Persecuted, unrepresented.. why loyalists feel they are backed into a corner

Persecuted, unrepresented.. why loyalists feel they are backed into a corner
By Deborah McAleese
03 March 2015

Discontent within loyalism spectacularly erupted in December 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union flag at the city hall only on a handful of designated days each year.

Loyalist communities saw this as the latest attack on their culture and identity. What followed was months of disruptive, and often violent, protests that caused massive damage to Northern Ireland’s economy and reputation.

The protesters justified their actions as a fightback against what they perceived to be the erosion of their Britishness.

Two decades on from the peace process and loyalists believe the only winners have been republicans.

They feel persecuted, sidelined and unrepresented. They are also now terrified of what could be uncovered through the Boston College interviews with former Red Hand Commando leader Winston Rea and the ‘supergrass’ case involving ex-UVF leader Gary Haggarty.

There are also hundreds of legacy cases that are yet to be investigated.

Former PUP leader Billy Hutchinson said loyalists were being “hunted down like dogs”, while republican ‘on the runs’ were handed letters “to keep them out of jail”.

Feeling cornered, loyalists have responded with veiled threats of violence, warning that these legacy investigations could have “a destabilising impact on society”.

As long as there remains no other way to address Northern Ireland’s toxic past, the PSNI has no option but to investigate unsolved crimes.

Recently, proposals emerged from the Stormont House talks that include a structure for addressing the past, involving a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU).

It is unlikely the unit will be operational before 2017. Until then it is the responsibility of the police to pursue these cases.

Elements of loyalism remain wedded to criminality. Paramilitary gangs are involved in drugs, extortion, money laundering and counterfeit cigarettes. In east Belfast it has been claimed that loyalist paramilitaries have been responsible for driving a number of business owners out of the area.

Alliance MP Naomi Long said a number of local employers had told her they had to move their businesses elsewhere because they felt they could “no longer bring a mixed workforce into the neighbourhood”.

This is costing jobs and investment in the area.

Many feel loyalist leaders should be concentrating their efforts on helping to untangle the grip paramilitaries have on their local communities instead of stirring up discord.