James Greer is currently a Research Assistant attached to St. Hugh’s College, University of Oxford. He holds a PhD from Queen’s University – his doctoral thesis focuses on the development of Ulster unionism in the 1960s and 1970s. His wider research interests include the evolution of the European debate with Northern Ireland and the role of sport in Northern Irish society.
The protests following Belfast City Council’s decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag have, together with the ongoing threat from dissident republican violence, ensured that 2013 has begun with a prevailing sense of political unease. The flag protests have clearly highlighted the persistence within sections of the unionist community of a strong strand of fatalism and a disconnection from political institutions. To understand the, largely unforeseen, scale of this discord some commentators have sought to draw parallels with previous unionist protests. Rallies focused on the City Hall, and tentative examples of unionist unity between Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt, immediately draw comparisons with the campaign against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. But the unionist mainstream’s complex relationship with the demonstrations also has echoes of its uneasy association with an older movement – the Sixties Paisleyites.
Such a comparison is not to suggest that unionism is on the brink of a crisis comparable to that which engulfed it in the late 1960s. Indeed the greatly changed governance and social character of the new Northern Ireland significantly dilutes the potential influence of the protests’ traditionalist message. Furthermore, the contemporary protests demonstrably lack the leadership and charisma of a young Ian Paisley. Nonetheless, there are contemporary lessons to be learned from recalling how unionist protests emerged from the complex political divisions, cultural insecurity and economic decline of Sixties Northern Ireland.
In an almost comic echo of the Paisleyite past the current demonstrations partly have their origins in a little-known micro group named UPV. Like Paisley’s Ulster Protestant Volunteers, United Protestant Voice attempted to become the vehicle to coalesce a disparate disenchantment felt towards elected unionism. The UPV has now been incorporated within the Ulster People’s Forum. The Forum is notable for the prominence of evangelical voices within its leadership who are outside of the main Protestant churches. Furthermore, elements within the Forum have expressed a desire for the return of Direct Rule – an aspiration straight from the early Paisley playbook of how to weaken a devolved unionist establishment.
Hanging over all of these recent developments have been two unanswered questions that were also being asked of the Sixties unionist protesters: who do those claiming to lead the movement actually represent? And, what is the role of paramilitaries within some of the protests?
This 1960s retro revival has other facets. Unionist searches for Lundys now star Basil McCrea as the archetypal O’Neillite caught between staying within a rudderless UUP and searching for a new political home. Furthermore, the Belfast Telegraph campaign calling for protests to end and for the silent majority to speak up could have been written by ex-editor – and 60s Paisleyite hate figure – Jack Sayers.
Beyond the personalities, however, it is at a structural level that the historical comparison is really worth making. The disputes that first allowed the young Ian Paisley to enter the political stage were representative of a deeper fragmentation within the Protestant alliance that was the basis for fifty years of Unionist Party rule. This alliance had always been uneasy but by the 1960s these ruptures had facilitated the huge support for the Northern Ireland Labour Party within Belfast and the rise of independent unionist voices such as Paisley. Social class and an anti-elitist resentment towards the Government were primary drivers within both these forces. With a partitionist policy on the constitution the cross-community NILP claimed 26% of the vote in the 1962 Stormont elections – a figure today’s Alliance Party can only dream of.
While the civil rights crisis and violence soon broke the back of the NILP platform, Paisley was able to ally much of the NILP’s socio-economic critique of the UUP with a simultaneous hard-line unionist, and explicitly sectarian, attack on Terence O’Neill’s right-flank. Early Paisleyism is rife with the language of class, economic populism and an Ulster version of the culture wars against liberal elites. Furthermore, he was speaking from outside the established institutions – the Orange Order, the UUP, the main churches – that managed patronage and political advancement within the Protestant-unionist community.
These anti-establishment and transformative aspects of the young Paisley’s career have tended to be obscured behind the traditionalist brand of Protestant unionism he was advocating, but they were vital components of his overall message. The unionist outsiders of 2013 appear to want to replicate a version of this Paisley template of combining the language of exclusivist Protestantism with the bread and butter politics of housing and education. As such, they too claim a desire to create radical new political formulations in order to uphold ‘traditional values’.
The vagueness of their demands – outside of the permanent return of the flag above City Hall – is striking but such a policy-light approach can still resonate within sections of a wider society uneasy about the future. Early Paisleyism provides an example of how a fledging movement can quickly discard original ‘bottom-lines’ in the face of changing political realities. For example, the franchise and housing reforms that were unacceptable to the unionist right – including Paisley – in 1968/9 became largely uncontested facts of life within months.
In common with their 60s predecessors today’s protesters’ core strategy has been to link the issues of flags and parades with a broader message expressing Protestant political and cultural insecurity. The potency of these issues as markers of sovereignty and territorial communal strength was central to the unravelling of 1960s Northern Ireland. From Paisley’s involvement in the build-up to the Divis Street riots of 1964 – over a Republican election candidate’s flying of the Irish tricolour outside his own office – through to the civil rights marches and loyalist counter-demonstrations of 1968/9 these battles were taken to the streets. The disputes, such as these, that have sparked violence in the past point to both why some liberals have been wrong to dismiss the potential significance of the City Hall flag and to why the Executive should now prioritise a new strategy to manage disputes over marches and emblems.
Quantifying the level of support for the current protests remains difficult; as does identifying just who instigated them and who – if anyone – is now directing them. The precise role of the DUP-UUP leaflets as the impetus for the protests remains contested but the allegation that, as in 1964 west Belfast, mainstream unionism sought to utilise fringe groups and a flag dispute for electoral gain is one that could haunt the parties.
An alleged power-play by the east Belfast UVF adds further complexity to an already confusing and quickly evolving situation. The media’s desire for accessible shorthand to by-pass these complexities has undoubtedly helped raise the profile of voices associated with the Ulster People’s Forum, but this over-simplification of the roots of the protests has also coincided with the DUP and UUP distancing themselves from events. The protests have become known as ‘loyalist’, and in contemporary discourse defining them as loyalist, rather than unionist, acts to move the issues involved outside of the mainstream and confine them to the margins of the most deprived areas and paramilitarism.
In Sixties Northern Ireland all shades of unionism were comfortable with the label ‘loyalist’, but a similar process of dissociation occurred when protests or opinions were labelled ‘Paisleyite’. This language encouraged the fiction that concerns over the security of the union and the position of the Protestant community were confined to the small Paisleyite groups, and that counterdemonstrations to the civil-rights movement were ‘Paisleyite’ when in reality they consisted of many erstwhile supporters of the UUP.
The issues raised by the 2013 protesters may be disparate, contradictory, and occasionally flags of convenience for darker motives, but amongst the topics they raise are the big questions that define mainstream unionist society. Cultural insecurity, low educational attainment, fear of unemployment and welfare cuts, frustrations over our low wage economy, and disappointment with the performance of Stormont are not issues confined to the margins. These are the lived experiences of large sections of Northern Ireland – including the DUP’s support base. It would surely be a major strategic error to allow these issues to be defined as marginal and ‘loyalist’ issues.
This is not another 1968. In contrast to the previous era: today’s leaders have lived through the experiences of conflict, Northern nationalism is inside the tent, and the British and Irish governments are engaged and in agreement on the way forward. But it should be remembered that, just as 2012 was ‘Our Time, Our Place’, the Sixties were also a time of optimism. Then the defeat of an IRA campaign and attitude surveys revealing the ease with which a majority of people held a plurality of identities seemed to point towards a new Northern Ireland. The speed with which O’Neill’s Ulster disappeared acts as a stark reminder of how events can spiral out of control. An optimist would suggest that the disarray of the last month will be the wake-up call that will shove unionism in the direction of a necessary political re-alignment and a re-engagement with the realities of 2013.Share on Facebook