Mad Dogs and Ulstermen: the crisis of Loyalism (part one)

Stephen Howe
27 September 2005

The riots, paramilitary assaults, car-hijackings, road-blockings and widespread mayhem which swept Northern Ireland in the second week of September 2005 were the worst for many years. They involved, almost exclusively, working-class Loyalists in Belfast, Ballymena and other parts of County Antrim battling the police and army. It was hardly the first time that “Loyal” organisations had been in violent confrontation with the state. But the depth of hatred and alienation on display still struck many observers as unprecedented. There is no sign that any political development in Northern Ireland – including the report of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning two weeks after the riots that the IRA had put all its weapons beyond use – is working to diminish it.

“For some years now, a complex, sophisticated discussion has been proceeding about the nature of modernity in Ireland…(but) northern Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists, are simply absent from the debate.”

openDemocracy publishes part two of Stephen Howe’s major essay on Friday 30 September

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

Much media and political comment has “explained” the profundity and rootedness of this feeling in terms of bigotry and criminality, of archaism and atavism. Defensive Unionist politicians speak in terms of Protestant disillusion, even desperation, at a peace process which they think has invariably favoured Catholics. None of those labels is entirely wrong – yet what lies behind the events of recent days goes much deeper. It engages the whole nature of Britishness in Ireland and beyond, and the very ideas of identity and community, modernity and tradition most of us use so routinely. And as I’ll try to show, the songs Loyalists sing, the pictures they paint, even the tattoos and t-shirts they wear, tell us a lot about what’s going on and what might happen next.

Back in August 2000, the excellent Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole reflected on the cultural significance of a notorious paramilitary figure, Johnny Adair. He argued that:

“A culture is a more or less coherent set of values and assumptions. A tradition is an array of skills, images or beliefs handed down more or less intact from history. In the kind of analysis that tends to be applied to the Northern Ireland conflict, people like Johnny Adair are regarded as stuck within a particular Protestant culture, and their tendency to violence is seen as an expression of their need to defend that culture...

Yet what is most obvious to anyone looking at the symbols in which Adair has wrapped himself is that ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ are somewhat beside the point. What you see in Johnny Adair is an extraordinary mish-mash of confusion and amnesia.”

O’Toole pointed out that a slogan which Adair, despicably, employed about Catholics, "Kill 'em all. Let God sort them out", actually derived from a medieval Catholic bishop’s words about proto-Protestant heretics in southern France. Obviously, Adair and his fellow gunmen must be unaware of this. O’Toole went on:

“In anything that can be called a culture or a tradition, this phrase can only be heard as a warning about the consequences of a religious intolerance that generates insane violence... That it can end up as a slogan on the wall of a self-styled defender of Protestant culture is a sign, not of the persistence of a historic tradition, but of the idiocy that comes with a fragmented culture that has lost both memory and meaning.”

What political gangsters like Johnny Adair represented, then, was not immersion in cultural history, but “a mind shaken free of any real connection to any coherent set of cultural connections”. As O’Toole pointed out, Adair did not march down the Shankill Road to the tune of God Save the Queen or Rule Britannia, but to the sound of Tina Turner:

“The slogan on their T-shirts isn't ‘For God and Ulster’ but ‘Simply the Best’, the title of Tina's gooey pop hymn to some standard-issue fantasy man. Over this T-shirt, Johnny's sweatshirt proclaims, not the dignity of Protestant Britain, but the virtues of Nike Athletic. The tattoo on his arm isn't of Carson or Paisley, but of Mickey Mouse.”

So, O’Toole thought, the cultural influences at work were “not Britishness and Protestantism, but Hollywood, Top of the Pops and the Sun… the flotsam and jetsam of movies, pop songs, brand names and tabloid TV…a jumble of commercial clichés and meaningless slogans.”

Fintan O’Toole has latched on to something important, which surprisingly few other commentators have noticed. I want to suggest, however, that he is wrong to dismiss the phenomena he discusses as “commercial clichés and meaningless slogans” and counterpose them to “proper” traditions and cultures (though the anger and scorn towards sectarian gangsters which leads him to make those judgments is not, of course, in the slightest wrong.) They are, rather, 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.

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)

“An Oxford Scot at King Dubya’s court: Niall Ferguson’s Colossus” (July 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 Howe’s informed, acute, and fair-minded analyses of contemporary global issues valuable, please consider donating to openDemocracy to help us keep our content free

What ensues is truly an “alternative modernity” which, however unattractive it may appear to most observers, almost disconcertingly echoes the cliches about what is supposed to characterise the culture of postmodernity. This is a world marked by the collapse of old certainties and grand narratives: one of marginality, fiercely asserted locality, obsession with identity, difference, otherness; united only in its fragmentation, its assertion of multiple, unstable identities; finding expression via pastiche, bricolage, promiscuous cultural borrowings of all kinds.

Fintan O’Toole thus misses a crucial point. The features of Adair’s, or the lower Shankill’s “culture” which he finds both so feeble and so objectionable are just those which make it contemporary – or even postmodern – from top to bottom. It may be a portent, not a relic, in the terms Tom Nairn once applied to Northern Ireland’s political culture as a whole.

Landscapes of identity

What formed in Belfast and other northern Irish urban centres in the course of 19th-century industrialisation was a variety of Britishness, not only in its stridently proclaimed nationality-claims, but in the texture of everyday life. Belfast, its youth and its working class had a great deal in common with similar cities “across the water”. Many of its characteristic features were shared with English, Scottish and Welsh industrial centres. It was intensely localised, with social networks and loyalties focused on very small, usually densely inhabited urban neighbourhoods.

It was often seen as an anti-educational culture: even more so than was the norm for English or Scottish working-class communities reliant on heavy industry; where the expected post-school route was not to social mobility via education, but to a secure position within the community through apprenticeship in a skilled manual trade. Equally evidently, it has been a profoundly masculinist culture – again perhaps even more so than its equivalents elsewhere, in ways that decades of violence could only reinforce. Both the (partial) ending of paramilitary violence, which threatens to deprive “hard men” of their raison d’etre and aggressive youths of their role models, and the precipitous decline in industrial employment, must intensify the “crisis of masculinity” which many commentators identify as a more generally pervasive western, post-industrial phenomenon. This has, as yet, been little analysed in Northern Ireland.

It could be seen as an utterly stifling environment. The pressures to conformity were intense: anyone inclined to question the shared truths of the community found themselves labelled a Communist or a Fenian. Loyalty to the crown, to Britishness, and to the Ulster Unionist Party (which repaid its working-class supporters with total indifference, perpetuating some of Europe’s worst social conditions) was almost unquestioning. Traditions of military service were strong: yet the liberalising influence of the Northern Ireland Labour Party – surely the unsung heroes of modern Ulster history – was also felt, as were ideas further left. And there were, at least before the late-1960s eruption of violence, more links with neighbouring Catholic communities, including ones of marriage, than outsiders often think.

Despite such connections and cross-currents, there was a dreadful naturalness, even inevitability about young men in working-class Loyalist areas seeing any manifestation of Catholic discontent as an IRA plot, and hitting out at it. In that environment it is not the early violence or bigotry of such men that is remarkable, but that some later repudiated it. Crucially, some influential ex-gunmen came to feel that “respectable” Unionist politicians had manipulated them by first inciting their violence, then indignantly disclaiming it. The people of the Shankill and other poor Protestant districts, so it was ever more assertively, even bitterly said, must no longer act brutally at others’ behest, but start thinking for themselves.

Perhaps that realisation came too late. The working-class Loyalist communities of west and north Belfast are in a probably irreversible territorial, demographic, economic and political retreat – hence, in large part, the rage and fear of those who mobilised in autumn 2001 against the “threat” of Catholic schoolchildren passing through their streets, who repeatedly battled over Drumcree, and who have fought the police and army in recent days. Paramilitary warlords and drug barons fight over the ruins. De-industrialisation, demographic decline, the tendency of the more enterprising or successful to move out to the suburbs if not further afield, low rates of educational achievement and very high ones of family breakdown, petty crime, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse – all these are features which the poorer Protestant districts of Belfast, Portadown or Ballymoney share with those of Liverpool, Glasgow or Swansea, and indeed those of Dresden and Detroit.

On that level, their crisis is generic, a variant on the crisis of socio-economic modernisation which afflicts large sectors of the older industrial economies everywhere. Not only has “globalisation”, in many of its aspects and especially those which enthusiasts hail as positive, enabling, freedom-enhancing, never fully penetrated those sectors, but in a sense it has already been (it was there, for instance, when Belfast could truly claim to be at the centre of worldwide networks of trade and manufacture), offered its tantalising promises, and then gone again.

Thus we should perhaps even speak of such districts as undergoing demodernisation, in tangible and socially damaging ways. Belfast-born poet Gerald Dawe writes well of how Belfast’s nightlife (and, one could add, its consumption patterns) “is today indistinguishable from Bristol or Birmingham, or, for that matter, Temple Bar. We all live, more or less, in the same postmodern heaven.” But in Belfast, as in Birmingham or Dublin, many people resentfully find they cannot afford a place in postmodern heaven. The syndromes of “Protestant alienation” and defeatism, including their additionally intense, working-class Loyalist versions, are in these senses phenomena of and explicable in terms of Charles Taylor’s and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar’s “acultural”, socio-economic modernisation processes.

Yet their culturo-political origins and expressions are, of course, more obvious and more widely remarked. These are crises also of collective identity. Dawe’s essay goes on to remark that, simultaneously with the globalised “postmodern heaven” of Belfast nightclubs or shopping malls there flourishes, or festers, “a lifestyle based upon the conscious pursuit of cultural identity; a pursuit, if you like, of authenticity, of ‘Irishness’, or ‘Britishness’, or ‘Ulster-Scots’ which are no longer the preoccupations of the fathering or mothering homelands.”

This operates across communities and classes; but it is generally agreed that the pursuit of “authenticity” is most fraught, even desperate, among working-class Protestants. As Marianne Elliott summarises the conventional wisdom: “Catholic culture and identity is far more secure and all-embracing than that of Protestants”; while more affluent Protestants, with transferable skills and very often experience of non-local education or employment, can more readily assimilate to contemporary kinds of Britishness. Indeed almost three decades of direct rule from London greatly furthered that middle-class assimilation, in a variety of both material and less tangible ways.

On the Shankill and Sandy Row, in Portadown and Carrickfergus, in the myriad bleak housing estates where grievance festers and violence rarely hides far beneath the surface, the cultural response has been the kind of pastiche which Fintan O’Toole identified, but whose complexity he greatly underrates. In the first part of this essay, I shall explore this by looking in turn at three Loyalist culturo-political expressions: Loyalist songs, visual imagery (especially murals) and bodily self-fashioning, and its racial imaginings.

The music of Loyalism

The musical subcultures of Loyalism remain – to my knowledge – almost entirely unanalysed. Their best-known aspect is of course the “tradition” of marching bands, which accompany the numerous annual summer parades of the Loyal Institutions. They feature in much reportage on Northern Ireland; but discussion centres almost exclusively on their political and ritual significance rather than the content of their performances. Indeed they are generally viewed as being, in strictly musical terms, a limited and uninteresting phenomenon.

This is not entirely unjust, especially in relation to the mostly young, technically unaccomplished and often overtly sectarian “Blood and Thunder” or “Kick the Pope” bands, which have been in the ascendant in recent years. Clearly, music itself is only a small part of the point and the appeal of such ensembles – as is made clear in the numerous and rapidly proliferating websites maintained by such bands in both Ireland and Scotland, where material on repertoire, instrumentation or technique very rarely features.

The main focus is on generalised, and often highly belligerent, culturo-political assertion (with the sites maintained from Scotland often appearing more aggressive and sectarian than the Northern Irish ones). The older-established bands, however, often still feature an intriguingly eclectic repertoire, drawing sometimes on specifically Scottish themes, on Irish traditional airs, on a wide range of popular forms, on hymn tunes, and on the influence of British military band music.

The relationship of Ulster Protestants to Irish traditional music has been much debated, as has the extent to which music whose origins and essential character are in no way religiously specific has come to be associated almost entirely with one community. Some attention has also been given to pop and rock music’s treatment of the Ulster crisis, including the work of local artists: but very little has addressed pro-Loyalist sentiments in this music, for the good and simple reason that few such sentiments have been expressed.

The past three decades’ Northern Irish rock music has included some that is explicitly pro-Republican (most notably, Sean O’Neill’s That Petrol Emotion, which emerged from the determinedly non-political Undertones); much that insists on “not taking sides”, in the sense of espousing a sharply anti-sectarian, non-partisan politics (much Belfast punk music, the best-known instance being Stiff Little Fingers); but only one band which achieved even the most minimal public success espoused pro-Unionist sentiments – Paul Burgess’s Ruefrex.

Some of the most admired and accomplished performers from northern Protestant backgrounds, indeed, have entirely eschewed any explicit local references at all in their music, let alone political ones. Thus Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy – arguably the wittiest and most literate songwriter to have emerged in Ireland in decades – has never included either “Irish” or “Ulster” allusions in his work (unless, that is, the delightful “Oh Danny Boy the pipes are blocked”, from Through a Long and Sleepless Night on the 1996 album Casanova is included). He has, though, featured a mock-heroic performance of Wordsworth’s ultra-patriotic lines from Lucy: English-patriotic, that is.

Loyalist song as such, however, has received only one substantial published discussion: and that a sharply hostile one, by Bill Rolston. One should not perhaps be surprised at that fact; for this Loyalist musical culture is an almost entirely self-contained one. The bands and singers perform almost exclusively in specifically Loyalist venues; often social clubs which are linked to paramilitary organisations.

The CDs and tapes sell only to the faithful, through specialist outlets: they are not even sold in Northern Irish branches of the major international music retail chains. They receive no radio play (even the local community station Shankill Radio largely eschews such material); and even if any of the performers involved had ever made a video, one doubts if MTV’s producers would be beating a path to their doors. It is, of course, an amateur culture, and a markedly limited one. Apart from some of the older-established marching bands – who are usually also those with the broadest, and least sectarian, repertoires – the only group in this milieu striking this listener as even minimally competent is the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)-linked Platoon.

Yet it is a remarkably vigorous “subculture”. The “Union Jack Shop” on Belfast’s Newtownards Road, to cite just one retail outlet, currently advertises over 200 cassette tapes and CDs for sale. In the sense of being a musical culture produced by, for and remaining within a relatively restricted public, with almost no intervention from large-scale commercial concerns or communications media, it fits oddly well into the conventional, indeed even the restrictive, definitions of “folk music” – more so, indeed, than its Republican counterpart, which attains rather greater commercial and international exposure, not least through Irish-American support networks. But it contrasts intriguingly with Republican music in another respect. Whereas Republican song mainly reworks a well-defined repertoire of “traditional” airs, Loyalist song involves a remarkable, sometimes bizarre melange of old and contemporary idioms.

Bill Rolston notes this hybridity, recognising that “loyalist songs come in a range of styles: from folk, through country and western, to pop, and what is termed in the United States ‘adult-oriented rock’.” He might have added that today, trance, rave and other dance-oriented (not to mention recreational-drug-oriented) remixes – albeit often painfully amateurish ones – can also be encountered. In so doing, he raises the possibility which I am exploring here, only summarily to dismiss it:

“It could be argued that such hybridity is a healthy sign, revealing loyalism’s postmodernist credentials or its multiculturalist ideals. However, there would be great difficulty in sustaining such an argument. Instead, the range of styles in loyalist tunes is in fact symptomatic of a more general problem within loyalism: that of defining identity. As a result, there is often great incongruity in loyalist songs.”

The antithesis is surely false: while few would wish to argue that militant Loyalism is “consciously” inspired by postmodernist, let alone multiculturalist, theory, the instability of identity-claims and the internal formal “incongruity” to which Rolston points are often in other contexts thought characteristically, classically postmodernist.

Undoubtedly, though, the mixture of styles and genres in this music is striking, as on occasion is the seeming lack of “fit” between tune (or the memories evoked by the song’s original words) and lyrics. A “shock of misrecognition” may be evoked by hearing the young Bob Dylan’s anthem of generational revolt, The Times They Are a’Changing transmuted into:

“Come on you young brethren and listen to me And pledge that your country stays loyal and free And step proudly forth each 12th of July And let Dublin know now that Ulster won’t die.”

It might be yet more surprising to hear John Denver’s sentimental country-pop ballad Take Me Home, Country Roads reworked into a bitter litany of Ulster’s sufferings from the IRA, or a well-known Republican rallying cry like The Men Behind the Wire drastically reshaped to appeal for solidarity with Loyalist prisoners (one of several examples of green “party tunes” being repainted bright orange).

The diversity of themes is as great as that of styles. If some Loyalist songs evoke a broad sweep of the past – often visualised in terms of eternal recurrence, with nationalist threat, siege and fear of British betrayal reappearing, essentially unchanged, across the generations – the very point of others is their topicality. Some, indeed, are regularly updated. Thus Thatcher-era references to “Maggie’s” treachery in the 1980s become allusions to “Blair” in performances after 1997. Each new Loyalist “martyr” will be mourned and celebrated in a rash of rewritten ballads: most recently, those in memory of Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) leader Billy Wright.

Maudlin sentiment abounds, some of it in older ballads, some in the numerous songs about dead comrades. Songs relating to the experience and sacrifice from the “Great War” of 1914-18 are numerous, especially from performers associated with the Ulster Volunteer Force. There such anthems serve, among other purposes, to strengthen the (largely fictive) bond between the “original” UVF which lost so heavily at the 1916 battle of the Somme, and the modern incarnation.

By no means all are unquestioningly jingoistic. Anti-war songs like Eric Bogle’s famous modern ballad No Man’s Land (also known as Willie McBride) about the useless sacrifice of the western front are performed, alongside more expectedly vainglorious invocations of the Somme. They appear especially in the repertoires of performers linked to the UVF. These, and the song lyrics reproduced on websites associated with that group, differ substantially though not absolutely from the Ulster Defence Association/Ulster Freedom Fighters ones: the former are more prone to evoke tradition, suffering and self-sacrifice, while overt belligerence and sectarianism is more evident in the latter’s music.

Pro-UVF performance also appears more often to adopt ballad forms and traditional tunes – whether Orange or generically Irish ones – with UDA songs drawing on a more promiscuous and contemporary range of sources. These are accompanied by differences between the organisations’ cultural repertoires in relation to visual imagery and to political rhetoric, which are explored below.

Some of the modern heroes are multiply invoked. Ballads about assassinated Loyalists like the UVF’s Trevor King and Brian Robinson, the UDA’s Joe Bratty and Lindsay Mooney, or the Loyalist Volunteer Force’s Billy Wright each exist in several different versions. Among the most remarkable transcultural borrowings in Loyalist song commemorates UVF “Colonel” Trevor King in an adaptation of Marvin Gaye’s civil-rights anthem Abraham, Martin and John – which becomes “…and Trevor”.

But sometimes even in these works of ostensible remembrance one is stopped short, and chilled. A UVF song, The Battalion of the Dead, celebrates numerous fallen members of the organisation. Some died in the course of what were, by the UVF’s own lights, legitimate operations: killed by Republicans or in a few cases by British forces. But the names of nakedly sectarian murderers, supposedly repudiated by the group and, indeed, probably killed or “set up” by fellow Loyalists, are also there. Lenny Murphy, Robert Bates and other unequivocally sinister figures are part of the battalion of the honoured dead. By what foul magic have they been assimilated into the pantheon?

Here, far more than in Republican song – with which the parallels are otherwise, again, very evident – the sordid is transmogrified into the heroic and elegaic. Elsewhere, different kinds of sentimentalism – the pop-cultural and the “traditional” British military – are mingled. It is reported that at the funeral of murdered UFF man Jackie Coulter in August 2000, the public-address system blared songs by Percy Sledge and Take That, followed by a lone bugler playing the Last Post.

And alongside this sentimentality – and especially in UDA songs – is a swaggeringly in-your-face glorification of violence, which goes far beyond that to be encountered in Republican song. In the latter, the actual business of killing, and especially any hint of overt sectarianism, is euphemised, poeticised, hidden. In some Loyalist song, it is asserted with a kind of desperate bravado. The attitude is, as in the reported slogan on a Loyalist t-shirt: “No one likes us – and we don’t give a fuck”.

Bands carry names like The Young Guns, The Battalion, The Armagh Brigade. Some lyrics do not commemorate the honoured dead or the sufferings of Loyalist prisoners, but glory in their own menace and brutality:

“Their time will come for, mark my words, they’ll pay the price one day, They’ll be cut down like mad dogs by the men of the UDA.”

The final minutes of Peter Taylor’s impressive BBC television history of Protestant paramilitarism, Loyalists, are shot in a west Belfast drinking club. (The occasion, though not stated in the film, is a post-parade celebration by the Shankill Protestant Boys, a marching band closely linked to the UVF – and apparently heavily involved in the September 2005 events.) Two songs are featured – and they mirror two dramatically contrasted sides of the Loyalist musical world.

First, behind Taylor’s commentary, can be discerned Daddy’s Uniform: a sentimental though also militant celebration of the Ulster Volunteer tradition being handed down through the generations, which ends with the ageing father commanding:

“So take this gun, my only son, And join the Volunteers!”

Seemingly the entire packed room – including a well-known west Belfast political figure – sings along with the rather plodding two-piece band. Then, though, a hulking, shaven-headed, black-clad figure takes the little stage. He begins, in a tunelessly roaring voice:

“I was walking up the Falls With my fucking tommy gun I grabbed a Taig and told him There was fuck all that could stop me. Then I shot him. And I watched that bastard die.”

The room erupts in applause; in which this time the politician, perhaps aware of the cameras, apparently does not join.

Some sources for Stephen Howe’s 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)

Henry Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone (Indiana University Press, 1995)

Billy Hutchinson, Hard Man, Honorable Man: My Loyalist Life (Dublin, 2003).

David Lister and Hugh Jordan, Mad Dog: The Rise and Fall of Johnny Adair and ‘C’ Company (Mainstream, 2003)

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 O’Toole, “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)

The visual imagery of Loyalism

Contemporary Loyalist visual display is marked by the same heterogeneities, incongruities and promiscuous cultural borrowings as the musical. Mural painting in Northern Ireland is, as is well known, itself a modern rather than a “traditional” phenomenon, first emerging in the early years of the 20th century. The images depicted were, before the 1970s and the contemporary conflict, drawn from a very limited range of Orange motifs: most obviously and frequently, William III at the 1690 battle of the Boyne.

Murals were also, until the 1970s, an almost exclusively Loyalist phenomenon. As Republicans adopted the practice, however, a far wider range of themes and images began to be employed; and it was not long before Loyalists began in their turn to respond to this diversification. What has developed since, though, indicates an intriguing difference in the kinds of cultural resources drawn upon by the two sides.

The majority of Loyalist paramilitary-related murals have continued to adopt a fairly restricted set of explicitly militaristic motifs: uniformed, often masked gunmen, accompanied by slogans urging defiance, naming members who have been killed, or simply identifying the “battalion” or “company” whose territory the mural’s location is claimed to be. A high – though not quite so high – proportion of Republican murals are in similar style.

Beyond that, there is sharp and apparently increasing divergence. Nationalist and Republican wall-paintings are almost invariably realist in style – sometimes, indeed, as with several of the most famous Derry murals, taken almost directly from photographs – and depict scenes from the Nationalist pantheon of Irish history, the past three decades’ conflict, or invoke international solidarity with the IRA’s struggle. Allusions to or images of contemporary popular culture are very rare.

Although cultural theorist David Lloyd sees use of the “iconic traditions of post-Marvel comic books” in Republican murals as part of the “intersection of non-modern, modern and postmodern practices” involved in “inhabiting, outwitting and resisting the systematically graduated violence of the state’s incursions” in Northern Ireland, it turns out that the “post-Marvel” imagery he has in mind is derived from graphic artist Jim Fitzpatrick’s Book of Conquests – that is, a pseudo-archaic Celticism.

More contemporary cartoon images are not entirely absent from Republican visual culture – two depictions of then secretary of state Peter Mandelson as Pinocchio appeared on Belfast’s Falls Road and Divis Street in 2000 – but they are not an important part of the repertoire. Conversely, historical and “cultural heritage” imagery – Cuchulain, Finn McCool, the Ulster-American connection – has, since the 1990s, begun to feature more heavily in Loyalist murals.

Many of the newer “cultural” murals that have been appearing in Loyalist districts, however, have apparently been commissioned not by the ghetto communities themselves, but by bodies such as the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council. Where this is not the case, the historical themes invoked are often ones specific to the Ulster Volunteer Force – in some districts indeed, in 2003-05 the UVF moved to replace explicitly militaristic murals with more pacific ones.

UVF murals, by contrast with the UDA’s, have appeared ever more often to take historical themes, with an especial, renewed emphasis on first world war experience and the Somme – as with the organisation’s songs. The texts accompanying UVF murals, too, are more likely to evoke ideas of military tradition than are other groups’. Quotations from first world war poetry are popular: and again, they are not only the heroic or glorifying. A bitterly anti-war text by Siegfried Sassoon, of which former Volunteer leader Gusty Spence was fond, appears on a UVF memorial on the Newtownards Road:

“You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye Who cheer when soldier lads march by, Sneak home and pray you’ll never know The hell where youth and laughter go.”

Other sources are more surprising. On Mersey Street in east Belfast, a UVF mural carries the legend: “We are Pilgrims, Master. We Shall Always Go a Little Further”. The message has a Biblical or Bunyanesque ring to it – but the actual source is James Elroy Flecker’s poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand. More direct as a likely source for the UVF’s painters, it is inscribed on the clocktower at the SAS’s headquarters in Hereford.

The most prominent shift, however, is the increasing use of cartoon and other popular-cultural imagery in Loyalist murals. An image from a heavy-metal record sleeve, Iron Maiden’s Eddie – a terrifying, avenging figure advancing across a blasted landscape littered with Fenian dead – appears at least five times on UDA/UFF murals: including on Derry’s Waterside (apparently the oldest); at Monkstown, Tullycarnet; as part of the mass of new murals that appeared in summer 2000 around the lower Shankill, associated with the UFF’s “C” Company, 2nd battalion, and its then leader Johnny Adair; and (at the time of writing the most recent) on Dee Street in Belfast

That complex also included – before it aroused bitter criticism and was hastily removed – an unusually explicit celebration of purely sectarian killings (such as Greysteel and the lower Ormeau bookmakers) and captioned with another popular culture reference, Van Morrison’s line (from his song Coney Island) “Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time…” There were also paintings of Billy Wright, and of the British Queen Mother and Princess Diana (the Official and the Provisional wings of the Royal Family, one might say). After the expulsion of Adair and his key supporters from both the district and from the UDA in 2003, much of this complex was erased or defaced.

“Eddie” and “King Rat”, the traditionally revered “Queen Mum” and the more contemporary “pop” icon of the “People’s Princess”, all juxtaposed with overt celebration of sectarian murder and all purportedly part of a “Festival of Protestant Culture”: the pick’n’mix heterogeneity of current Loyalist cultural imagining could hardly be better encapsulated.

A crucial resource of murals in Northern Ireland is Jonathan McCormick’s increasingly comprehensive online catalogue

Other cartoon characters abound on Loyalist murals. “Spike”, the dog from Tom & Jerry, appears on at least four (apparently all UDA-linked) images: in Tullycarnet, Martin Street, the King’s Road, and as another part of the Adair-initiated lower Shankill complex. Donald Duck is displayed on Templemore Avenue in east Belfast; and the cartoon Viking Hagar the Horrible on Donegall Pass. On the “Bridgeton Wombles” website (the “Wombles” name derived from the furry-animal characters in a 1960s childrens’ TV show and was an early if obscure nickname for the UDA) Bart Simpson proclaimed “Bart Says Free Johnny Adair”. The website is Scottish and, like several others there and in Northern Ireland, combines support for Glasgow Rangers football club and for the UDA.

Bart also appears, waving an Ulster flag, on a Ballymena mural from 1991. The United States bald eagle is appropriated for a Red Hand Commando painting in Bangor, North Down. Even the much-televised UVF 3rd battalion mural on Belfast’s Shore Road, with its two menacing masked gunmen and its slogan “Prepared for Peace – Ready for War” has a distinctively cartoon-like character, with an evident inspiration (direct or indirect) from the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein.

The worlds of paramilitarism and pop culture mix on many other fronts. Football enthusiasms frequently intermingle with sectarian ones, especially among some supporters of Belfast Linfield and of Glasgow Rangers. Several of the Loyalist “tartan gangs” of the seventies named themselves “Kai” gangs. The name apparently derived both from then Rangers hero Kai Johansen and from “Kill All Irish”. Of the Shankill today, local politician Chris McGimpsey remarks: “It’s like this: some kids love David Beckham and some kids love Johnny Adair. Some love both.” An Irish Times reporter found that the cult status of lower Shankill hard men evoked yet stranger parallels: “’I know them all’, boasts one boy, in the way other children boast about Pokemon characters. ‘Even with their balaclavas on’.”

Even in bodily self-presentation, some remarkable cross-fertilisations are to be encountered. Loyalist militants seem to have a strong taste for tattoos; and although these often include “traditional” motifs like the Red Hand or Union Jack, they may jostle against pop-culture images like the Mickey Mouse which O’Toole noted on Adair. Clothing has tended increasingly towards the global uniform of brand-marked sportswear, sometimes supplemented by t-shirts and other accessories of more localised – and often sinister – provenance. Popular t-shirt images in recent years have included “Reservoir Prods”, from the cult Quentin Tarantino film, Fred Flintstone as a Loyalist gunman - sometimes with the slogan: “Yabba Dabba Doo…” (Fred’s trademark yell) “…Any Taig Will Do”’; and the west Belfast UFF’s slogan from Tina Turner: “Simply the Best”.

Heavy gold jewellery is also popular: a fashion which owes little to either local or indeed British influences, much to African-American “gangsta” chic. So too, perhaps, does a characteristic emphasis on a muscular hyper-masculinity, the preoccupation with “working out” and “pumping iron” which seems to have taken so strong a hold among Loyalist prison inmates. The emblematic image of the Republican prisoner is as an emaciated hunger-striker: the Loyalist is a hypertrophied body-builder.

This appears indebted to United States-originated but globally commercialised iconographies of the black male body, which have been sensitively analysed by Paul Gilroy. Gilroy argues to effect that such African-American imagery and associated disciplines of the body, ostensibly celebratory and empowering, are in fact deeply disturbing; updated versions of classic tropes of “the black man” as body rather than mind, and as dangerously, uncontrollably sexualised.

The adoption of similar forms of self-fashioning among Ulster Loyalist men is little if any less retrograde. The parallels are indeed startling; not only in the cultivation of fetishised images of the ultra-muscular physique, with associated notions of “aristocrats of the body” which, as Gilroy proposes, have clearly Nazi roots, but even in the shared, pervasive canine imagery – compare the iconography of Adair as “Mad Dog” with the strangely persistent invocation of canine self-comparisons in 1990s US rap. (Adair’s own dog was named Rebel – an intriguing choice given the historic near-monopolisation of the “rebel” label in Ireland by Republicans. Did Adair imply that, through his dog, he was appropriating the designation from his enemies, and that his was now the truly rebellious stance? Or was the animal called Rebel so that Adair, when ill-treating it, could imagine he was kicking Fenians around?)

The racial imaginings of Loyalism

This parallel points us towards something wider and still stranger: the racial imaginings of Loyalism. Amidst all the heterogeneity of Loyalist musical culture, all the varied borrowings, one common feature stands out. Whether the sources are traditional Irish or Scottish, bubblegum pop or mainstream rock, American folk-rock or country & western (the last, of course, itself a genre with substantial northern Irish roots) they are almost all white. I know of no Loyalist equivalents to the various pro-Republican, mainly Irish-American attempts to perform reggae, rap or hip-hop, as by Black 47, Marxman or Seanachie. Yet some of the anthems now adopted are from black music: most obviously, Tina Turner’s Simply the Best.

The seeming contradictions or incoherences go further. Johnny Adair’s formative milieu was clearly a racist one, anti-black as well as anti-Catholic. The core of the Lower Shankill UDA came together as teenage neo-Nazi skinheads in the 1970s, affiliated to the British National Front and following a “white power” rock band in which Adair played, Offensive Weapon. Contacts and mutual sympathies between British fascists (including the paramilitary Combat 18) and some Loyalists have continued or been renewed into the present. They have mainly involved elements in the UDA – though certainly not reflecting that organisation’s official policy or most members’ views – and now the LVF. Yet it was while attending a concert by UB40 (a mixed-race band playing Jamaican-inspired music) that Adair was shot in the head in an assassination attempt; and reportedly his first holiday after release from prison was in Jamaica.

Perhaps, it might even be said, the affinities between Ulster Loyalists and American or even British black communities now go further than barely-acknowledged cultural borrowings. The former increasingly see themselves as underprivileged, ghettoised, embattled, defending a threatened space of cultural identity and of physical territory: their ‘hood. For the defence of localised territory is of course fundamental. In principle it could be any outsider, not necessarily Catholic, that is seen as menacing it.

It could, most obviously, be blacks or Asians – hence, in part at least, the UFF’s and LVF’s affinities with British neo-Nazi groups. But it could also be rival Loyalists: the 2000-1 UFF-UVF feud, the 2002 UFF-LVF one (complicated by the former’s internal schisms), the 2003 split between Adair’s followers and the UDA/UFF “inner council”, and the 2005 renewed UVF-LVF war, were all in large part about physical control of urban space, especially in north and west Belfast.

The threatening force could even be envisaged as being the entire surrounding society: an unholy alliance of the Republican former insurgents and the state which Loyalists once saw as their ally, but has now turned against them. In part two of this essay, I note how pervasive the latter perception has recently become in militant Loyalist circles. The consequent ethos of cultural and physical resistance against a hostile, encroaching world brings the urban Loyalist vision strangely close to recurrent themes in transatlantic black politico-cultural rhetoric.

The invocation of parallels between African-American and Northern Irish civil-rights struggles, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is well known and well documented. At least as familiar – quoted to the point, by now, of cliché – is the defiant outburst in Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments: the Irish are the blacks of Europe, Dubliners the blacks of Ireland, Northsiders the blacks of Dublin. Today, with Dublin’s (even much of the Northside’s) new prosperity and cosmopolitanism, and the growing cultural confidence of northern Catholics, set against the desperate defensiveness of urban Loyalism, the imagery could almost be reversed. The gunmen of the UDA or LVF are unlikely soon to “say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud!” But it may yet be that the old Irish trope of referring to “the black north” will take on a new, ironic, “postmodern” twist.

Equally, though, we could reverse the imagery and say that Loyalists are not Ireland’s new blacks: they are instead the last of the Whiteboys. Loyalist paramilitarism, perhaps more clearly than its Republican counterpart, is strongly in the Irish tradition of the “public band”, which goes back to the Whiteboys and other rural rebels of the 17th and 18th centuries: secretive but intermittently self-advertising, highly ritualised but lacking in effective central organisation, often mingling political violence and “ordinary” criminality.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData