In a Loylalist area of Newtownards in Co Down, two men hijacked a Tesco delivery van. After a series of collisions en route, their progress was brought to a halt in a Loyalist area of east Belfast when the police used a ‘stinger,’ (a chain with spikes lain across the road) to puncture all four wheels.
It was an act as much of stupidity as criminality, but Newtownards was the town that in the 1980s had graffiti in a Loyalist area declaring, ‘Don’t march, mobize.’
Loyalist communities have become the left behind, many of those with an element of ‘get up and go’, have got up and gone. Constructive leadership is rare in communities that regard building one hundred foot bonfires and burning effigies as essential elements of their culture.
The demographic factors are stacked against Loyalists. The Democratic Unionist Party seem incapable of reinventing themselves to become a small ‘u’ unionist party that could garner Catholic suppport. Instead, entrenchment has become the approach, digging deeper and deeper in smaller and smaller areas.
Where straightforward demographic factors have not been sufficient, Republicans have not been averse to an ethnic cleansing of areas.
It is twenty-five years since I encountered Republican realities in Larne, a Loyalist town with a deep Republican pocket.
I remember a young couple, let’s call them Billy and Mary. They had two children, a five year old and a baby. They lived in a house on an estate on the edge of the town. Their house was dirty and had virtually no furniture.
Billy’s parents lived in a house on the same estate with three or four of his younger brothers and sisters. Billy’s parents’ house was so dirty that the safest place to sit was on the edge of the fireplace.
No-one in the family had anything more than the most basic reading skills. They had been driven from an estate in another town because they had called the police to an incident. They weren’t happy where they were.
Billy’s mother used to appear in church on a Sunday evening with two or three of the family. I tried to persuade them that they might feel more at home at the service at 10 o’clock in the morning, which was very informal, but they insisted on coming in the evening and sitting right at the back.
Billy and Mary had no parenting skills. Even if there had been a course for them to attend, they had no means of getting there. Their five year old son had a poor diet, was in poor health and was probably in physical danger.
Eventually, the social services decided it would be for the benefit of the whole family if the five year old was taken into care. There was no suggestion of abuse; the parents were simply inadequate to cope with providing a healthy and secure environment for a growing child.
Billy’s family had another problem.
They were Protestants on an estate that was increasingly Republican. (Of course, in other parts of the town, Loyalists were trying to drive out all Catholic families). The local Republican leader used the care order made against the couple as an excuse to accuse them of anti-social behaviour.
Their house was firebombed. Billy and Mary and the baby escaped. Billy’s father ran to try to give them assistance, the shock was too much for him and he died of a heart attack at the scene.
There was supposed to be a ceasefire in place, but every time local Loyalists complained to the Republican leadership about incidents in the estate, the leadership said it was nothing to do with them.
In times past the Loyalists had made two attempts on the life of the Republican leader in the estate; on one occasion they had shot dead another member of his family by mistake and on another occasion they had blown up his brother’s car with no-one in it.
Everyone knew who was behind the burning of Billy’s house- the police, the Loyalists, the Republicans, but the man responsible, let’s call him Tony, had a good alibi.
I used to visit a little old lady who lived close to Billy’s house. She would sit at her window and watch all that went on.
‘Who burned Billy’s house?’ I asked her.
‘Tony’, she said.
‘It wasn’t Tony’, I said, ‘Tony never gets his hands dirty’.
‘Tony’s brother threw the bomb’, she said, ‘but Tony told him to do it’.
Billy’s family moved out of the estate; the object of the fire bomber’s intentions.
I knew a member of one of the Loyalist parties. ‘Why couldn’t Loyalists protect members of their own community?’ I asked him
‘They could’, he answered, ‘but that family weren’t identified with the cause’.
The cause? Bonfires and slabs of beer and playing music to annoy the neighbours?
Twenty-five years later and the hopelessness and lawlessness within Loyalist communities seems only to have intensified.