Unionists, Loyalists, and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland

Unionists, Loyalists, and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland

Unionists, Loyalists, and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland

Unionists, Loyalists, and Conflict Transformation in Northern Ireland


In Northern Ireland, a once seemingly intractable conflict is in a state of transformation. Lee A. Smithey offers a grassroots view of that transformation, drawing on interviews, documentary evidence, and extensive field research. He offers essential models for how ethnic and communal-based conflicts can shift from violent confrontation toward peaceful co-existence.

Smithey focuses particularly on Protestant unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland, who maintain varying degrees of commitment to the Protestant faith, the Crown, and and Ulster / British identity. He argues that antagonistic collective identities in ethnopolitical conflict can become less polarizing as partisans adopt new conflict strategies and means of expressing identity. Consequently, the close relationship between collective identity and collective action is a crucial element of conflict transformation. Smithey closely examines attempts in Protestant/unionist/loyalist communities and organizations to develop more constructive means of expressing collective identity and pursuing political agendas that can help improve community relations. Key leaders and activists have begun to reframe shared narratives and identities, making possible community support for negotiations, demilitarization, and political cooperation, while also diminishing out-group polarization.

As Smithey shows, this kind of shift in strategy and collective vision is the heart of conflict transformation, and the challenges and opportunities faced by grassroots unionists and loyalists in Northern Ireland can prove instructive for other regions of intractable conflict.


But if we grant that symbolic systems are social products that
contribute to making the world, that they do not simply mirror social
relations but help constitute them, then one can, within limits,
transform the world by transforming its representation.

—Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:14)

In 2005, as we drove through Portadown, a primarily Protestant Northern Ireland town, a friend and colleague who lives there pointed out a mural and said simply, “There’s King Rat” The mural featured a portrait of a man with close-cropped hair and a goatee flanked by garlands of poppies and orange lilies. Banners over and beneath the portrait read, “In honour of Grenadier William ‘Billy’ Wright LVF.” Below, two masked gunmen wearing spats and white belts brandished automatic weapons and gazed up at the visage of Wright. Between them, a scroll displayed a verse from the New Testament of the Bible: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends—John 15:13” (see figures 1.1 and 1.2).

The mural on the Brownstown Road valorized a contentious figure who not only threatened Catholics but was a lightning rod for divisions within loyalist paramilitary organizations. Wright was a notorious dissident loyalist paramilitary leader who was ousted from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and formed the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) in 1997 after his organization allegedly killed a Catholic taxi driver, Michael McGoldrick. In December 1997, Wright was assassinated in the Maze prison by fellow prisoners who were members of the republican Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Like many murals, Wright’s could conjure fear, mistrust, grief, triumph, or honor, depending on the viewer’s own experience and perspective.

On a return visit to Portadown only two years later, I found that the mural had been replaced with a commemorative tribute to the famous footballer George Best, one of Europe’s all-time best players who hailed from East Belfast. This time, the banners on the mural were blue and simply read, “George Best 1946–2005” above the logo of the Irish Football Association. This clear and intentional change in public symbols on the Brownstown Road has become common in Protestant, unionist, and loyalist (PUL) communities across Northern Ireland as initiatives are undertaken to alter familiar symbols and practices including flags, parades, and bonfires as part of a cultural transformation in the region.

In a commemorative garden a short distance from the mural, at the center of a flagstone patio sat a large polished granite stone with the inscription: “In memory of all victims of conflict” In the background, at the rear corners of the patio, sat . . .

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