containing positive potential. The UVF-linked Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), in particular, seeks to make a virtue of diversity, repeatedly emphasising the many and complex layers of Protestant identity in the north. The party even admits an insurmountable difficulty in clearly defining what specifically constitutes our particular cultural identity; it continues that Loyalist identity is a particularly elusive entity to track down, constantly shifting, subject to a myriad of influences, opinions, beliefs and external trends.
This is uneasily combined, however, with a kind of organicism: based, now, on claims about class rather than national identity. The 1998 words of the first modern Loyalist armed militant, Gusty Spence, sounded like and perhaps were, given Spences wide reading of Irish history while in prison a direct echo of one of Eamon De Valeras more notorious statements:
When we want to know what the people want we ask ourselves; when we want to know the peoples priorities we just look at our own hearts; when we want to know of hardship we just look at our own plight because whatever adversity faces the common man faces us too since we live and move and have our being in the working class districts of Northern Ireland.
Another Loyalist way of dealing with the perceived crisis of tradition is to attempt a rallying reconsolidation around conceptions of threat, a recurrent, even endemic feature of Loyalist political discourse. The message is usually simple and its language highly traditional (as, perhaps most obviously, in the Democratic Unionist Partys and its veteran figurehead Ian Paisleys constant recourse to Biblical rhetoric to characterise the menace and resistance to it).
Further recent manifestations, though, are more interestingly heterodox in the nature of their analysis and their appeal. Especially sophisticated, but also markedly sinister, instances are the anonymous articles and essays carried on the Ulster Loyalist Information Services website, closely linked to the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) now closed down. The very heterogeneity of this materials language, mingling the ultra-contemporary and academically sophisticated with the rhetoric of religious fundamentalism and the nakedly threatening, is what makes it important, and perhaps symptomatic.
These various currents were paralleled in the early 2000s by political divergences in which the previously innovative political thinking and proposals of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and its political wing the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) gave way under pressure of internal feuding, the UDPs dissolution, and the end of the UDAs ceasefire to a distinct regression (including among some to an old flirtation with neo-fascism).
Some sources for Stephen Howes critique and overview of the crisis of Loyalism:
Colin Crawford, Inside the UDA: Volunteers and Violence (Pluto, 2003)
Gerald Dawe, Re-Imagining the Urban Landscape (Fortnight 385, May 2000)
Ruth Dudley Edwards, The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions (HarperCollins 1999)
Marianne Elliott, The Catholics of Ulster (Penguin, 2000)
Roy Garland, Gusty Spence (Blackstaff Press, 2001)
Paul Gilroy, Between Camps: Nations, Cultures, and the Allure of Race (Routledge, 2004)
Billy Hutchinson, Hard Man, Honourable Man: My Loyalist Life (Dublin, 2003).
Neil Jarman, Material Conflicts: Parades and Visual Displays in Northern Ireland (Berg, 1997)
David Lister and Hugh Jordan, Mad Dog: The Rise and Fall of Johnny Adair and C Company (Mainstream, 2003)
David Lloyd, Ireland After History) (Cork University Press, 1999
James McAuley, The Politics of Identity: A Loyalist Community in Belfast (Avebury, 1994).
Jim Cusack & Henry McDonald, UDA: Inside the Heart of Loyalist Terror (Penguin, 2005)
Fintan OToole, When Bigotry Takes on a Life of its Own (Irish Times 29 August 2000)
Bill Rolston, Music and Politics in Ireland: The Case of Loyalism, in John P Harrington and Elizabeth J Mitchell (eds.) Politics and Performance in Contemporary Northern Ireland (Massachusetts University Press / American Conference for Irish Studies, 1999).
Michael Stone, None Shall Divide Us (Blake Publishing, 2003)
All this fits with the picture suggested also by musical and visual representations: of a UVF/PUP increasingly seeking to articulate a coherent if complex idea of tradition for itself, while the UDA/Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF)/UDP are ever more eclectic and fragmentary in their sources of imagery and inspiration. Now, events over the summer of 2005 culminating in the ferocious rioting of early-to-mid September - call that divergent evolution into question (if not implying its total collapse). The UVF, or major elements within it, seem to have abandoned their progressive political path and reverted to an ethos of inchoate violence.
Discourses of identity
The second type of Loyalist response relevant to the argument here is about the identity-claims embodied in Loyalisms crisis of culturo-political modernity.
Loyalist rhetoric and writing today at least that which is directed at wider audiences than the hardcore faithful - seems hardly ever to refer to nationality-claims at all. PUP and UDP writings standardly allude to our community or (more ambiguously, but usually as effective synonym) the community. In former UDP leader Gary McMichaels journalism and political commentary, for instance, I can find only one, rather oblique, reference to nationality and cultural identity a complaint at the self-imposed cultural apartheid represented by Catholic-nationalist appropriations of St Patricks Day.
That which is produced by and for the faithful, meanwhile, refers almost invariably to Ulster, occasionally to Protestantism, almost never now to Britishness. Specifically religious imagery or allusions are also rare though one of several Ballads of Billy Wright includes the couplet: Now Billy read his Bible / And so he knew no fear.
For Loyalism, political Protestantism is no longer a sustaining or adequately bonding force. But nor, increasingly, is Britishness. The notion of Britishness never really replaced, but rather overlay and even served as a politically serviceable euphemism for, the distinct national and sectional identities of the unions component parts on that such diverse analysts as Tom Nairn, Linda Colley and Jonathan Clark broadly concur. Where such writers disagree most sharply is over how far, how fully, how artificially and how durably Britishness was constructed: largely a top-down fabrication now in the process of deconstruction, or something more organically and sturdily developed?
I incline to the former view. But in any case, it is clear that the process became intertwined with another, slightly later one: the attempt to create a Greater Britain, a global Britishness, a sense of collective identity which expanded the imagined national community right across the empire and beyond. We may question whether such a conception ever became universal, hegemonic or even dominant: but it certainly helped form the distinctive Ulster variety of British political identity, in part through consciousness or cultivation of settler and frontier status.
In this light, Ulster Loyalism - and through it most if not all available Ulster identities - is indeed doomed to imprisonment by an outmoded, archaic, terminally declining form of Britishness (and hence in part to the ghost of a settler origin). The socio-economic bases for a working-class, Ulster British form of modernity have been eroded by industrial decline, political defeat and demographic retreat. Its cultural foundations, perhaps always fragile, are also vanishing. So far as such foundations are always based on a specific historical narrative, the conclusion must follow that Ulsters narrative has experienced a gradual but accelerating process of breakdown.
Indeed, commentators as diverse as Henry Glassie in rural Fermanagh and James McAuley in Belfast have discerned a weak or attenuated sense of history among Ulster Protestants. The fragmentary and discontinuous evocations of the past of contemporary Loyalist cultural representations noted in this essay suggest a disconnection from historical grand narratives yet more sweeping than these authors propose.
The postmodernism of despair
It could even be said that the story Loyalism now presents is an anti (or non-) foundationalist one; that Loyalism has largely cut loose from the grand narratives of Unionist history (1641, 1689, 1912, 1916 ) and offers only very contemporary and very localised truths and images. This is a postmodernist approach to the past, perhaps, but is an extremely attenuated vision on which to base any positive political programme.
What remains will inevitably seem to most observers increasingly negative. Loyalism is a culture ambivalent about, when not aggressively resisting, Irishness. Yet, whatever else it is, it is distinctively an Irish culture one that grew in, and exists only on, the island of Ireland (it has offshoots in west-central Scotland, and more tenuously in Canada, but is sustained there largely by those with Ulster origins or family links).
Loyalism is in a sense the most alternative of Irelands alternative modernities: that sense being not so much other (nor, as in much of the international literature on the concept mentioned earlier, in a different postcolonial - place) as a different choice, or, in another dictionary meaning, outside the mainstream, dissident, resisting.
Resisting, though, with few resources and little confidence. The essential cultural difference between Loyalism and its foes is indeed that while Republicans conceive of themselves as having an inherited, densely woven tradition however thoroughly and recently reinvented that tradition may really be - Loyalists have to make it up as they go along. If the result of that heterogenous improvisation is a kind of untheorised postmodernism, it is the postmodernism of despair. These are the fragments they shore up against their ruins.