Richard Reed, Paramilitary Loyalism: Identity and Change (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015)
Alan F. Parkinson, A Difficult Birth: The Early Years of Northern Ireland, 1920–5 (Dublin: Eastwood, 2020)
As preparation for a guest lecture I gave at the University of Mannheim last month I read these two books, which in a way can be seen as book-ending the now-hundred-year history of Northern Ireland. They both also feature a large amount of anti-Catholic sectarian violence, though contrary to what you might expect there’s more about intimidation and violence towards Catholics in Parkinson’s book. Reed is quite explicit about his focus not being on loyalist attacks and murders, although that’s not to say he wants to gloss over that aspect of loyalism. Instead the book is about what it means to be a loyalist. Drawing on theories and analyses from the social sciences, he argues that identity is to a large extent a process of differentiating oneself and one’s group, and that this is done by making difference into ’the Other’, in the sense of the threatening alien. For loyalists, of course, the Other is the Irish Catholic/Republican (the two being, for loyalists, one and the same). This ‘othering’ of whatever is different, Reed argues, becomes stronger and even violent when identity is threatened; it also makes any kind of rapprochement with the other almost impossible, as granting validity to what is different seems to undermine the certainties of one’s own sense of self. In a sense, loyalist violence can be seen as being about maintaining borders, both literal and psychological. Or at least that’s how I understand some of Reed’s main points. Alternatively, you could skip the first chapter, which deals with the philosophy, psychology and sociology of identity, and move straight on to the next section, which gives a description of the factors that led many Northern Irish Protestants, especially working-class ones, to view violence as a necessary answer to the Civil Rights movement and other entries into civil and political debates by Catholics in Northern Ireland. The book then continues more or less chronologically up to the recent past and therefore takes in the peace process and even the ’flags protests’ (from 2012).
Reed has done a lot of research and some of the most interesting parts of the book are direct quotations from interviews with members of the UDA, UFF and UVF – both leaders and rank-and-file members.
As I’ve already mentioned, this book is not about loyalist terrorists as such. He attempts (successfully, I think) to go beyond the image created by the Shankill Butchers or Johnny Adair and reveal a history of loyalist ‘thought’, if I can put it like that. In so doing, he shows how the flexible, reasonable, even conciliatory attitude shown by the UDA and UVF’s political representatives during the Peace Process derived from loyalists such as Andy Tyrie in the 1970s and John McMichael in the 1980s. And he extends this up to the near present, highlighting loyalist leaders’ calls for restraint in the face of provocation by dissident Republican organisations like the C.I.R.A., R.I.R. A. and Ogliagh na hÉireann. Nevertheless, he points out how difficult moving on from a ‘Troubles’ mindset is, when many (most?) of those involved are still ready to rationalise or justify their past violence.
The book also contains a chapter comparing loyalist paramilitary groups with racist Afrikaner organisations in South Africa, Serb militia groups during the wars of the break-up of Yugoslavia, and U.S. far-right militias (the latter now headline news following the storming of the Capitol). The Yugoslav comparison is not so uncommon (or wasn’t, in the nineties) but the other two examples provide instructive parallels.
Reed also links extremism to economic decline in certain areas, so the shipyards of Belfast become part of Northern Ireland’s Rust-belt, comparable to the American regions that were captivated by Donald Trump’s promise to revive their industries and thereby make America great again. The local aspect of loyalism, Reed argues, should not be underestimated – indeed, it should be seen as one of the factors that makes identifying as a loyalist something different to identifying as a unionist, or as British.
Industrial decline is just one of the historical coincidences (or parallels) between that book and Alan F. Parkinson’s, and similarly it seems to have been fears of losing their employment at Belfast’s shipyards that triggered off inter-communal violence in 1920–22 (Parkinson is wary of calling it a “pogrom”, nomenclature that has also been debated at length in the letters pages of History Ireland magazine recently). It’s hard to believe, but this is the first major work on this period with a specifically Northern Irish focus. It covers in detail the framing and passing of the Better Government of Ireland Act, the elections for the new region’s parliament, the setting up of the R.U.C. and the Ulster Special Constabulary, relations with the rest of Ireland especially with regard to the Free State’s Belfast Boycott, the actions of the northern I.R.A. in this period, and finishes off with the non-event of the Boundary Commission in 1925. But what will remain with me is the detailed and depressing recounting of sectarian atrocities, the majority of which – even more depressingly – no one was ever punished for. It’s hardly surprising that Parkinson chose the title “A Difficult Birth” and in his conclusion he suggests that the beginnings of the Northern Irish state fixed the conditions that led to further outbreaks of violence in the 1960s. Which brings us – alas – back to where we started.
Nevertheless, I would recommend both these books; my use of the word “depressing” (more than once!) should not be taken as a criticism. Indeed, it seems necessary in order to give the victims back their worth and value as individuals rather than statistics.Two Northern Irish book reviews by Bruce Gaston