Socialist Worker

What's behind Loyalist feuding?

Issue No. 1712

What's behind Loyalist feuding?

Socialist activist and writer EAMONN McCANN spoke to Socialist Worker about the causes of the recent spate of Loyalist violence and killings in Northern Ireland

Why are Loyalists killing each other?

THE BATTLE is between two Loyalist paramilitary groups-the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The killings have a political dimension. The battle is not only a "turf war" about drugs and territory. It is also about the peace agreement.

The UDA and the UVF are in favour of the peace agreement. But it is widely known that the UDA's support for the agreement is questionable and conditional. In recent weeks the UDA has become publicly associated with a third paramilitary group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF).

That is the group which broke away from the UVF in 1996, led by Billy Wright, known as "King Rat". He was renowned for his role in the random slaughter of Catholics. The LVF is openly anti-agreement. At Drumcree Johnny Adair and a line of Loyalists applauded as LVF gunmen fired shots in the air.

That wasn't just bravado. It was also a public display of support by very important people in the UDA for the anti-agreement LVF. The UVF, on the other hand, is the more political organisation. Of all the Loyalist paramilitary groups it is the most firmly in support of the peace agreement, and it is constantly denounced by the UDA as "selling out Loyalism".

The UVF is also associated with the Progressive Unionist Party, which sits in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Shankill Road working class community always regarded itself as the heart of "loyal Ulster".

That loyalty was used and abused through the years by Britain and the Unionists. But the area has been declining steadily. Its traditional industries, engineering and shipbuilding, have gone. As I speak, Fred Olsen Ltd is meeting to discuss further redundancies in the shipyard which traditionally, because of sectarian patterns of recruitment, has provided employment for men from the Shankill Road.

The shipyard used to be owned by Harland and Wolff, two members of the Unionist establishment. Now the board of directors of Fred Olsen Ltd-in Norway, not Belfast-can decide the future of the people from the Shankill. The levels of educational attainment in the Shankill are appalling. According to David Ervine of the PUP not a single child from the Shankill Road went on to third level education last year.

That tells you a lot about the low morale, blighted ambition and general deprivation on the Shankill Road. People like Johnny Adair can reflect that bitterness. Adair says, "We're not having this anymore. We've been betrayed. Let's kill Catholics."

The smaller Loyalist parties like the Progressive Unionist Party talk about working class politics. To what extent have they broken from Loyalism?

THE EMERGENCE of the Progressive Unionist Party as a voice of left wing Loyalism has been very significant. It reflects a feeling of class hatred among a section of working class Protestants.

People may have seen Billy Hutchinson, a PUP member in the Northern Ireland Assembly, giving a TV interview recently. Behind him was an "Alliance for Choice" poster in support of the 1967 Abortion Act. The PUP supported the Gay Pride march in Belfast.

It has in its constitution the old Clause Four of the Labour Party in favour of nationalisation and public ownership. But, although the PUP takes up class and social issues, it has not broken from Loyalism. It sets out not to represent the working class but the Loyalist working class. This kind of left wing Loyalism is not a modern phenomenon.

In the years of Unionist rule at Stormont the Shankill MP was Tommy Henderson. He was a ferocious Loyalist, but he was also contemptuous of the leaders of Unionism. There has always been that tension between class and community on the Shankill Road.

The recent feuding has shown the weaknesses of the PUP. In its defence of its paramilitary associates, the PUP has not made any political statements, and to some extent has junked its left wing rhetoric. So there hasn't been a clear class message coming from those who at one level have developed an understanding of the class nature of society.

Is the peace process threatened by the recent violence?

WHOLE SWATHES of the UDA have never really been on ceasefire as far as attacks on Catholics are concerned. One way the UDA or the UVF might try to assert their dominance is by taking the lead in carrying out a war against Catholics.

There have recently been attacks on Catholics in County Antrim, County Down, North Belfast, West Belfast and South Belfast. There is widespread apprehension, not just in Belfast but also here in Derry. There have been paintbombings of six Catholic homes in the Protestant Waterside area in the last few days.

All the indicators, including from Unionist politicians, are that these attacks have been carried out by UDA people attempting to assert that it, rather than the UVF, is the main Loyalist organisation. It is only chance that there hasn't yet been been a repetition of the murder of the Quinn children in Ballymoney in 1998. There is also no doubt the UDA wants to draw the IRA into battle.

There is increasing evidence that the UDA has attacked Protestant homes in order to blame the Republicans and to justify in advance attacks on Catholics.

What has been the role of the British government?

THE LABOUR government has been guided by sheer opportunism and crisis management.

Northern Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson, and Mo Mowlam before him, have taken no principled view of Loyalist paramilitarism. In January 1998 Mo Mowlam, when it looked as if the UDA ceasefire was crumbling, went into the Maze prison. She met with Johnny Adair, Michael Stone, and other notorious thugs and murderers, and promised them that Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom was safe.

She referred to the constructive role of "Mr Adair". Johnny Adair is able to speak on behalf of Protestants in the Shankill partly because he was considered important enough for the secretary of state to visit him in prison. The ability of the UDA to present itself as an effective champion of Protestants has been enhanced by assistance from the RUC police force and elements of the British army.

There has been at various times over the last 30 years very close collaboration between elements in the security service, the British army and the RUC, and the UDA. It is now an established fact that the British military intelligence allowed assassinations of Catholics by the UDA to go ahead.

At one point the UDA was able to publish hundreds of pictures and personal files of Republicans or people identified as Republicans supplied by the security services. If you base a peace simply on the consolidation of the two sectarian blocks, and that's what the Belfast agreement is about, it has a number of consequences. One is that you structure paramilitarism into political and public life.

That is a recipe for the continuous reinforcement of sectarian conflict. There is a book I found from 1977 called The Rape and Plunder of the Shankill, written by a well known community worker on the Shankill. He says you've got three choices.

One is that we put our faith in the establishment. The second is to resist the encroachment of Catholics. The third is for the community to make wider working class links. Twenty three years later the Shankill is still waiting for that kind of lead. Take the shipyards. There has been a lot of rank and file militancy at Harland and Wolff over the last few months.

Similar battles have been taking place at the other major employer in Belfast traditionally associated with anti-Catholic discrimination, the Shorts aircraft factory. Shorts is the biggest employer in Belfast, with over 8,000 workers. Catholics are now 12 percent of the workforce. They have had a series of strikes in the last few months over pay and conditions.

There is a similar story with what's happening to education and cuts to the health service. These kind of battles could have an impact in traditionally Loyalist areas like the Shankill. But there has to be a political battle for the hearts and minds of people there. It would of course be wrong to say we can simply replace sectarian military conflict with class struggle.

But we can say for certain that we will never overcome sectarian conflict other than by raising the profile of class struggle to the extent that people identify themselves not as Protestant or Catholic, but with people of the same class in the other community.

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Sat 2 Sep 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1712
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