Apologists for loyalism have offered up a further justification for the riots: apparent anger at the refusal to prosecute leading members of Sinn Féin for breaches of Covid restrictions during the funeral of former IRA leader Bobby Storey. Even a cursory glance at the response to processions during the pandemic, however, would suggest that the authorities have gone out of their way to treat loyalism and the Right with kid gloves, and to target instead anti-racist activists and the Left. In June of last year, thousands of people joined a socially-distanced rally organised by Unite Against Racism in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. The police attempted to block this event, hounding Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) organisers and fining dozens of participants in what the police ombudsman later condemned as an act of discrimination. Weeks later hundreds of loyalists gathered for a “Protect our Statues” mobilization—akin to those organised by the far right in the US—at the Cenotaph in Belfast city centre. Predictably, no fines or prosecutions were issued. The same imbalance was on display in February, when the PSNI intervened heavy-handedly in a memorial service for the victims of loyalist assassination at Sean Graham’s bookmakers in 1992, claiming a breach in Covid regulations. The contrast between this and their hands-off approach weeks later as hundreds of Rangers football supporters celebrated along the Shankill Road is striking.
A more sophisticated rendering of this argument is that the riots are the result of deteriorating conditions within Protestant working class communities. There is, of course, more than a grain of truth to this. Indeed, it is impossible to understand how scores of young people are willing to risk limb and liberty without placing it within the context of the poverty pervading around them—the plain fact that “on either side of the Lanark Way peace gates,” where much of the worst of the rioting has taken place, “you will find two of the most deprived areas in the whole of Northern Ireland.” While political and economic elites on both sides of the divide travel the world boasting of their accomplishment in forging a “new Northern Ireland,” working class people have seen little of the promised “peace dividend” that was supposed to come in its train. Communities hardest hit by conflict are little better off than they were at the time of the signing of the Good Frida Agreement (GFA). That is not to say that there is no money: vast swathes of state funding has been ploughed into the private sector or squandered on a series of breathtakingly incompetent if not downright corrupt governmental scheme. Public libraries, leisure centres, and vital services for young people have either been closed or outsourced. The state of the health service is so dire that recent reports suggest it could take over a decade to clear waiting lists.
But efforts to locate this within a uniquely Protestant disadvantage—perhaps even resultant from Catholic gain—are far off the mark. By almost all barometers of economic disadvantage, Catholics continue to do as badly, if not in some cases marginally worse, than those on the other side of the sectarian divide (though the real divide is to be found between those at the bottom of society and those at the top). Contrarily, some commentators point to statistics that show a gap in educational attainment between Protestant boys and their Catholic counterparts. Any instance of educational disadvantage, to be sure, is deeply concerning and deserves thorough investigation and urgent redress. But anyone seeking an explanation for this will have to quickly face one salient fact: that educational disadvantage in the North, within both Catholic and Protestant communities, has been greatly reinforced by almost two decades’ worth of political obstruction by unionist parties intent on maintaining the North’s archaic system of academic selection for primary school children. This a system that inherently disadvantages working class kids, including those from a Protestant background. Unionist handwringing over educational disadvantage, therefore, is little more than a conscious effort at deflection. There are echoes of this in Britain, where efforts are being made by the Tories to whitewash institutional racism by pointing to similar patterns of educational attainment between white boys and children from oppressed groups.
Attempts to identify a specific Protestant working class interest, as against the interests of the working class as a whole, are part of a long running effort—particularly in sections of the academy—to rebrand loyalism as a kind of misunderstood Labourism cloaked in a Union Jack. In this line of argument, loyalism is considered to be the innately “working class” expression of Protestantism (as against the more bourgeois “big house” unionists). Though a certain underlying class dynamic is functional in the relationship between loyalism and unionism, the case for the “progressive” nature of former has to ignore the fact that at every major juncture in this last few decades it has come to the rescue of parties like the DUP or attempted to push it to the right. In the two years that the DUP propped up the Tory government—a period where working class communities were devastated by a vicious programme of welfare reform—not a single major loyalist force raised a word of condemnation. In fact during the last Assembly election in 2017, the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC)—“an all-male” umbrella organization backed by the UDA, UVF, and Red Hand Commando “which claims to represent working-class unionism”—issued a statement urging loyalists to vote for the DUP, before warning against voting for cross community parties. A similar dynamic has been at work in these riots, with one Shankill community worker claiming the violence “is about the DUP losing votes to Alliance, People Before Profit, the Greens and the SDLP, and not knowing what to do about it.”
The constant elevation of loyalist forces as the indisputable spokespeople for the Protestant working class is part of the problem—ignoring the fact that no one ever elected them to this position, not to mention the controlling role they play through the mechanism of paramilitary intimidation. Far from being the natural heirs to a Protestant working class identity, the loyalist gangs suffocate the very communities they claim to speak for. This creates an atmosphere in some of the hardest-pressed Protestant working class communities where criticizing the paramilitaries can be extremely risky for anyone willing to put their heads above the parapet. But there have been signs that the hold of the loyalists groups over these areas is weakening. In the aftermath of a paramilitary murder in East Belfast in 2019, for example, a group of women decided enough was enough. “Inspired by the recent International Women’s Day,” local women led a march of hundreds of people through their community against paramilitary intimidation. “It is one of the best places to live,” said one of the organizers. “I always used to be proud of East Belfast and used to feel very safe in the community and now it is completely and utterly changed.” Referring to the influence of paramilitaries in the area, she said: “You are always looking over your shoulder, you are scared to speak out to the wrong person in case you are threatened. I want all that to stop.”