Issue 236 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
I remember, some years ago, writing an article reviewing a television programme which had looked at life in Republican and Loyalist wings of a Northern Irish prison camp. The thing that struck me at the time was the sheer contrast between the two sets of prisoners. The Republicans came across as articulate, optimistic and politically astute. As they were being interviewed you could see bookshelves in the background stacked with political literature, Republican and socialist. The Loyalists gave a very different impression, covered in tattoos, barely coherent, deeply paranoid and surrounded not by literature but by pin ups.
These differences reflected the diverse nature of the two traditions. The Republicans, fighting against an imperialist legacy, a sectarian state, oppression and discrimination had been forced to analyse, to look leftwards, to generally stand on the side of the good guys. The Loyalists, however, represented an attempt to maintain the imperial legacy, uphold the sectarian state and represent the fears and loathings of a section of the population who mistakenly believed that the establishment represented their best interests. Their war was waged against random Catholics who they murdered for no other reason than their religious upbringing.
In other words, one tradition stood for progress and social justice, the other for reaction and sectarianism.
However, despite these differences, in the main the Loyalists, like the Republicans, and unlike the Unionist parties, came from working class ghettos. The working class on both sides bore the brunt of the conflict, they killed and were killed, they were jailed and harassed, and their communities were widowed and orphaned.
So when the ceasefire came it was working class people on both sides who breathed the biggest sigh of relief. Interestingly, Loyalism began to throw up articulate figures who seemed to genuinely represent that desire for peace. So while Paisley bellowed and Trimble blustered, David Irvine and Billy Hutchinson of the Loyalist PUP became the doves in the Unionist ranks. These developments have meant that sections of Loyalism cannot simply be dismissed as neo-fascist neanderthals. If these changes are sincere (and allowing for real reservations, they appear to be) then dialogue and discussion can replace the agenda of fear and loathing. It was with this in mind that I recently attended a conference organised by the Scottish Socialist Party in Glasgow, where Billy Hutchinson was one of a panel of speakers which included a representative from Sinn Fein.
Hutchinson, who spent 16 years in jail as a Loyalist paramilitary, was articulate and interesting. He is clearly not simply some one dimensional bigot. He told us he was an atheist who sent his son to an integrated school, and he had no time for the bowler hat, Orange sash, and anti-Popery brigade. He made clear his contempt for British fascists like the BNP who have historically been cheerleaders for Loyalism. He was prepared to acknowledge that the state had been sectarian in the past, and very much saw himself as a socialist and the working class and poor as exploited and oppressed. He remonstrated with the left in Britain for not allowing him to be socialist and British, and challenged us to say why.
It must be said that many in the audience failed to take up the challenge. Rather, they fawned over him as if instead of the rottweiler they had expected they had found a lovely, cuddly Irish terrier. I don't know whether Hutchinson found this as patronising as I did, but I thought it much more appropriate to engage in debate, and so I tried to answer this question about Britishness and socialism.
I explained that socialists have a real problem honouring Britain's glorious past. The Union Jack and all the trappings are bathed in a history of empire, slavery and military conquest. Socialists in Britain have always opposed the Northern Irish state because it is a state based on an absence of democracy, armed and judicial oppression and the systematic sectarian oppression of Catholics. Finally, for socialists equality is a byword, and we have a fundamental problem with an ideology which has its roots in the notion of the superiority of one set of people (Protestants) over another (Catholics).
Hutchinson tried to answer this. He could explain his Loyalism, but only in Loyalist terms. He could explain his socialism as a hatred of poverty. But he couldn't see that you could not fight for one and the other simultaneously.
Indeed, in acknowledging his distaste for the sectarian state, he explained that he was a Carsonian Unionist. In other words he was a follower of Edward Carson. Carson was the leader of the Unionists prior to Irish independence. He oversaw gunrunning, armed as many Protestants as he could and inspired a right wing mutiny in the British army. Just for good measure as a lawyer he had earlier prosecuted Oscar Wilde for his homosexuality. He was no champion of the oppressed, no friend of freedom or equality. He was no socialist--in fact he was a high Tory and pillar of the establishment.
If Billy Hutchinson is serious about his socialism, if the PUP is seriously moving left, and if it becomes the anti-sectarian force that Hutchinson proclaims, then that would be a marvellous development.
For any of that to happen, though, he and it will need to shed much of the baggage of bigotry with which it is still encumbered, and it will have to find new heroes and new inspiration. One thing is for certain such inspiration will never be found in the life and works of a right wing Tory like Edward Carson.
If that doesn't happen, then in the battle between sectarianism and socialism, sectarianism will sadly be the winner.