From an outsider’s perspective, Loyalist culture in Northern Ireland remains an unnervingly masculine affair. Parades, protests and bonfires sometimes seem reserved almost exclusively for young men, and the speakers, who are inevitably offered out of loyalty, only seem to confirm this perception.
o It was particularly pleasing to see the release last week Unheard Voices, a State Department-funded book telling the stories of loyalist women. Some of the respondents wanted to remain anonymous for various reasons and were therefore only addressed by their first names in the book.
In the foreword the Belfast Telegraph Journalist Allison Morris aptly points out that women are “disproportionately affected by conflicts that they have played no part in creating,” a theme that is universal but no less applicable in a Northern Irish context.
While Arlene Foster may have achieved the status of DUP leader and the first woman to hold the highest political office in the North, the union political movement continues to reflect, and even more pronounced, men’s supremacy within the broader union culture regard. The few female voices that emerged from Loyalism in the post-peace era—for there were none during the conflict and talk phases—have been lost to Loyalist political organizations, an ominous sign of their direction of travel.
The most notable contribution to the book is the chapter devoted to Dawn Purvis, in which the former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) made a number of critical observations that explain the predicament loyalty faces today.
Purvis has always been an extremely impressive person. She took over leadership of the PUP from David Ervine after his untimely death, a development from which Loyalists have never recovered, despite Purvis’ attempts to steer Loyalists in the right direction. She resigned in 2010 after the UVF was implicated in a killing in Belfast, a development taken as indicating that the loyalist paramilitary group had no intention of following in the IRA’s footsteps and disappearing from view.
In her own words, she described the plight of working-class loyalists, claiming they got a “really bad deal through decades and decades of union leadership.” She claims union politicians have not only failed to deliver for loyalist communities, but have continued to use them “as cannon fodder … a threat they can unleash whenever they want.”
Interestingly, she is scathing about how the Democratic Unionist Party has cynically used the Northern Ireland Protocol issue to wind down loyalists, noting how Foster initially hailed the protocol as the best of both worlds before departing from that position. “I think working-class loyalist people are being led into an impasse of … megaphone politics, which I certainly don’t like and will have no part in,” Purvis said.
Julie-Anne Corr-Johnston was for a time a very active councilor for the North Belfast PUP, although she has since left the party and found a new political home in Doug Beattie’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
The unsuccessful UUP Assembly candidate for North Belfast in 2022 speaks about her strong support for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and for a “rights-based” approach to socio-economic issues, not positions normally held by union politicians. A Bill of Rights was promised in the Good Friday Agreement but remains a pending issue 24 years later.
Patsy’s life is hard to read: A father, brother and husband all spent time in prison throughout her life, and after watching her mother balance the chores of raising a family while visiting and supporting a loved one in prison, she had to take it on the same life. One son also ended up serving a riot-related sentence and another son took his own life.
Then there’s Debbie. Married to a UDA leader for 14 years before she was able to flee, she tells of brutal domestic violence. She was locked in “a little room” under the stairs until the children came home, her life reduced to having to “cook, clean and then go back to the little room”. Her husband ended up in prison for raping his own daughter and fathering a son.
Loyalist frustrations about how they are perceived in society, including by other trade unionists, are repeatedly expressed – although there is not as much evidence to understand how loyalist behavior continues to shape these perceptions.
What sets the stories apart is that they are fully retold using only the interviewees’ words. What emerges are sometimes harrowing accounts of life in a culture where women’s roles have been subserviently treated. The roots of working-class loyalty are evident in the many anecdotes that reveal the sobering living conditions of women and their families.
Still, a sense of determination to pursue something better and in the process positively impact Northern loyalty and society shines through. As Patsy wistfully notes, “When there’s trouble [again] I’ll make sure my grandkids don’t interfere as I was there and wore the t-shirt.”
Unheard Voices: Stories of Loyalist Women Growing up in Northern Ireland is available at herloyalvoice.com
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/female-loyalists-emerge-from-the-shadows-to-tell-their-side-of-the-story-41910073.html Female loyalists emerge from the shadows to tell their side of the story