Alex Kane: Loyalists should stop complaining and articulate a message that isn't being heard at present

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

Who speaks for loyalism and who is not being heard? Pictured is Jamie Bryson at Avoniel Leisure Centre bonfire protest. Photo by Pacemaker Press.
Who speaks for loyalism and who is not being heard? Pictured is Jamie Bryson at Avoniel Leisure Centre bonfire protest. Photo by Pacemaker Press.

Wednesday's Nolan Show devoted 90 minutes to the supposed marginalisation of loyalist opinion and voices in the media.

At the end of it I was none the wiser about what loyalist or loyalism actually meant, largely because Jamie Bryson and Jim Wilson didn't go into detail. That's not entirely their fault, because I'm not sure there is, in fact, a catch-all definition of the term, let alone a single, coherent message.

Who, for example, speaks for loyalism? Is it the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), which is connected to the UDA? Or the Loyalist Communities Council, established a few years ago with input from David Campbell (former chief adviser to David Trimble) and Jonathan Powell (former adviser to Tony Blair) and linked to the UVF, UDA and RHC? Or the East Belfast Cultural Collective and East Belfast Community Initiative, which have links to Bryson? Or the PUP (left of centre on socio/economic issues and fairly liberal on moral issues)? Or the bands, many of which have roots in loyalist areas? Or the UVF, UDA and their off-shoots? Or the crowd gathered at Avoniel during the bonfire standoff? Or the crowd at the vigil for Ian Ogle, the man murdered a few months ago as part of a UVF-linked feud in East Belfast? One thing is clear, it's nonsense to pretend that there is such a thing as a cohesive loyalist constituency.

What is the support base for loyalism? Measured in electoral terms it looks small. The PUP has only three councillors out of 462 and 5,338 votes out of 675,577; less than the Greens, People Before Profit and Aontú.

Even if you factor in the independent unionist candidates with loyalist roots it still only brings the overall vote to around 7,500. There is evidence to suggest that voters in some loyalist areas are voting for the DUP, UUP and TUV; which could be interpreted as meaning they regard those parties as representing their interests.

So, accepting that loyalists who vote for the PUP, DUP, UUP and TUV look upon those parties and their representatives as their voice, what does that leave us with? Who are the 'marginalised' loyalists not being heard by the media?

I regularly hear Jamie Bryson, Jim Wells, Arlene Foster, Jim Wilson, Jim Allister, Nelson McCausland, Christopher Stalford, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Billy Hutchinson, David McNarry, Christopher McGimpsey, Sammy Wilson, Doug Beattie, John Kyle, Irwin Armstrong, Ben Lowry et al making their particular case.

In the past six months I have heard new and interesting voices (Richard Garland, Tim Cairns, Sarah Creighton and Julie-Ann Corr-Johnston) from pro-unionist backgrounds. That's a wide array of opinions. Who is not being heard? What case is going un-argued?

I know there is work being done with transition programmes in some loyalist areas, encouraging young people in particular to look forward rather than backwards. But in other places all some young people seem to hear is top-heavy with stuff about a new pan-nationalist front; the demonising of the Alliance Party; complaints about two-tier policing; the one-way trajectory of the Good Friday Agreement; and the pending destruction of loyalist culture.

Jim Wilson blames the media, particularly the Sunday papers, for 'demonising' loyalism. There is an element of fair comment in his claim, yet the fact remains that this is a decades-old problem that hasn't been addressed in a coherent, strategic way by any of the groups and voices claiming to speak for loyalism. There is a problem: Jim acknowledged it on Nolan. But just complaining about it won't make it go away.

Picking a fight with the media and complaining about liberal elites and 'acceptable' voices is pointless. There is no shortage of unionist/pro-Union voices in the media. If there is a voice and message not being heard then the answer is to find the people who are capable of articulating a coherent message that isn't being heard at the moment.

Jamie and Jim would both admit they don't speak for loyalism in its entirety. But what they could do, though, is locate other voices and push open a few doors for them.

In my experience the media is always keen to find new voices and isn't afraid if those voices begin uncomfortable conversations. Jamie, himself, started as one of those new voices.