‘Listening to your enemies’: Jo Berry and Patrick Magee

skainosLast night crowds of people walked through a protest and lines of riot police to listen to two people talk about what it means to move forward when you have more reason than most to look back.  It was a pretty intimidating entrance, but the place was packed full of people (photo on the right by Glenn Jordan).  You can see some of the press coverage here.

The event was called ‘Listening to your enemies’ and was part of the 4 Corners Festival.  It was hosted by the Skainos centre on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast.

The event was chaired by Rev. Dr. Lesley Carroll and featured Jo Berry and Patrick Magee.  Jo Berry lost her father, Sir Anthony Berry, in an IRA bomb in a hotel in Brighton in 1984.  Patrick Magee was a member of the IRA at the time and one of the bombers of the hotel.

In the past fourteen years, the two have appeared together at over a hundred engagements.

The evening involved some reflections from each of them, followed by a long question and answer session with the audience (I have written this piece based on notes I took at the event).

Jo Berry began the discussion by talking about why she wanted to meet Patrick Magee.  It was her who sought him out, and after asking a few times, he finally agreed to meet her.

Patrick Magee reflected that ‘It’s difficult sitting with Jo because I killed her father. Even after 14 years of dialogue [with her] it’s still difficult.’  He added that coming to East Belfast (which is mainly Loyalist) to continue that dialogue was particularly poignant for him.

Patrick Magee said that when he first met Jo Berry he felt it was the first time since he got involved in the Republican campaign that anyone had really listened to him.  He said that Jo Berry’s willingness to listen to him had disarmed him.  Having met her he quickly grew to have tremendous respect for Jo, and realised that she was a intelligent, brave, and very fine human being.  As a result he began to realise that her father had been a fine human being too.  ‘And I killed him’, he added.   He said that this was a deeply profound thing to have to carry with you.  It is ‘a loss that can never be made up.’

Magee reflected that during conflict you can’t help but have a reduced view of the world.  You don’t see human beings.  And you don’t see the human cost.

He said the reason he continues to do the work with Jo Berry is that, ‘hopefully you can stop other people taking up the same course.’

Most of the questions from the audience were directed toward Magee, understandably so because of the significance of the venue on the Newtownards Road in East Belfast.  I personally would have loved to hear more from Jo Berry, and I hope that I get another opportunity to hear her again soon.  After the event there was some discussion on stage between Gary Mason, Jim Wilson, and Harold Good about where Northern Ireland could find a ‘Mandela moment’.  I would suggest we don’t have to look far.  You would have to go a long way before you find a more dignified and saintly human being than Jo Berry.

Magee was asked if he had a message to dissident Republicans, those who continue to believe in the legitimacy of a violent campaign.  He replied that he was bewildered with dissidents.  ‘They are going nowhere.  I don’t think anything can be achieve through violence in the situation we find ourselves in.’  He added that he believes some dissident groups are looking for an exit strategy (a view that would be supported by this recent article in the Newsletter).

He reflected that ‘It’s hard to argue that any life was worth what we went through.’  He later stated that he hopes political leaders can embrace compromise.  Jo Berry added that it would be wonderful if political leaders would try to understand the other community.

One member of the audience asked, ‘How do you deal with your emotions?’  Patrick Magee replied: ‘You don’t just leave your past behind.  You carry the ghosts of that past with you.  You carry it.’  Jo Berry replied: ‘Anger and pain can be transformed…every time I’m listened to it helps me transform my emotions….There is the potential to move on with emotions but never to reach the point of closure.’

One man stood up towards the end of the questions and said he had attended the event by accident.  He said he had been looking for an AA meeting and had seen the police and the protest outside and had wondered what all the fuss was about so had come along.  He said that it was a privilege to be in the audience and hear the dialogue.  And so it was.  A huge well done to the 4 Corners Festival, Skainos, all involved in hosting the event, and all who attended, despite having to walk through a protest and police lines to get there.  Spare a thought as well for the police officers who had to protect the building, and for those who were injured doing so.

Jo Berry closed the evening with some concluding remarks, before both her and Patrick Magee were quietly ushered out of the building.  Before she left she offered the following statement: ‘Pat is my friend, beyond any label.’  I suspect Mandela was looking down and smiling.

Here’s why ‘bomb scare’ scares me

scare

This was the scene last week when a bomb scare in Belfast caused the evacuation of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops on a busy Friday night.  Some of my friends are in that picture.

This and other bomb scares in the run up to Christmas have reminded me of an incident I witnessed growing up.

When I was 11 I saw a bomb explode in Belfast.  I never want to see another one. 

It was so utterly normal in those days that it didn’t really scare me at the time.  It does now.

I was standing inside the train station at York Road – now Yorkgate – with my school pals, waiting for a train to take us home.  They used to keep all us schoolkids in a big waiting area before letting us on the platform.  We would visit the shop for ice-pops and frozen drinks while we waited.  I remember it was always a scramble to see who could get the best flavours of ice pops before they were all gone.

york road

And that’s where we were that day, dozens of kids waiting for a train to get home, when there was an announcement to get out of the station: ‘bomb scare’.

In those days it happened all the time.  I remember thinking it was no big deal.  In my childhood innocence I thought it was more of an inconvenience than a threat.  We were taken up the road and stood a few hundred yards from the train station, laughing and joking and wondering how long it would be until we could get back into the station and home.

It wasn’t long – maybe ten minutes – before the bomb went off.  I still remember the explosion.  It seemed to go on forever.  Bits of buildings flew up in the air and took an age to come down.  I remember being shocked at how far the debris traveled towards where we were.  There was the rumble of concrete walls and roofs collapsing, and a big dust cloud where it went off.

It turned out the target of the bomb was not the train station but the hotel next to it.  The bomb destroyed the hotel.  I don’t remember how we got home that day but it wasn’t by train.  The train station was so badly damaged it had to be completely rebuilt.

In those days there was supposed to be an early warning system to protect civilians.  In our case it worked.  We were the lucky ones, many others weren’t so fortunate.

That’s why ‘bomb scare’ scares me.  Bomb scares remind me how incredibly lucky I was.  They remind me that life is precious and short, and that we only get one go at it.  They remind me of my moral obligation to help contribute something positive to the place where I grew up to make it a better place to live.  I’ve always believed doing nothing is not an option.  If you live here you are part of the mess.  It is up to all of us to sort it out.

Jager b

It’s also why I find it distasteful that in the last week some bars are offering ‘bomb scare special’ promotions (see picture on right).  While perhaps not as bad as the more reprehensible ‘Irish car bomb’ shots that are sold in some bars in the U.S.,  I refuse to believe that this is the best Belfast can come up with.  We can do better than this.

I am thankful that I am yet to see another bomb go off in Belfast.  We all owe a debt of gratitude to all those who helped build the peace we now enjoy, as well as those who continue to do so.  The peace process may not be perfect but we owe it to them, and all those who were not so lucky, to keep it going.

‘Your pain is our pain. God bless you.’

A bunch of flowers in the Shankill memorial garden this week that said from ‘the good people of the Ardoyne’.

shankill

(tweeted by UTV’ s Judith Hill)

There was no ‘sorry’.  There are times for ‘sorry’ and there are times when, if the truth be told, ‘sorry’ doesn’t make a blind bit of difference.

Many of those who were victims or who lost loved ones don’t want to forgive and they don’t think they should have to either.  And who are the rest of us to judge them, they who are haunted by the ghosts of their loved ones daily?

The poet Phillip Whitfield wrote, ‘It is not the dead I pity.’  If you’ve ever looked into the eyes of the survivors you’ll know what he meant.

The flowers were a simple symbolic act of empathy.  True empathy says something like: ‘We know you are hurting. We offer no excuses or explanations.  Without words or preconditions we acknowledge your suffering and, in our own way, we also suffer because you are suffering.’

Empathy and compassion connect me to you, and you to me.  Without empathy and compassion we will be forever disconnected, and forever at war.  Without empathy and compassion there is no peace.  Empathy and compassion can reach out over the abyss of decades of political and social segregation, and connect people who have never met but who have suffered the same loss and felt the same pain.

Frederick Buechner wrote: ‘Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin.  It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you.’

This was illustrated this week by a powerful moment on UTV live, hosted by Paul Clarke.  Sometimes journalists get a hard time for only reporting bad news and whipping up tension so, with that in mind, it is worth pointing out that some of them do a brilliant job.

Two of the men on the panel were Charlie Butler and Mark Rodgers.  Charlie Butler lost three members of his family in the Shankill bomb.  Mark Rodgers lost his Dad in a revenge shooting three days later at the Kennedy Way cleaning depot.

In the twenty years since, the two had never met but when Mark Rodgers crossed the studio to shake Charlie Butler’s hand, they embraced.

“God bless you,” Mark said.

“And yourself. Your pain is our pain. God bless you,” Charlie replied.

Cornel West wrote: ‘We must never let our own suffering blind ourselves to the suffering of others.’

When we feel the pain of others it is no longer possible to hate them or ignore them, because we are a part of their suffering and they are a part of ours.

Those of us who want to build a more peaceful future must, like Mark Rodgers, cross our own metaphorical studios, whatever they may be, and say, ‘God bless you.’  And along with Charlie Butler, we must be able to say, ‘Your pain in our pain.’  They have shown us how to do it.  The rest of us no longer have an excuse.

In a week when our political representatives were busy yelling whataboutery at each other on the usual television and radio shows, ordinary people were busy moving forward without them.

Thank you Mark Rodgers, Charlie Butler, and the good people of Ardoyne, for showing us the way.

Reflections on peacebuilding and Loyalist masculinities (genderpeace conference)

The following is the text from my presentation at the genderpeace conference.  It received lots of feedback on the day which I will address in a future post.   

In trying to formulate a narrative approach to gender conscious practice in peacebuilding, I want to offer some reflections on my own peacebuilding practice and share some of the stories that have informed my own research.  Much of my work has been concerned with what the idea of the transformation of masculinities means in ‘post-violent’ Northern Ireland, in particular the case of Loyalist masculinities.

Rather than one singular story I will use a range of stories and quotes that will illustrate some of the features that have characterised Loyalist masculinities.  These should not be viewed as universal or absolute.  It is important to recognise that there are many forms of masculinities and that they are flexible and changing.

I recently wrote a guest blog post for EamonnMallie.com.  My presentation will expand on some of the themes that I briefly explored in that piece, and also add some other material.

A lot of men are not interested in talking about gender because it involves asking ourselves difficult questions about the nature of gender injustice and our role in it.  In this short presentation I want to address some of the difficult questions about gender and peacemaking and this means, as a man, asking difficult questions about masculinity, specifically patriarchal masculinity.  For the sake of clarification, I would define patriarchal masculinity as the will to dominate power relationships with women and also other men.

I have been greatly influenced by the African-American feminist writer bell hooks.  In her book Teaching Community (p.xi), hooks writes: ‘We believed then and now that the most important measure of the success of the feminist movement would be the extent to which the feminist thinking and practice that was transforming our consciousness and our lives would have the same impact on ordinary folks.’

As a result of reading hooks, I have reflected on what it means to be successful as an academic and as someone involved in peacemaking.  For me, success is not how many papers we have written, or how many book chapters we’ve contributed, or even how many hits our blog gets.  The only measure of our success that ultimately matters is how much our work impacts the lives of ordinary people.

My research allows me to talk about my research only.  It does not qualify me to speak on behalf of Loyalism or for Loyalism.  It also does not allow me to speak about what is going on in Republican/Nationalist/Catholic communities.  I have not attempted to do any comparative work between the two major communities in Northern Ireland.  My guess is that some of the issues facing Loyalist men are unique to Loyalist communities, and others are the same as other communities.

Before we begin to talk about the issue of masculinity, we also need to acknowledge that gender does not exist in a vacuum.  Unless we understand gender within the wider context of economic injustice and racial injustice we have failed before we begin.  Our concern for justice and equality must always transcend our own interests and our own suffering.  Unless we are concerned with injustice and inequality everywhere we cannot claim to be concerned with addressing gender injustice and inequality.

It is within this context that we can begin to understand the gendered identity of Loyalist men.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas calls the low-class white male the most voiceless person in our society:

‘The most voiceless person in our society is the low class white male….What it means for them to be voiceless is that they don’t have a story that can make their lives intelligible.  The only stories around are, ‘You must be lazy because you didn’t get ahead,’ and I think that is an extraordinary destructive story….Many [lower class white males] live in a hopeless world so what you do is drink, screw, and die.’    (Iconocast podcast episode 17)

The effects of economic injustice are of course not unique to Loyalist communities.  A Republican ex-prisoner I know tells the story that when conducting a workshop with a group of Republican youth, he asked if any of them had ever been in the same room as a Loyalist before.  One of them replied, ‘For fucks sake, we’ve never even been in the same room as a flipchart before.’

The challenge for Loyalist young men growing up is dealing with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.  My own workshops with Loyalist young men sometimes involve an exercise called ‘What is my dream?’  When faced with this question many young men answer that their dream is to win the lottery or to become a porn star.  Young men are growing up in a place so devoid of hope and opportunity that their greatest dream is to win millions of pounds or to get paid to have sex.

The crisis facing Loyalist communities is one of abandonment: economically; socially; and politically.  It is only when people can see a way out that they will have hope.

In my article on Eamonn Mallie’s website, I described Loyalist masculinity as ‘the elephant in the peace process’, to which someone replied: ‘There are a lot more elephants in that room’.  And that may well be true, but the reason I chose that analogy was because in my view Loyalist masculinity has been mostly ignored, largely maligned, and often misunderstood.

I think there is so little education around masculinities because there is so little understanding about what masculinity is and how it can be approached.

In her book The Will To Change, ‘bell hooks’ argues that if we take away the privileges that patriarchy has given men then we would find that they are suffering just as much as women.  In the case of Loyalism, patriarchal masculinity has left Loyalist men brutalised and suffering, with nowhere to go.

The dominant form of Ulster Loyalism that emerged during the period of ‘the troubles’ was defined by heavily militarised notions of masculinity.  In many areas men were often willing to take up arms, of one sort or another.  For some this meant joining the British army, for others this meant joining Loyalist paramilitary organisations.  In the same way that young men are told that the army will turn them into ‘real men’, so too ‘real men’ joined the ranks of paramilitary organisations.  A UVF ex-prisoner told me:

‘Men in this area would still, always down through the history of this area…always want to be in the army of some sort.’

On the walls of public housing estates and inner-cities, the figure of the Loyalist ‘warrior’ became immortalised in the form of murals.  A UDA ex-prisoner recalled:

‘Gunmen in our estates, and the places where we lived, were idolised.  They were heroes.  They were heroes, full stop.’

Young men growing up in Loyalist areas often had to deal with the triple effects of poverty, an education system which rendered many of them second class by the age of eleven, and the wider effects of deindustrialisation and the loss of jobs.  In this context paramilitary organisations provided many men with a story that gave them both meaning and status that was difficult to attain elsewhere.  The UDA ex-prisoner summed up his attitude towards education growing up:

‘When we grew up, ‘Education’s for fruits!’ You know?  It was for gays. You know?  ‘Pffft, don’t touch that, we want guns!   Gimme guns, gimme guns!’’

He went on to describe the attraction of the figure or the Loyalist ‘warrior’:

‘Bonfires where I grew up, see every eleventh night?  Six, ten, sometimes fifteen Loyalist – UDA – gunmen, out to the bonfire, all machine guns, the lot, all the kit [makes noises of machine guns going off], the full monty.  You’re standing there with wee lads seeing all these big lads coming out with AK47s and all, do you know what I mean?  And giving it large.  It was like rock n roll and toy soldiers right in your front garden, you know what I mean?  Wow, give us some of that!  No more ‘A-team’, I want in there, know what I mean?  That is what you were aspiring to, you were seeing that, you know?  So you had that planted in your head.  Gimme that, gimme that.  And you seen the power it give the men, you know what I mean?  It give them recognition within the community, you know what I mean?  That’s what the kids aspired to do.  Kids wanted to go out and kill Catholics, as simple as that.  That’s it.  We didn’t play cowboys and Indians.  We played Provies and UDA, do you know what I mean?  Seeing who could stiff the most, you know? That’s the way we played it when we were growing up, you know?’

It was while conducting a focus group with Loyalist women that I first became aware of the deep suffering of Loyalist men as a result of patriarchal masculinity.  When asked about men and their emotions, one woman replied:

‘I look at some people now and I think they’re dead behind the eyes.’

Others added that many Loyalist men were:

‘Closed.  Shut.’  ‘Paranoid.’  ‘Switched off.’  ‘Haunted.’  ‘Desensitized.’

Later, a UDA ex-prisoner described to me how this process of emotional detachment took place:

‘Everybody changed in so many ways….And you do become hardened.  Death means nothing to you.  Even life itself, you know, the value of life.  You’re prepared to give your life.  You’re prepared to go to jail.  You’re prepared to give up your freedom and your family.  So you go step by step by step, [from] being what you would call normal to being a soldier, or a hard-line paramilitary.’

One ex-UVF prisoner described how this took its toll on family life:

‘If you harden your heart, well that’s gonna be hardened towards your relationships and other areas, whether it be your wife, your kids or even the way you talk and treat your friends, you know. In them days you didn’t wanna show sign of weakness.  Everybody was fucking John Wayne.’

Loyalist patriarchal masculinity has claimed more victims than many of us want to admit.  It crushed the souls of those who managed to make it out alive and exiled them to a land of emotional disconnection.  More than one Loyalist ex-prisoner has told me they are afraid to sleep because they might wake up screaming in the night.  It is common to hear stories of Loyalist men, decades after their involvement in the conflict, dealing with alcoholism, drug addiction, and other mental health issues.  Others, unable to cope at all, have taken their own lives.

Some might argue that these men chose their own path and now they have to deal with the consequences.  Some might say they deserve what they get.  Many people are so enraged by the suffering caused by Loyalist men that they refuse to acknowledge that Loyalist men have also suffered.  And yet, if we are to all move forward together towards a shared future for everyone, we can not afford to ignore the elephant in the peace process.  Acknowledging the suffering of Loyalist men might provide a point of connection that ultimately leads to transformation of Loyalist masculinity.

So what about the transformation of Loyalist masculinities?

An article on the bbc website recently included a quote from a UDA leader, on how Loyalist masculinity is changing: ‘We say now arm ourselves with education….Five years ago, two people started university within our organisation; this year 16 people. Sixteen young lads and girls started university, so we’ve been on that journey, we’ve been on the journey of education because education is the new power.’

What is interesting about this quote is that it recognizes that patriarchal masculinity and the old belief that education is for girls and gays has not served Loyalist men well.  However, it represents only a partial change from patriarchal values.  Where it maintains a loyalty to patriarchal values is that he describes education as ‘the new power’.  This is a partial transformation from violent patriarchal masculinity to what hooks calls ‘nice-guy’ patriarchal masculinity.  It does not represent a full transformation of patriarchal values but it is a step in the right direction.  True transformation does not take place in a moment but in the context of a post-violent society it is a slow, discontinuous, and uneven process.  Transformation from patriarchal values means more than changing from violent patriarchal masculinity to nice guy patriarchs, it requires transcending power and the will to dominate.

peace and the language of domination

Some of my academic friends thought the peace gathering was smug, self congratulatory, and anti-intellectual.   Some of my flag protesting friends thought it was an exercise in embracing trees.  I didn’t.  I knew quite a few people who would attend and I know they are great people, so I tried to write a piece that was balanced and looked at the good aspects of such gatherings as well as offering a critique.  I was well aware that for many of the people involved I was preaching to the converted.  However, I was also pointing out to others, both on the left and right, that it was not all liberal nonsense.

I was surprised by the reaction I got from some of those involved.  At first I laughed at it but then the more I thought about it I felt I needed to write some sort of response.  I have copied the conversation between them below.  This was a conversation that took place on one of their facebook pages.  I post it here because it was not a private conversation or just available to their friends but was available to the public.  I assume it was probably read by hundreds of people.  You can click on each photo to read it.  In my comments underneath I have used some quotes from their conversation but I haven’t matched them up with names.  This is because I don’t want to particularly single out anybody or attack them personally.  If you want to know who said what you can read it yourself.

Elsewhere:

Admittedly, some of their feedback was not that bad.  ‘He means well’, ‘he has some good points‘, and ‘I think his conclusions are valid. He just goes off the rails for the middle part of the piece I reckon.’  However, some of the other stuff was beyond what I would consider reasonable criticism.

My main problem with many of the responses is that they are informed by the values of domination.  They seem to want to dominate the conversation about what being committed to peace looks like.  If someone doesn’t want to be part of a peace gathering for whatever reason, that should be fine.  If someone wants to offer a critique, that should be fine too.

If we want to resist the politics of domination we have to reject the language of domination in our own discourse.  We must not let the longing for affirmation drown out our willingness to be critiqued.  To show that I am willing to be critiqued I left their criticism on my blog unchallenged for anyone to read.  It’s still there.  If someone disagrees with me then they are free to post on here and say so.  That’s fair enough.

What’s not fair enough is when you are unwilling to accept criticism and your first reaction to someone challenging you is to say they are ‘yet another dick talking from behind a computer and doing nothing or making no proactive movement’.  I did actually outline what it is that I do at the beginning of the article so whoever wrote this clearly didn’t read very far in before deciding I was yet another dick who does nothing.  Later on when someone else did read it and realised that actually I am not ‘doing nothing‘, they posted: ‘Portraying himself as Mother Teresa while noone else does anything? Piffle. The rest is just window dressing.’  The unwillingness to initially even read what I wrote and the need to dismiss my voice is interesting.  It seems that if one put-down doesn’t apply then they just substitute it for another.  This is the language of domination.

The terms ‘patronising’, ‘arrogant’, ‘idiotic’, ‘niavity’,  ‘stupidity’, and ‘superior’ were also used, as was ‘Up his own arse’.  This type of mud slinging is easy to dish out in the heat of the moment but less easy to take back in the cold light of day.  For example, ‘Mere opinion dressed up as insight’, is a fair comment, if that’s what you think.  But the other stuff, this is the language of domination.

To be told that I’m a ‘would be Nolan‘ and a ‘shit-stirer‘ by someone who in the same thread says he is checking out media photos of himself is deeply ironic.  On the issue of being a ‘would be Nolan’, I have been working on peace related grassroots projects for a decade and not been on tv once, nor do I want to be.  These guys organise one gathering and seem preoccupied with how much media coverage they will get.  It’s clear we have different values when it comes to the media.

Towards the end of the thread they posted this video from youtube, saying ‘whose side are you on?’  I suppose they were accusing me of being disloyal to the cause of peace because I was offering a critique and wasn’t lining up to give them the proverbial slap on the back they wanted.  This too is the language of domination.

Another post said that people like me who critiqued the peace gathering were ‘not-helping’.  Not-helping with what exactly?  Perhaps the person who said this did not read the part in my last post where I made the point that the peace gathering was ‘not helping’ those who were actively involved in trying to keep the flag protests nonviolent.  Like I said in the first post, perhaps we could ask them what we could do to help?

It then became clear why they wouldn’t.  ‘I disagree with the fella entirely. The whole ‘not everyone flag-protesting is bad’ thing is bollocks.‘  This is simply not true.  Talk to anyone involved working on the ground to try to make things better and they will tell you there are many good people working very hard to keep the peace.  When you demonise everybody like this you do them a great disservice.  This is the language of domination.

They seem also to have taken the term ‘sanctimonious irrelevance’ out of context and turned it into a direct insult.  ‘putting down any kind of positive movement as “sanctimonious irrelevance” is inflammatory language and demeans the efforts of everyone involve [sic] imo…’  This was a news to me.  Instead of criticising me for something I did say, here they are criticising me for something I didn’t say.  Just to be clear, this is what I actually said, ‘I would go so far as to say that if peace rallies are not coupled with a deep commitment to social transformation then they are nothing more than sanctimonious irrelevancies.’   I would have hoped that if they are involved in as many social transformation initiatives as they say they are then they would agree with this statement and not try to twist it to mean something I did not say.

If we are to be involved in peacemaking it means both our actions and our language must be informed by different values than the powers of domination.  These values mean that peacemaking is not a new terrain to be colonised.  No one owns the conversation about how best to make peace.  Those same values mean we do not put ourselves outside of the world of critical feedback.  They mean if we do find ourselves critiqued we should read what people actually say about us before responding with insults, and they mean we should not distort what people say to mean something they never intended.

Ulster People’s Forum does not rule out meeting Unionist Forum – Jamie Bryson

The newly formed Unionist Forum met yesterday for the first time (see here for details).  It included representatives from the DUP, UUP, PUP, UPRG, UKIP, the Orange Order, and Loyalist community leaders (Full list of people involved here).  It did not include the newly formed Ulster People’s Forum (UPF), a group that has emerged out of the recent protests against the flag decision at Belfast City Hall (see here for a breakdown of the groups involved in the flag protests and here for my thoughts on the Ulster People’s Forum).

According to the BBC report, the UPF claim they were not invited and that even if they had been they would have refused to take part.  Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionists, stated that he spent Tuesday night trying to convince one of the leaders of the UPF to be part of the Unionist Forum in the future.

The BBC report provides no source or quotes for their statement about the UPF refusing to be involved.  Yesterday I asked Jamie Bryson, one of the leaders of the UPF, for his reaction to the Unionist Forum and if the UPF would be joining it.  Unlike the BBC reported, he did not rule out the UPF engaging with the Unionist Forum in the future.  He stated: ‘If the people want to meet the unionist forum we will, but only when the people say they want that.’  So, contrary to BBC reports, the UPF is open to the possibility of engaging with the Unionist Forum if those they represent wish to do so.

My personal opinion is that I hope this does happen.  The UPF, which formed shortly after the Unionist Forum was announced, must engage with the wider unionist community or risk alienating themselves and becoming irrelevant.  They claim their members are isolated from the political process.  This is their chance to be part of the political process.  They claim they want their voices heard.  This is their opportunity for their voice to be heard.  Although they position themselves as anti-power sharing and anti-Good Friday Agreement (GFA) they must find a way to represent their members as part of the political process.  The Unionist Forum is not about power sharing or supporting the GFA.  If the Traditional Unionist Voice, who take a similar position to the UPF regarding power sharing, can sent representatives to the Unionist Forum, then there is no reason why the UPF should not do the same.    The Unionist Forum will be more representative of grassroots unionism and loyalism for having them there.  If these protests have taught us anything it should be that we can not afford for anybody to be left behind.  Democracy is a richer process when everybody contributes.

Jamie Bryson will be doing a live webchat tomorrow.  For details click here.

His full statement to me regarding the Ulster People’s Forum is below:

‘The UPF is set up to provide the ordinary punter on the ground an opportunity to have their voices heard. A lot of the young people haven’t been involved in politics before and they view the Unionist forum as unrepresentative of them and feel further isolated. The UPF will attempt, through countrywide engagement, to build a consensus on the way forward. If the people want to meet the unionist forum we will, but only when the people say they want that. The protests are the property of the people and each and every man, woman and child must feel they have had a change to have their voices heard.’