It is trite to point out that for many years Loyalists have been manipulated, exploited and used as political cloud cover for Unionist parties. We have been neglected and alienated from wider society, and in some cases been simply asked to “go away.” No one can ever tell us where precisely it is we are expected to go?

A fundamental ethos (it appears) of the peace agreement and the ‘process’ it spawned was to empower and legitimise republican communities, whilst criminalising and dehumanising my community.

It is in this context that I welcome an apparent willingness from political Unionism, and others, to engage with my community at a grassroots level. However, my first two questions are:

  • has anything really changed in their attitude to Loyalist communities?
  • is the engagement genuine, or is it merely another round of politicking for electoral gain?

So let me provide some context within which I think those two questions should be answered. In short, this- in my view- is the objective standard by which the answers to the two questions will be judged.

I welcome and encourage efforts of those willing to engage with Loyalism; but those who are reaching out must show they genuinely care about the well-being, and growth of Loyalist working class communities. People need to know that it is safe to express themselves, and that their opinions will be respected and not demonised. Their contributions, even if you disagree, should be taken on board. Loyalist initiatives should be recognised with more than lip service when it is politically advantageous and facilitated. 

One must not simply want to engage with those they see as the “comfortable or acceptable” face of Loyalism. Loyalists were the darlings of the peace process lauded across the world for their efforts in ending the conflict; but when the deal was done, we were no longer required and were quickly cast aside. 

We have been here before. Trust needs to be built. Loyalists will not be used. Is there a way of breaking this endless cycle of embracing the Loyalist community, securing our vote to remain in power or keep the peace; and quickly dumping us until the next political crisis or election?

Politicians must show us that they understand how we feel. That is where I would start if I were in charge of engaging with me. Communicate to me and people like me that you understand our problems before we have to tell you, including how we feel, our concerns, our disenfranchisement and the sources of those problems. We are done with being patronised. Unionism and Loyalism is a family. We must watch out for each other and care for one another.

For anyone trying to win the trust and respect of the loyalist community, people should be clear that loyalism will be judging people not on what they say, but what they actually do. In other words, no more smoke and mirrors, no more speaking out of both sides of the mouth, loyalists will judge those who seek their support based on actions, not by sugar-coated words or empty gestures.

To those from political Unionism seeking to engage; before you seek to answer the two questions I have set out, which I believe will be posed by our community, perhaps you may ask yourself some questions in a moment of self-reflection.

Who do I want to engage with?

Why do I want to engage with them? 

How can I do that in a way that is not patronising, for self or short-term party electoral gain?

How can I create an environment of safety and genuine trust?

What can I do for Loyalism?

I am enthused at the new, empowered, and confident Loyalism that is emerging and those in power must recognise we will no longer bow down or consent- whether willingly or by complicit silence- to being treated as an underclass.

Twenty-three years have passed since the signing of the Belfast Agreement. We have lived with social disadvantage for too long. We have lived in poverty for too long. We have lived with educational underachievement for too long. What we are seeking is an equal partnership, equal citizenship and equal rights within Unionism. The old way is no longer acceptable. Loyalism is demanding change.

Stacey Graham

Let’s Talk Loyalism