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My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.
- Adlai Stevenson


Depersonalising the Individual

Billy Mitchell


Some time ago Anthony McIntyre suggested the title – “Can a Loyalist be a Socialist?”– as the topic for a Voice of the Lark debate. Earlier this month a local freelance journalist asked me whether a Loyalist could be a Christian and went on to suggest that to be a loyalist one had to believe in at least some measure of violence. I suppose the next question to be asked will be “Can a Loyalist be a human being?”

The manner in which these questions are posed generally invite a negative answer. There is a presupposition that something in the innate character of a loyalist precludes him/her from being a socialist, a Christian or a non-violent activist. A second presupposition is that the terms loyalist, socialist, Christian and non-violence are exactly what the questioner believes them to be. How else could you be sure of getting a negative answer? Thus it is simply taken for granted that all who identify themselves as being a “loyalist” are exactly what the questioner assumes them to be – ungodly pagans with no social conscience and as having an innate predisposition to engage in acts of violence. When Anthony McIntyre writes about “Loyalist hate crimes” (The Blanket, 23/01/01) one cannot escape the conclusion that he considers hatred to be another innate characteristic of those who identify themselves as being a Loyalist.

Even when loyalists say and do things that don’t fit the stereotype, such as when David Ervine uses strong language to denounce the killers of a Catholic, a question mark has to be placed against it. Some devious motive other than a genuine expression of condemnation at a heinous crime has to be found. So, Ervine was really having a go at the UDA because of the recent feud. He didn’t really care about the dead boy. It is amazing how good we can be at reading other peoples minds when it comes to finding something that fits in with our prejudice.

Likewise, Ken Wilkinson’s condemnation of those who killed a family friend (who happened to be a Catholic) has to be questioned because of allegations from elements within British intelligence that members of the UVF might have been responsible. The suggestion is that the condemnation of these killings, however plausible they might sound, are insincere. Ervine and Wilkinson are loyalists and if loyalists are inextricably wedded to hatred and violence against Catholics, they cannot be sincere. This adds to the list of innate evils that characterise loyalists – they are so damned disingenuous.

This assumption which nationalists and republicans have about all loyalists is, of course, similar to the assumptions held by many within so-called civic Unionism and by a great many journalists. Indeed it was the media that first used the terms Unionist and Loyalist to define two types of pro-union citizen. Unionists are the ordinary decent hard-working pro-British citizens who are said to believe in law and order and democracy. Loyalists are discarded as the Protestant equivalent of what middle-class white America regards as “poor white trash” – indecent, shiftless, lawless and violent. If there is one thing that many middle class Unionists, Nationalists and Republicans have in common is their definition of people like Ervine, Wilkinson and myself. Strange bedfellows indeed.

The blind, unthinking prejudice of those who want to label me, and others like me, with their own biased assumptions of what I am and who I am is a mirror image of the same prejudice and bigotry that breeds sectarianism in Ulster and racism in America. Unfortunately, those who are blind seldom see their own prejudice and thus continue to wallow in the slough of their own self-righteousness, saying, “Thank God I am not like these sinners”.

Why have I personalised this? Simply because I am an individual. Yes, I am loyal to the Crown as the unifying symbol of the Union and I am loyal to the principle of equal citizenship within the Union. So I am a Unionist. I am also working class and have an affinity with working class communities, and if maintaining an affinity with working class Unionism makes me a loyalist then that is what I am, and unashamedly so. I have no intention of denying my class in order to be considered respectable. Nor have I any intention of denying my political aspirations in terms of the Union and British citizenship in order to be accepted by socialists.

I have my own views as to how I would like to see the Union develop within the context of Europe. I have my own views as to how I believe the case of the Union should be promoted and defended. I have my own views about violence and non-violence. I have my own views about issues of Faith and Morality. I have my own views about the Monarchy and a class-ridden society, and I have my own views about labour and trade union activism. More importantly, my views are accompanied by actions. I am a practical loyalist and I insist on being judged by my actions and not by the prejudice of others.

I demand the right not to be branded with the stereotypical image of what others, whose powers of critical analysis appear to be limited by their own prejudices, want me to be. Brendan Hughes (The Blanket 23/01/02) recalls some of the things that happened to him while in prison – things that were meant to dehumanise and humiliate him. The one thing that infuriated me most in prison was the way in which the system sought to depersonalise me as an individual prisoner and make me part of a corporate prison personality.

The aim of most total institutions is to control the individual through a process of depersonalisation and disculturation that, unless resisted, leads to dehumanisation. Those who seek to depersonalise the Loyalist and make him/her part of a corporate loyalist personality which they themselves have defined are, in my mind, guilty of the same crimes against personhood as the most repressive prison regime or totalitarian state. When a person ceases to become a person they become fair game for anything and everything. Perhaps that is why the death of civilians in loyalist communities has been regarded by many as mere “collateral damage” in the war against the Brits. Ciphers rather than people. “Maybe we didn’t set out to kill them, but so what? They aren’t real people, are they? Just impersonal parts of a wider corporate personality that we don’t like?” Depersonalising “the other” makes hurting them easier and enhances our own sense of righteousness.

Those who use the word “loyalist” as a generic term to denote “poor unionist trash” deny the individual loyalist like myself our basic human right to be an individual, to be different. In short they deny us the right to person-hood. Such depersonalisation is a crime every bit as heinous as the crime of hatred.




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