What purpose does loyalist paramilitarism serve? - Alex Kane

Mention UVF to most people and you will hear a variation on a theme: “They’re just hoods exploiting people in their own areas and lining their own pockets”

IN a column on November 3, I mentioned the academic Dr Aaron Edwards, describing him as one of the sharpest observers of loyalist paramilitarism. Last Sunday he broke the story that the UVF’s East Belfast battalion had been stood down with immediate effect.

In a follow-up piece on Wednesday, he wrote: "Although the news of the UVF statement should be welcomed as a positive step, there is more the UVF needs to do to run itself out of business and leave the stage. For now, though, the group seems stuck, for one reason or another, in terms of completing what restraining voices in working class communities desperately need to see: an end to paramilitarism and the return of peace and prosperity to the most deprived and marginalized parts of the province."

He is right. When I was 11 years old the UVF, in the form we now recognise it, emerged as a stand-alone offshoot of the original UVF. Fifty-six years later, and almost 30 years after the 1994 ceasefire announcement, it is still here. Here, active and recruiting new members. And while it is true that some are involved in a transition process, it is also true that too many others have been using the name as a cover for purely criminal and intimidatory activity.

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Mention UVF to most people – anywhere in NI as it happens – and you will hear a variation on a theme: “They’re just hoods exploiting people in their own areas and lining their own pockets.” I’ve written before about perception being a very powerful element of politics: and the blunt fact of the matter is that the perception of the UVF – and loyalist paramilitarism generally – is that it is “thugs up to their necks in dirty business”.


The UVF has ordered its east Belfast leadership to 'stand down'


I have no idea what positive purpose is served by loyalist paramilitarism right now. When the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) was formed in 2015 I welcomed it. I acknowledged the difficulties it would face in completing the transition process, particularly demilitarising mindsets in a younger generation. But I also knew that it was a process which needed to be overseen and shepherded by the ‘old hands’—who still had considerable clout within their communities. Yet it seems to me that some of those ‘old hands’ are fearful that the clout they once had is slipping away.

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The fallout from Brexit has made life very difficult for loyalism, particularly since the emergence of the NI Protocol in the autumn of 2019. When they hear mainstream unionism fretting about the undermining of NI’s constitutional status they revert to the ‘what we have we hold’ mindset. Rallies and protests take priority over everything else. A new generation of loyalism, opposed to the protocol, devolution and the GFA itself, has come forward and seems to be steering the political thinking of the LCC and elements of electoral unionism too.

I think the difference between SF and unionism/loyalism is that SF has a very specific, agreed and thought-through agenda and list of demands. It doesn’t deviate from that, however long it takes to achieve the objectives. When it talks of ‘community politics’ that is precisely what it means; meeting the needs of its support bases across NI. All of which is precisely what loyalism needs to be doing: focusing entirely on housing, jobs, education, sports, childcare etc. Reaching the point at which people in loyalist areas can see real improvement to their lives.

Former UVF leader Gusty Spence (right) announced the loyalist ceasefires in 1994

But that can only happen when the shadow or reality of loyalist paramilitarism has been removed from those communities: and when the perception has been utterly, utterly changed.

At an event a few years ago I asked a man why parties like the PUP and UDP didn’t do well in loyalist areas and why even the mainstream unionist parties struggled: “They do F all for us. They look after themselves first.”

That perception is damaging nobody other than unionism and loyalism.