I have sympathy for my brothers and sisters living in loyalist communities, many of which bear the brunt of some of the worst levels of poverty and social deprivation in the UK. I also take to heart that many of my loyalist friends are well educated, financially comfortable, and simply take delight in their cultural and national identity and want the best for everyone living in Northern Ireland. They are tolerant, inclusive, faithful, caring people. There is nothing wrong with being a loyalist, and until people come to terms with that statement, the conversation really hasn’t started.
I am the first to admit that being an American, I can often misinterpret the political landscape here. But we in Northern Ireland, from whatever background, need to keep vigilant against extremism, whether it derives from republican, loyalist, anti-Islamic, or any other source. Because extremism won’t just ruin our economy, it will devastate lives, families, and communities.
Many young people have ended up in prison, and many families have endured the terror of riots and violence on their streets. The mental health and community-relations fallout from recent events is significant; and sadly, it is those in loyalist communities who suffer the worst. If the situation in Northern Ireland continues to deteriorate, people will die. Therefore it is our obligation to intervene in whatever ways we can to ensure the process of peace continues.
I don’t have a firm grasp of the main issues being deliberated at the Haass talks, nor do I really understand the motivating principles of the protestors in North and East Belfast. But I know enough to stand up against the kind of nihilistic anti-politics of the Protestant Coalition and those within the flag-and-parade protest movement who seek to undermine democracy and the rule of law.
I am writing about loyalism now, but the same kind of critical eye should be kept on extremism emanating from republican circles. Neither extreme should be used to gage the merits of either ideology as a whole, as happens too often. The best practice of engagement will always be auto-critique; that is, challenging the extremes based on the best principles those traditions have to offer. In the case of loyalism, the protection of fundamental civil and religious liberties, the cause of Orangism, offers ground for the progressive members of that tradition to claim the centre-ground. But that is not my topic for now. Here, I am interested in putting forth the argument that we need to combat extremism from taking hold of the lives of our most vulnerable citizens and communities.
There are tolerant, reasonable voices within the flag-and-parade protest movement. While I disagree with a lot of what I see Tweeted by the Progressive Unionist Party, there are men and women of good will in that party, and I sincerely hope they are able to mobilise their membership into a political vehicle for disenfranchised loyalism. Likewise, I disagree with much of what I hear coming from the DUP and UUP in relation to flags and parades, but both parties have an elected mandate. I am concerned that elected members of government are calling for civil disobedience, but then, isn’t that what Caroline Lucas of the Green Party in England did by getting arrested at an anti-fracking protest? As far as I can tell neither the DUP nor UUP want to see the end of power sharing in Northern Ireland. That is far different than what we are hearing from Jaime Bryson and the Protestant Coalition.
Jamie Bryson’s views of the world are cause for alarm for they bear the hallmarks of the essence of pre-totalitarianism. That is, the kind of fear, loneliness, paranoia and non-reality that inform his world view can become the building blocks of a politics of total terror.
Bryson, and those with similar views, believe that loyalists are at the losing end of a culture war and that peace in Northern Ireland has been achieved only through Unionist appeasement to Republican violence and the corollary of a suppression of loyalist culture and politics. Instead of interpreting the social marginalisation of working class loyalists through the prism of poverty, educational under-achievement, social isolation, and post-conflict trauma, Bryson and others of the anti-politics loyalism movement interpret every aspect of disenfranchisement through a narrow sectarian lens that blames Sinn Féin for all the woes and tribulations experienced by Protestant communities. There is such a feeling of anger, hurt, and injustice in loyalist communities, that Bryson, in the past, has suggested that what he calls the PUL community may need to resort to an armed campaign to protect itself.
Yesterday, Queen’s University’s Compromise after Conflict blog published a piece by Bryson.
Bryson begins, “There is a widely held view among a section of Loyalism that the trajectory of the peace process is at best a Republican state of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and at worst at stepping stone to Irish unification.”
That is a scary disconnection from reality, obviously illogical, and an interpretation of events that sees only the negative. If this is a true perception, perhaps it is so because very few of the dividends of peace have come into the worst-off communities in Northern Ireland. But it is an illogical perception and not grounded in reality. How can there be a republic in a constitutional monarchy? And as others have been saying since the flag protests, the union has never been safer. According to a recent poll in the Belfast Telegraph, only 3.8% of people in Northern Ireland would, if a referendum were held tomorrow, vote for Irish unification. The Queen, even among catholics, has the highest approval rating of any public leader. Peace, it appears, is good for unionism.
Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, warned against the perils of loneliness, which can infect the perception of the world around you. A lonely man, says Luther, “always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst.”
Loneliness is a crucial factor in the origins of extremism, especially that of a totalitarianism variety. Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism writes, “the famous extremism of totalitarian movements, far from having anything to do with true radicalism, consists indeed in this ‘thinking everything to the worst,’ in this deducing process which always arrives at the worst possible conclusions.”
Many loyalist areas suffer from social deprivation, high levels of poverty, drug addiction, crime, and broken-down community and family bonds. People live with high levels of stress, feel they have no power over their lives, and hold no hope that things will get better. People are lonely. The protests provide a sense of belonging; but there must be leadership lest the protests become mass inarticulate mobs that express anger but no achievable political demands.
Bryson self identifies an anti-Agreement loyalist, meaning he rejects the democratically agreed principles enshrined in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. He has a right to do this, but he does not have the right to intimidate the rest of society with violence and economic shutdown if the majority agree with the new constitutional rules of public life. If he and others want an anti-Agreement platform, join up with Jim Allister, and other anti-Agreement unionists who nonetheless accept the majority’s decision.
Politics is a practice of debate, persuasion, and compromise that ends in various victories and losses. To win a democratic debate requires building up strong, evidence-based ideas and gaining the trust of others by communicating shared values. By advocating that loyalists opt out of the democratic process, Bryson is leading loyalists down a path of civic incompetence and further social isolation that can only lead to violence and anarchy.
The anti-extremism think tank, the Quilliam Foundation, known for their work with the extreme anti-right and with radical Islamists, warns how extremism creates its own victims.
“The fact that extremism creates its own victims must not be overlooked – whether they are part of families torn apart by radicalisation or neighbourhoods experiencing tension and polarisation because of extremism. Sadly and more often than not, these victims are among the most socially and economically disadvantaged and often go unheard.”
I have yet to hear how Bryson’s politics would actually have a positive effect on the lives of the poor and disaffected here in Northern Ireland. The danger with Bryson’s brand of anti-politics is that they lead nowhere but anarchy and tragedy.
Arendt spent her life diagnosing the origins of totalitarianism. I may be wrong, but I see in Bryson the kind of violent nationalist fascism, grounded in fear, isolation, and loneliness, that Arendt warned us would be with us for years to come.
I would like to challenge Bryson from the perspective of a brother in Christ. I think we both agree that fewer and fewer people in society are coming to salvation through Christ. The hopelessness, materialism, and moral break-down of society has much to do with this mass emigration from faith. That’s my common ground with Jamie Bryson, we share a faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and all that means for humanity. But he must remember that fundamental to a Christian theology of society are principles of love, neighbourliness, reconciliation, forgiveness, compassion, social justice, and order.
I don’t disapprove of civil disobedience when the situation calls for its necessity. The Civil Rights Movement in my own country of origin used civil disobedience to work for the end of Jim Crow—racist segregation laws used to disenfranchise African Americans. If the protestors in North Belfast feel their rights have been violated, I’m not against their right to peaceful protest. (This is where I think I might be at odds with the L.A.D. campaigners). But there is a difference between breaking the law and disregarding principles of law and order, which are fundamental to democratic society.
I think I remember Jamie Bryson on Twitter defending the new UVF mural in East Belfast—the one with the hooded gunman and the words, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” That quote is taken from Martin Luther King Jr’s letter from Birmingham prison. He had been jailed for participating in civil disobedience and many black clergy members had rebuked him for his actions. The letter is a robust declaration of one’s right to protest unjust laws. But it is also a robust critique of political violence. In it, MLK says,
“I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”
If protestors want to break a law they feel is unjust, they “must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.” That means taking off the masks, engaging in dialogue, and articulating clear and achievable political goals based on values that all should, even if they don’t yet, share.
Bryson’s politics of loneliness will further disenfranchise loyalist communities. I care about loyalists, because I care about all people who feel pushed to the margins. I want to end poverty for all people in the UK and Ireland. But I believe in politics that can bring the marginalised into the fold of peace, prosperity, and enhanced community. And because I see Bryson’s extremism as dangerous to those he seeks to persuade, namely other lonely working-class loyalists, united in their feeling of having been abandoned by everything and everybody, I exhort those who care about protecting loyalist families to now step to the fore and offer loyalists a politics they can buy into.
I would also exhort all those in Northern Ireland to practice civil intolerance, a great phrase from the passage below published in a policy document from Quilliam. This doesn’t mean engaging in a mocking of working class Protestants, as has become the trend in some online circles. But it does mean practicing a rhetoric of protest that at once upholds the dignity of the human that believes in a particular ideology, but that simultaneously unhinges that ideology from their lives. In some respects, I think this is what L.A.D. engages in, though I would like to see them practice a greater level of compassion for people from loyalists communities going forward.
From the Quilliam Foundation:
“The UK prides itself on its ability to uphold civil liberties and the values of tolerance, respect and democracy. These should not be compromised, and a doctrine of ‘legal tolerance’ should be adhered to when dealing with extremist views. There is naturally a reluctance to intervene in the rights of others with regards to the associations they make. Despite this hesitation however, the fact that extremism in any form poses a threat to our civil liberties and to the British values we cherish so much cannot be ignored. Ideas and ideologies that sow division, bigotry and hatred such as those that may eventually lead to terrorism should not and cannot be left unchallenged in our society. Here, a doctrine of ‘civil intolerance’ is encouraged.”