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5 August 2013 Edition

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Gusty Spence and loyalism’s political challenges

Sinn Féin negotiator Mitchel McLaughlin looks at Tony Novosel’s new book on ‘The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism’

• Loyalist leader Gusty Spence put forward radical new proposals in the 1970s and 1980s

In my view, republicans should have more fully explored the potential for engagement and I believe that we are suffering from a deficit of mutual understanding even now, some 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement.

TONY NOVOSEL makes a convincing argument that loyalists had created peace and reconciliation proposals during the mid-1970s through to the mid-1980s period.

The author demonstrates this through substantial research of Sunday News articles (although most other newspapers refused to publicise this), additional articles carried in UVF magazine Combat, pamphlets and election manifesto material that a leadership group within loyalism (inspired by Gusty Spence whilst he was in Long Kesh) were developing radical new proposals.

These ideas were ahead of the prevailing political opinions (and expectations) of that period but, significantly, elements of these proposals were directly relevant in the negotiations which produced the Good Friday Agreement.

For perhaps understandable reasons, some observers (including republicans) might be surprised to learn that these arguments emerged from a process of discussion and analysis by figures within the UVF and Red Hand Commando. Subsequent leadership coups and a reversion to sectarian attacks would unfortunately demonstrate that Gusty Spence, Billy Mitchell, Ken Gibson and others did not carry these arguments within their own organisations and the wider unionist community. Nor did they foresee the cynical hostility of mainstream unionist political leaders who responded with open antagonism to the proposals, especially the potential for dialogue that was presented.

Interestingly, the author also cites the recognition of these senior loyalists that the British Government (especially its intelligence services) had actually made significant and at times deadly interventions to ensure that such forward thinking did not take root and flourish within the unionist community.

All of this speaks volumes about the risks for peace that these loyalists had willingly undertaken.

The author also expresses criticism about a lack of response from Sinn Féin at that time, although Dáithí Ó Conaill had described them as “interesting”.

But the question remains: did republicans miss an important opportunity to engage and develop discussion?

In my view, republicans should have more fully explored the potential for engagement and I believe that we are suffering from a deficit of mutual understanding even now, some 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement.

Whilst it would not be credible to argue that republicans could accept an ‘internal’ solution as proposed in these loyalist papers, the author nevertheless demonstrates that loyalists had published a series of proposals for radical reform of the North (including responsibility sharing) which had they been recognised as a basis for an open-ended dialogue could well have accelerated the more inclusive process that eventually emerged.

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• Loyalist paramilitaries on the march in the 1970s

Did the loyalist proposals address all of the options, including the constitutional aspirations of all sections of our shared (but conflicted) community? Did they believe that an internal solution underpinned by voluntary ‘responsibility-sharing’ would be sufficient for republicans and nationalists, who were clearly articulating the principle of national self-determination?

Did loyalists approach these issues in 1974 from a perspective that republicanism would be defeated by the combined forces of the British state and their ‘allies’ in the North?

Did their proposals represent an acknowledgement of the abuses of unionist misrule?

These questions remain fundamental, even if politics and circumstances have been transformed since the Good Friday Agreement.

Other issues referenced in the book are equally vital.

For example, the curious and contradictory relationship between the broad unionist community and the various loyalist factions, especially when the latter had sought an electoral mandate which would at least have bestowed some negotiating muscle to their proposals. Despite 50 years of failure, the unionist electorate were not about to abandon the Ulster Unionist Party or the DUP. Given that political reality, how could loyalist leaders (no matter how sincere) expect Sinn Féin to believe that mainstream unionist parties and the unionist electorate would be remotely interested in a peace dialogue?

Nor did those loyalist leaders address how the British (not to mention the Irish Government) were going to be brought to the negotiating table in the 1970s, especially during the so-called ‘Ulsterisation’, ‘militarisation’ and ‘criminalisation’ period.

‘Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity’ adds considerably to a wider appreciation of aspects of loyalist thinking as a positive element within unionist grassroots. It details the disillusionment with ‘big house’ unionism, the nascent cross-community and working-class interaction (including secret talks with republicans), and the recognition that the British Government was prepared to sabotage attempts to build working-class solidarity.

The book furthermore affirms that mainstream unionism (post the Good Friday Agreement) remains in denial and retreat from the concepts of equality and parity of esteem; and the ‘dark side’ of the British Government are still plying their trade in our country.

This presents a challenge for new thinking and leadership and, despite many remaining problems, the interaction and co-operation between former combatants at interface flashpoints and the developing openness to engage in ‘Uncomfortable Conversations’ is the modern-day equivalence of the pioneering work of Gusty Spence, Gibson, Mitchell and others.

Who else but former combatants would create a sustainable dialogue about dealing with the past, reconciliation or indeed the dismantling of the obscene monuments to divided society, the so-called ‘peace walls’?

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Tony Novosel  is a senior lecturer in History at the University of Pittsburgh. Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism (Pluto, 2013).

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