The Other 1916

Eoin O’Mahony reports on a discussion with Loyalist ex-prisoners on the memory of 1916.

Commemoration is never a neutral activity. What one group deems to be of great significance is hardly remembered by another. Memories are shared of course but more often that not, it is what exactly is remembered that remains important.

Three Loyalist ex-prisoners from Belfast and Derry, speaking at a Workers’ Party seminar during April in Dublin, laid out how these claims of memory work on both sides of the border with particular reference to the events of 1916.

Ron McMurray, a Belfast man whose parents were from Donegal and Monaghan, entered prison at the age of 16 in the early 1970s for Ulster Volunteer Force activities. He said that he knew nothing about the story of the Rising or indeed any Irish history until he started reading books in prison, “however ask me about the Kings and Queens of England and I knew them because that is what I was taught in school.”

McMurray said that he was now fascinated by the Rising and other aspects of Irish nationalist history.

The Rising is often seen as a stab in the back for unionists.

However, for the Protestant working class community, the defining events of the early 20th century is associated with World War 1and in particular the role of the 36th Ulster Division, made up mainly of UVF volunteers, during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. McMurray remarked, “The Rising is often seen as a stab in the back for us”.

All the speakers recalled this ‘betrayal’ during World War I being a key narrative within Loyalism. Indeed, myths about the fate of corpses of Catholic men who died while fighting for the British Army during that war, “often being seized by the IRA and having their eyes gouged out”, was recalled as accepted fact within their community.

“There isn’t a Protestant, Loyalist or Unionist house in the North that doesn’t have some relative that died at the Somme or sometime during the First World War”, said Peter McGuire, a former Loyalist prisoner originally from Derry who is now a member of the Workers’ Party.

This link to the British military and service in it, McGuire, himself an ex-solider, says is still a key component to the Protestant working class identity.

Compared to the strong historical connection of the Protestant community to the events of 1916 in Flanders, McMurray, expressed some surprise and disappointment for what he felt was a lack of evident remembrance of the Easter Rising as he walked around Dublin.

Robert Deeney, a former UDA prisoner from Derry, said that while the overwhelming view within the Protestant community was that the “Easter Rising was a Provo thing” he agreed with his colleagues that its commemoration in the South had mainly been state-organised, something they very much welcomed.

The men said that awareness of the involvement of Protestants in the Rising and Republican politics during that period is sparse among their peers; any knowledge of the working class Protestants who fought with the Irish Citizen Army is non-existent. McGuire said that unfortunately the Starry Plough emblem of the Irish Citizen Army was more associated with dissident republicanism in Northern Ireland now than socialism.

Asked about the unity of views in the Protestant working class, McGuire said that in his youth he would not have really thought of it as one community due to the divisions between the various Protestant churches within it. Indeed, he said while there was a loyalty to things British he recalls a strong strain of anti-English sentiment in his own Presbyterian community and personally feels a strong association with Scottish history from the radical Covenanters to the rebellious Jacobites.

Both McGuire and McMurray talked of a growing sense of class awareness informing their politics – a feature they believed was shared among a significant number of former Loyalist paramilitaries who view their communities as having been “used” by mainstream unionist parties, in particular the DUP.

However, asked about Loyalist working class politics after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, McGuire was not confident that Loyalist identity is ready to abandon its historic roots. McMurray said that he intends to visit the Somme battlefield site in the coming months to pay respect to a relative who fell in the battle.

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