by Ed Walsh – Irish Socialist Network (first published in Resistance no. 8)

UVF: The Endgame (Poolbeg, 2008) by Jim Cusack & Henry McDonald

Jim Cusack and Henry McDonald are well placed to tell the story of the UVF, having spent decades building up contacts inside the loyalist scene. If you want to know what happened over the last forty years in the North, this is a very useful book. If you want to know why it happened you may need to take the authors’ political analysis with a pinch of salt.

The two writers are keen to downplay evidence of collusion between the British state and loyalist paramilitaries. While they acknowledge that members of the RUC and UDR gave assistance to the loyalist groups, the authors deny that collusion was systematic. Cusack and McDonald give us a stark choice – either the loyalist paramilitaries were sock-puppets of the British state, or else they must have been completely autonomous. But there’s another way of looking at things which is far more convincing: the UVF and the UDA may have a life of their own, but their effectiveness during the Troubles would have been limited if the state forces had dealt with them as they dealt with the Provos. The spectrum of collusion could range from active support (of which there was plenty) to helpful neglect.

The authors also stress their view that loyalist opposition to a united Ireland would have been strong enough to block its realisation, even if the London authorities had been keen to withdraw. There is no way of proving this claim right or wrong, since London never had any intention of withdrawing and was prepared to commit vast resources to contain and defeat the IRA. Again, Cusack and McDonald are trying to lead us back to the false notion that Britain was a neutral player in the conflict. That said there can be no question that the strength of unionist belief in the North (often intensified by IRA attacks on Protestant civilians) is the most important prop for what remains of British rule in Ireland.

At one point the authors accuse Sinn Fein of taking a Jesuitical approach to the consent principle. But you need a bit of mental gymnastics to pick your way around the issue of partition. In principle, it’s wrong to suggest that partition of Ireland has a democratic basis (it was imposed by the crudest form of military aggression and based on sectarian gerrymandering – the Northern state has a unionist majority because it was designed that way, just like the Serb Republic in Bosnia or the Turkish enclave in northern Cyprus). In practice, however, its hard to imagine an end to partition before a large number of Ulster Protestants are convinced they have nothing to fear if British rule ends.

Some left-wingers would rather kick the national question into touch and concentrate on other matters. The experience of the UVF itself suggests why this approach is likely to founder. Cusack and McDonald describe the post-ceasefire attempt to build a working-class unionist force with a progressive line on social and economic issues that was spearheaded by David Ervine and Gusty Spence. They don’t spend much time, however, asking why that attempt failed. The majority of working-class Protestants have continued to vote for the DUP, despite its right-wing economic policies, while the Progressive Unionist Party {linked to the UVF} has failed.

The authors note that Ervine, Spence and Billy Hutchison never convinced the UVF rank-and-file to adopt their left-of-centre agenda. But talk of socialism and class politics was hardly going to blend with loyalty to a capitalist, imperialist state and its institutions. The British Labour Party has always been crippled by its submission to a political order shaped by ruling class interests. The PUP’s support for British nationalism is an even greater hindrance to any progressive ideas its leaders may have wanted to advance. You can cheer the troops returning home from the colonial occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, as so many Protestant workers did before Christmas – but ultimately you are cheering a system that inflicts 40% unemployment on the people of West Belfast, regardless of their communal identity