Victims in balaclavas, with guns

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(Photo from Belfast Telegraph)

 

A “new” and as yet unnamed Loyalist paramilitary group announced its presence on the scene this week by releasing a pair of photographs to the media (one of which is reproduced above) along with a statement in which they threatened to kill members of the PSNI and Parades Commission, which has had the temerity to place limits on the Loyalist community’s ability to celebrate their culture through displays of tribal dominance directed against their Catholic neighbors.

The statement that accompanied the photos played on what has become a familiar theme amongst many Loyalists in which they characterize an erosion of privilege as brutal oppression by the state they claim to love.

The group said that after police broke up a riot in a flashpoint area of North Belfast in a

brutal assault upon the PUL community and the random firing of baton rounds aimed to seriously injure our people we are left with no other option but to announce the PSNI and Parades Commission are legitimate targets.

We do not want to take this course of action but our people have suffered enough over the last few years and we as disengaged and disgruntled loyalists feel like the time has come for us to take action. No Surrender.

That Loyalists would threaten to take up arms against the British state is nothing new. The original Ulster Volunteer Force was organized in 1913 with the express intention of waging war against Britain to prevent it from granting home rule to Ireland.

But within Loyalism feelings and complaints of victimization have become much more open in recent years, fueled by a sense that their victory over the IRA, which has secured Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future, is in fact a hollow one.  As I wrote back in March, it is the belief that while they have won the war, the spoils of victory have passed them by.

I first heard this expressed back in 2010 when I interviewed several former UDA and UFV men active in the Loyalist ex-prisoner community. Today it is the sentiment behind the ongoing flag protests, the protest camp at Twaddlle Avenue, and the above mentioned riot this week which broke out when Loyalists attempted to storm police barricades blocking them from marching past a Catholic area.

It is reflected in the statement released by the Orange Order in advance of Twelfth of July celebrations which I wrote about last week, in which they decried the intolerance of Republicans and the “petty restrictions” imposed by the state on their right to march and parade where and when they wish, despite any objections from residents.

It is reflected in the tweets of self-described anti-agreement Loyalist provocateur Jamie Bryson claiming persecution and a war waged by police and Parades Commission against the PUL (Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist) people.

A recent unpublished study by a group of researchers from Queens University suggests that the flag and other protests stem from working class Loyalists’ feelings of economic and social dispossession, paranoid siege mentality, a belief that their avenues of expression are being systematically closed off, and that they are being manipulated and exploited by the system.

Others (such as doctoral student Sophie Long at TPQ) have written much more eloquently about the state of Loyalism than I can.  And it remains to be seen if this new armed group will amount to anything more than empty posturing.

But from where I sit, and based on what I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, and conversations I’ve had, when I think about future threats to the peace in Northern Ireland, I am much more concerned about the alienation of Loyalists than I am the ambitions of dissident Republicans.

 

Killing for — and by — the state

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This was a dirty little war* fought with calculated brutality on all sides.

I always knew this about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but for a long time, and until relatively recently as a mostly casual observer, I largely dismissed the accusations that the British government had a direct hand in facilitating if not orchestrating Loyalist paramilitary murder and mayhem.

I was aware of the accusations but had accepted the official denials that were reinforced in the academic work on the subject that I was reading. For example, Steve Bruce argued in his otherwise excellent work on Loyalist paramilitaries that there was a key distinction between the Loyalists and the government death squads killing political opponents with impunity in places like El Salvador and Guatemala.  The UVF, UDA, and Red Hand Commando were “for the state” but not “of the state” like their Latin American counterparts. Any ties between the Loyalist paramilitaries and the state were unofficial, informal, and unsanctioned.

Paul Larkin’s 2003 book A Very British Jihad was the first to get me to challenge that convenient (for the British) narrative.

A bright spotlight will again be turned on these charges in an investigative report to be broadcast tonight on BBC’s Panorama program in which Northern Ireland’s former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan claims that “hundreds and hundreds” of people died with the complicity of undercover state operatives. Panorama explored this territory before, in a two-part investigation aired in 2002, but the scale of collusion depicted in those reports is dwarfed by what is apparently to be revealed in the new story. Official damage control is already under way, with the PSNI’s chief constable preemptively casting doubt on the claims to be made.

Near as I can tell from the pre-broadcast reporting, there is one topic that looks like it will receive much less scrutiny than it ought to, the role of British operatives on the Republican side of the conflict. And that is a serious problem given what is already known about the IRA double agent known as Stakeknife, who as head of the IRA’s internal security unit, the “Nutting Squad,” is said to have been involved in up to 40 murders while under the protection of his British handlers.

In short, a full accounting of collusion in Northern Ireland cannot only focus on state involvement with Loyalist paramilitaries. It must also include coming clean on what remain extremely sensitive topics: the use of informers within the Nationalist community and the ranks of the IRA, responsibility for the fate of informers whose activities were discovered (one of the nagging unknowns in the tragic murder of Jean McConville), the involvement of informers and state agents in IRA killings and other acts of terrorism, and the extent of the penetration of the Republican Movement by agents of the state, especially at the highest levels.

The mural is right. Collusion is state murder, and it matters not whether the gunmen on the payroll were Loyalist or Republican.

*As an aside, I take great pains to explain to audiences on my side of the Atlantic that this was a “little” war only if we remove the raw numbers of casualties from the context of Northern Ireland’s tiny population base. As a proportion of the population affected, the roughly 3,300 killed and 40,000 injured over the 30-year course of the conflict would be the equivalent of more than a half million dead and nearly 7 million wounded had the war been fought in the United States during the same period.