By Dr Dave Magee
University of Aberdeen
In the past I have described some forms of Loyalist masculinity as ‘the elephant in the peace process’. We saw that again on the 12th and 13th July, when violence broke out in response to the Parades Commission’s decision to block the return march up the Woodvale Road for certain sections of the Orange Order and bands. For some, trouble was almost inevitable. Indeed, Ross Kemp was here from England to capture what happened on film for a TV show. He won’t have been disappointed.
In this post I want to talk about another type of Loyalist masculinity that does not make for such good headlines, and one that neither Ross Kemp nor Stephen Nolan will be making programmes about anytime soon.
On the 11th night I did a tour of several bonfire sites in communities I am familiar with. Often, in local communities, many (but not all) of these bonfires are organised by either UDA or UVF aligned groups. Early in the evening, when I was walking towards a UVF bonfire, a local resident I have known for many years shouted over to me, ‘Make sure you come down to the UDA one later!’ We both laughed at the absurdity of it all.
I won’t name the area, but one of these bonfires was organised jointly by a local UVF ex-prisoners group and a community association.
The main attraction of the night was a local rock tribute act, which went down brilliantly with the couple of hundred local men, women, and children who attended. There were burgers, beer, and (mostly bad) dancing. The event was free but there was a collection taken for a charity that works with people who have learning disabilities. The only hint of trouble was when one guy – he was from out of town and spoke with an English accent – who had too much to drink was told by security to go and take a five minute walk and calm down. When he returned there were smiles and handshakes.
After the music was over, instead of a bonfire there was a beacon. This was, simply put, a metal cage shaped like a pyramid and filled with wood pulp. The organisers explained to me how proud they were that their beacon was eco-friendly. I mention this because it is unlikely that Stephen Nolan is going to run a show anytime soon on Loyalists who are concerned about the environmental impact of bonfires on their communities.
Given the publicity certain bonfires received in the past week it’s worth noting that there were no statues, no effigies, and no Irish flags to be seen. The only way you would have known where you were was by a few Union flags and UVF flags scattered around the estate. However, there was one Irish flag in the area. If you did want to see it you would have to go to the UVF ex-prisoners community office, where it hangs on the wall, alongside a copy of the 1916 Irish Proclamation. And it’s not there to throw darts at, it’s part of a history project that is run in the centre.
This, of course, is not the face of Loyalism that is portrayed in the media. It is progressive, tolerant, and focused on peace. After the antics of the Orange Order and the rest over the past couple of days they would do well to take notice of the example of these Loyalist ex-prisoners.
So what of the violence seen then on the 12th day? For those of us who work for peace all the year round, such violence is not just an inconvenience or an embarrassment. It leaves us with a sick feeling in the pit of our stomach. It’s like a knife through the heart.
If we can conclude one thing from the history of conflict on this island, it is that violence will get us nowhere. It is a never ending spiral of pain and destruction. There are no easy answers to deeply rooted complex problems. We need community leaders and politicians with courage and creativity. The question is: ‘Do they have what it takes?’ There is much work to be done. Perhaps instead of blaming others we can all start by taking a good look at ourselves and ask, ‘What can I do that will make a difference?’