Book review — The End of Ulster Loyalism? (Peter Shirlow)

Book review — The End of Ulster Loyalism? (Peter Shirlow)
14 July 2022

The long-standing conception of political loyalism in Northern Ireland is that it is a non-transformative body with little evidence to suggest that even the lesser hardline elements would play any major role in the peacebuilding process. Peter Shirlow, in his book The End of Ulster Loyalism? contests this idea in a thoroughly written piece that emanates ideas of sociology and criminology in a transparently academic style. 

The wealth of information, along with the pragmatic approach taken by Shirlow in his work, is unfortunately contrasted by a dry, jumbled, and occasionally directionless style making The End of Ulster Loyalism? often less-than accessible to the average reader. That’s not to say it’s a below-average book, in fact it is far from that. Shirlow’s research and overlaying drive to strengthen his arguments as much as possible make for an objectively well written book. It is stylistically comparable to books such as Corruption: A Very Short Introduction by Leslie Holmes or Organized Crime by Klaus von Lampe in that regard. Shirlow’s ultimate argument is that the future of loyalism is “dependent upon support from State agencies and other funders in order to maintain key interventionist work” (pg. 25). 

Shirlow mainly references the decreasing number of Catholic deaths attributed to Loyalist paramilitary attacks since the 1990s as a means to suggest that the most violent stages of the conflict, especially as it pertains to loyalism, are in the past. Shirlow’s arguments here are well displayed, as the vast array of arguments are laid out much more concisely further into the work. The book’s structure is where it tends to shine, as matter-of-factness laid out by Shirlow in each of The End of Ulster Loyalism’s eight chapters has, at the minimum, a solid argument basis and conclusion, with the exception of the mostly rambling introduction. 

Shirlow touches on the divisions amongst Loyalist groups in his fourth chapter, putting forth the idea that loyalist discourse in the 1990s and 2000s “became centred upon illicit and licit discursive moralites”, with these moralities often being conditioned by acts of violence (pg. 113). Shirlow largely blames the former head of the UDA West Belfast ‘C Company’, Johnny Adair, for the eruption of violence in the loyalist Shankill community and throughout north and west Belfast in the mid 1990s and early 2000s. Shirlow does not hold back on his criticisms of Adair, and notes that the representatives of the UVF, and even some within other elements of the UDA, despised Adair for his regular use of violent rhetoric and continuous discourse of “ethnic purity and racial/religious superiority” (pg. 116). The lambasting of Adair and C Company’s actions serves as one of the highlights of Shirlow’s work in The End of Ulster Loyalism. The elements of using interviews and respondents from loyalist paramilitaries and their views on the Adair issue — along with Shirlow’s own views on Adair and the media coverage that surrounded his largely pointless feud with the UVF of West Belfast — serves as an excellent example of Shirlow’s arguments.

His fifth chapter, “Loyalist conflict transformation: beyond idiocy”, unfortunately falls into the same camp as the introduction. Not tremendously accessible and often jumbled throughout. The chapter relies far too much on the arguments of other academics and is largely directionless, although there are smatterings of Shirlow’s own arguments defending Loyalist communities as a whole. What Shirlow attempts to convey is that the members of these communities have actively engaged in programmes designed to offer political and social alternatives vis-à-vis paramilitarism. In subsequent chapters, Shirlow insinuates that Loyalists who have become involved in illicit activities have been expelled and condemned by their respective loyalist leaders (pg. 177). 

Ultimately, Shirlow argues that positive and progressive loyalists must understand they need to detach themselves from the still very relevant regressive elements that still plague the loyalist aura, and that the UDA and UVF have to “civilianise completely — the removal of the blank cheque for the bully” (pg. 200). By and large, Shirlow’s conclusion does not particularly tie in a lot of the elements of the main body of The End of Ulster Loyalism. However, it does manage to convey that Loyalism can survive on the basis of “the denunciation of negativity itself” (pg. 205), and his thoroughness in his work written well enough to make that idea plausible. 

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