Loyalists have been on the receiving end of over two decades of dehumanisation and mistreatment by the media, and civic society. Since the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Republicanism has been legitimised, while Loyalism continues to be demonised. Loyalists are subject to incessant demeaning slurs, whereas Republicans receive political endorsement. The IRA are portrayed, and sometimes accepted, as ‘volunteers’, whilst Loyalists were ‘terrorists’ and ‘murderers’. Even to this day IRA fuel smugglers are ‘crucial to peace’, but Loyalists are deemed ‘criminals’ and ‘gangsters’.
When the media unfairly chooses to focus upon a specific section of society, it contributes to the demonisation and reinforcement of negative stereotypes of that community. So much so, that the very people within that community and wider society believe that the misinformed representation is actually an accurate one.
Loyalists are regularly reported on in relation to negative news stories, such as crime and Anti-Social Behaviour (‘ASB’) within communities, while stories about wider social issues, such as education, housing and health are not as frequently or prominently reported.
Media coverage creates panic and deliberately sensationalises certain news stories. Often Loyalists are given constant coverage and inundated with requests for media appearances on these negative news stories; but the media frenzy then disappears once your contribution has been used to further compound the media-generated stereotype of our community.
That is not to say that Loyalism should self-isolate and not engage with the media, but such engagement should be with credible journalists and outlets. In fact, I advocate for greater engagement, and more voices speaking out, but we as a community must be careful to ensure this is with proper journalists.
There are also serious issues around how some within the media almost gleefully seeking to stir up discord and disharmony within our communities. The default position, especially of some Sunday tabloids, is to believe the worst of loyalism, no matter how outlandish. The desperate race to demonise leads to journalistic standards being abandoned, fact checking going out the window and wild allegations being presented as fact.
These ‘journalists’ (and I do not tar all of the media with the disreputable conduct of a minority) are no friends of our community. They seek to perpetually stir up intra-community conflict, whilst leeching onto vulnerable people within our community who they use and abuse for their own promotion.
There are some journalists, albeit a minority, who regularly perpetuate lies and demonise loyalist communities based upon wild claims of the latest crackpot they have encountered in the sewers of social media. And, of course, in this ‘make-believe’ world attacking loyalism wins RTs and Likes (though some ‘journalists’ persist in actually paying for Twitter engagement to boost their stereotyping of our community, and to make themselves appear important in the wholly unimportant world of social media).
I recently had to come off Twitter due to horrendous abuse. A quick look at the majority of my social media abusers would highlight their links and regular engagement from some within the media who present themselves as professional victims with almost monthly regularity. I am a woman who has received genuine abuse and threats on social media, my children have been subject to abuse; I have not used this for attention, but rather it drives me on to better my community and try to open doors for more young people and women especially.
Working class communities in Northern Ireland have shockingly high levels of poverty and deprivation. It is widely known- and accepted- that poverty and deprivation correlates with high levels of crime; irrespective of community. This is not a Loyalist issue; it is a societal issue and is by no means exclusive to Loyalist communities.
Therefore one would ask why there is such a huge inequality in media reports when it comes to crime in Loyalist and Republican communities?
The media has consistently failed to cover the real issues we face, perhaps because they are not as entertaining, do not excite the bored ‘Celtic 1916’ Twitter men, or possibly because they are the same problems we were aware of decades ago so they are no longer deemed news-worthy.
That imbalance has also meant lack of public awareness of the real problems, and a lack of influence on the activities of the government in addressing them.
I have set out the problems with sections of the media here, but when our very own politicians are using these sensationalised and most of the time false news stories as factually correct; we have a problem. Rather than reaching into Loyalist communities and dealing with real problems, many of our politicians are more interested in treating the hoax claims of the Sunday tabloids – often obtained from the sewers where no credible journalist would even dip their toe – as a tool for appealing to the ‘Twitterati’. It seems in the imbalanced world of social media that attacking Loyalism is fashionable, and sadly many of our politicians are more concerned about their image than they are their own constituents in this fantasy world; as such, a good old attack on Loyalism or endorsement of the wild claims of the Sunday papers is the order of the day for many of our own politicians.
Too often government policies are shaped by negative or false stereotypes. After more than two decades of peddling lies and alienating my community, the whole structure of understanding it, even by academics, is corrupted by a clouded idea of what is really going on. We have a whole industry of professional ‘peace processors’ who consistently talk in echo chambers.
I say to our politicians, do you pull the ladder up behind you and sit sneering and vilifying those below based on what you see on the news or read in a newspaper? Or do you do your upmost in getting back into the heart of the community to gain a genuine understanding of the real issues and do what you can to empower and improve the lives of those you claim torepresent?
In my view, the actions of our politicians have only solidified the idea that big house Unionism doesn’t give a damn about working class communities. Whatever happened to genuine Loyalist engagement based on trust and understanding?
If there is crime, then let us work on the causes of such crime. Let us work together to tackle these issues. I do not want to see any criminal activity, I condemn such actions. But nor do I want our community to become a plaything of disreputable journalists who mislead and distort issues within our areas for their own self-gain. They care not one iota about our community; we are cannon-fodder for filling a page. Our politicians should remember this.
It seems nothing has changed; what we are seeing is the same old big house unionism use the same old tricks. We see you. No longer will we sit idly by. You either step up or step aside. Loyalism needs a credible political vehicle with credible, trustworthy members of the community who have their finger on the pulse and are well positioned to make the change my community and every working-class community in Northern Ireland so desperately needs.
By Stacey Graham