I will probably court a bit of controversy with this piece but I need to make a few things clear first. I wouldn’t declare myself a Loyalist in the same sense of the word as Billy Hutchinson or Winkie Irvine but it’s definitely in my blood, it formed the backbone of my upbringing and cultural identity and I have my sympathies and a common heritage with Loyalism. I go to the Orange parades on the 12th July, I observe Remembrance Day, I go to the bonfires on the 11th night. I have my differences of opinion from many Loyalists on issues around parades, flags and paramilitarism and I have addressed those when I have been asked about them but I am a working class Protestant from East Belfast with family members serving in the security forces, Orange Order and Unionist organisations. Loyalism and its many facets has never been far from my own identity.
So why join Alliance and not the PUP? I’ll be completely honest, when Ieft the Greens in 2012 I seriously considered my options as to what party I wanted to get involved in. I had a real thirst for community engagement and politics and I had no intention of ending it 3 years ago. Both the PUP and Alliance crossed my mind but, amongst other things, I could not reconcile being a member of the Progressive Unionists whilst they still retained links with the UVF. I am a man of non violence and unashamedly so, the PUP to me were a political wing of Loyalist paramilitaries and I didn’t want to be a part of that. I however felt more inclined to support their policies and their ethos of community building, representing working class people and their left-leaning stance on issues such as welfare reform, community project funding etc but I knew that identity, whilst important to me, was never the most important thing to me.
I believe in a bigger picture of working towards what’s best for the country as a whole whilst putting your own ambitions and aspirations to one side. To me that doesn’t include working for one community or another, and too long have I felt that this city is a city of four districts when it should be, and should always have been, a city of equals under one banner. Yes, the principles of Loyalism support this view as well (equal citizenship, pluralism over religious dominance, respect for democratic pursuit of constitutional change, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, active citizenship, equal access in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society, rights for all regardless of sexual orientation, religion, disability etc) but the principles of Big House Unionism do not. How many of the things I have just mentioned are in fact actively opposed by the DUP? Or to a lesser extent the UUP? Most if not all of them. The DUP opposes equal rights for LGBT citizens in NI, it has opposed a Bill of Rights, it has aggressively implemented welfare reform, it has insisted on the dominance of Christianity within its political ideology, it has expressed opposition to a multi-faith, multi-cultural society, it has spent vast sums of public money on private vendettas against LGBT people, it has used the Union and the ridiculous insinuation that its end is imminent as a weapon to stoke tension and fear. It has used the Union flag, my flag, to scare people into believing their identity and culture is about to be taken from them.
My conclusion? The DUP purports to represent working class Protestants and bases itself in the homes of ordinary working class Loyalists but it is not a party for Loyalists. I have lived in East Belfast all my life, we have had 30+ years of DUP dominance and the only thing we have to show for it is a struggling local economy, deprived communities, educational underachievement, political stagnation, shortage of housing, basic amenities and a crumbling civic infrastructure. The DUP are not the party of the working class and never will be. They may have Councillors that come from the same community that I did and that’s all well and good but until their leadership can grasp the message that they are completely out of touch with these communities then they will continue to drift away from political engagement altogether. But perhaps that’s what they want? Keep the malaise up and the hope down. It doesn’t benefit the DUP leadership to have an informed, confident, secure and prosperous electorate in East Belfast or anywhere else.
They thrive on the politics of fear, of zero sum identity charades around flags, parades, the past etc. I have seen next to no policies of the DUP or even the UUP to encourage economic, educational and social prosperity in working class communities. As someone who has been unemployed, raised by parents who depended on benefits to survive and a decent grasp of what my community needs I don’t see it within the structures or blue sky thinking of Big House Unionism at all. They are sheep in Loyalists’ clothing and people will see right through that.