When asked to do a piece for Let’s Talk Loyalism, I thought long and hard on what subject I should express myself on. Should it be Brexit? Or what about housing, criminalisation within loyalism, mental health, deprivation in loyalist areas, the Protocol, Unionist unity, poverty, education, Universal Credit, foodbanks?

So, I thought that I should talk about a little bit about all of our frustrations. Everyone I speak to in our community mentions the “lack of representation,” but another question that comes up time and time again is, what has been achieved for us in the PUL community during the so-called Peace Process?

It’s hard to argue the PUL have benefited much over the past 20 years whenever there is a lack of jobs, under or lack of investment in our communities, lack of decent affordable social housing, there is educational under achievement in PUL areas, and there is exists a continued attack and erosion of our British identity and culture.

There were not too many subjects that I agreed with Arlene Foster as First Minister. One point she made however repeatedly proves true. She claimed that Republicans were waging a “Cultural War,” on Unionists. 

What is our response? The Unionist people and parties are fragmented, we are being ignored, bullied, and patronised and we haven’t been able to form a united front. This is a sad indictment on ourselves and our representatives, where is our collectivism? How are we going to stop this onslaught of attack after attack on our Britishness? If we continue in the vein of pointing the finger at others we will fail the next generation.

We need solid leadership who will grasp the nettle but that won’t be forthcoming until after the next election in May when Sinn Fein will likely become the largest party because of unionist intransigence throughout the so-called Peace Process and beyond.

The latest edition of the Shankill Mirror has a great headline. It reads, “We ALL need to wake up and smell the coffee!” It refers to the lack of development in the Greater Shankill and how we tackle the vast amount of vacant land in our area.

It also had a strapline of, “we must all work together.” and I agree. I wish the likes of Alternatives and others every success in their objectives. All of this just proves that there are areas exempt from the “financial bounce” of the Good Friday Agreement.

Genuine campaigns around the redevelopment of the Shankill started when I was a boy by the likes of Jackie Redpath and others, so does it shock me that we are still fighting on this front?  It is even more surprising that we have all put up with it for so long. The same could arguably be said for every issue I mentioned at the start of this article.

The days of big house Unionism telling us their election manifestos should be over, it should be the other way round.

The PUL community all over Northern Ireland should communicate, organise and have pledges agreed and spell it out to all Unionist parties. They should be told by the electorate what is acceptable or not prior to the election.

This is a big ask but it can be done with the cooperation of established community groups assisting in the process. If they can’t bring about Unionist Unity in the short term, then let the grassroots drive the election agenda for next May. 

Another subject that keeps coming up is around the media and the message they portray of the PUL community. There is no one more pleased to see young activists coming forward than me. For too long this it was only politicians who would speak up (selectively), but now we have more grassroot activists engaging with the media than ever before. A void Republicans often filled with their trojan horse agenda.

One thing I would like to see however is more Loyalists actively involved in “Civic Society,” and Trade Unions. It certainly feels like the republican narrative has taken over in these fronts.

I once went to a “Civic Society” event that was organised to put pressure on unionists not to collapse the Assembly. The vast majority of the room was from the Pan-Nationalist community. That is who organises most Civic Society events and they often get rolled out upon request by Sinn Fein.

In a similar fashion, there is underrepresentation in the Trade Unions. Many of the PUL community have walked away from their unions instead of changing from within. It is vitally important that you get involved in the structures of your union if not, this is another body were the pro-republican agenda takes centre stage.

Don’t leave the voice of working-class people to their agenda, and if you do, do not complain when the unions call for a border poll or the continue with the anti-Israeli stance.

In this our Centenary year, let’s not leave the agenda to others; let’s lead from the front; let;s drive the PUL narrative. That has got to be our new approach; We have been “smelling the coffee” for too long. We suffered the IRA and others on a 40 year killing spree and during that time we never wavered or surrendered; let’s take on their cultural war and defeat that as well.

To finish, I want to mention the band fraternity here in Ulster and the fantastic work they do. It often goes unrecognised the positive work they do for charity, which all sections of the Northern Ireland public avails of, and the positive contribution bands make to the local community. All of which goes largely unreported by mainstream media outlets.

My own band the Shankill Protestant Boys (the Famous SPB) recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Celebrations were diluted due to Covid restrictions, but we continue to recruit new members and instil virtues like pride, discipline, togetherness, creativity, and respect into our members.

I never fail to feel the sense of pride from when a new recruit goes through the induction process, to learning his instrument, and finally walking in the ranks of the S.P.B with ones chest out and proud of both their appearance and achievement.

Everyone in the band community plays their part in keeping up the long-standing traditions of what it means to be part in your local band. Despite constant attacks from organised militant republican trolls and certain media commentators both online in print media and other outlets our bands continue to thrive.

They instil within the ranks a sense of discipline and awareness of PUL culture along with a pride in their appearance all of which will be of use to the younger members as they make their journey through life.

By Gary Lenaghan