John Kyle – Belfast City councillor, well known East Belfast GP and evangelical Christian – addressed a large crowd at Contemporary Christianity last Tuesday evening. The strapline for his thirty minute address was
“Where Faith and Loyalism Collide”
He explained how he joined the Progressive Unionist Party in 2000 “to support David Ervine”, a man who he found to be “refreshingly honest, progressive, thoughtful and self critical”.
He went on to describe the social and economic disadvantage in “working class unionist” communities who view themselves as being “loyalist”, and gave examples of the pessimism and even fatalism that can characterise many loyalist communities. Commenting on the mental health issues in loyalist areas, he explained:
“Belfast has the unenviable notoriety of having the highest prescription of anti-depressants of any comparable city in Western Europe.”
He turned to the media portrayal of a loyalist: “muscled, perma-tanned, tattooed, gold-necklaced, numerous ringed, male, with a pit bull terrier and a tight t-shirt”.
“They say that in Long Kesh while the republican prisoners took university courses, the loyalist prisoners went down to the gym. In actual fact, more loyalist prisoners left Long Kesh with university degrees than republican prisoners did.”
Despite his impression that most loyalists have little church involvement, John Kyle gave some examples of how local churches have positively engaged in loyalist communities and found respect.
Later in his short talk, he looked at some of the main problems experienced by loyalist communities – unemployment, educational failure, health and the persistence of paramilitary organisation (and he listed out some of the reasons they endure).
The spirited Q&A session after John’s talk wasn’t recorded.
Talking to John Kyle afterwards I asked him if he described himself as a loyalist?
“I wouldn’t use that terminology. I would view myself as a Christian who is actively involved in politics, I’m in a party that has policies that I want to support and promote and it gives me an opportunity to contribute to the political debate about issues I feel are vitally important to the future of Northern Ireland.”
Having not set out to be a politician, and given the bumpy road of the party, why stay with the PUP?
“I think there is still a job to be done there. I think that the political project that the PUP is not complete yet. I think the conflict transformation is not yet complete. I think that the problems that face working class communities are still there and are as difficult and as prevalent as ever. And I think there is a job to be done to bring about a greater sense of community well-being and community renewal. I still see the PUP as a viable vehicle to try and achieve that and so I am still happy to work with it. I think it is important to be clear about what behaviour you think is acceptable and what behaviour you think is unacceptable, and not to try to justify things that cannot be justified, or to excuse things that are inexcusable. But having said that I think that the political project that is the PUP still has life in it and I want to work with it until we see further gains.”
Could John Kyle see a time when he would step back from the party?
“I suppose politics is an never-ending story. There will always be issues, and difficulties that communities and countries face. While I have opportunity to contribute now at a local government level, I am very keen to do that. I’ve no doubt that at some stage this phase will pass and I’ll move on and do something else. But I think I’ve an opportunity to contribute now and I want to take that opportunity.”
Do you think the main denominations have dropped the ball and let down – or even abandoned – loyalist communities at times?
“I think that there has been a disconnect between the main church institutions and loyalist communities. I think that there are many committed Christians who are making a very important, valuable contribution to loyalist communities. I think there are churches that are there working away effectively and diligently and faithfully. But I think that for many folks in those working class communities, they don’t really see the relevance of the church and they don’t view it as something that has very much to say to them.”
Should the church try harder? Should there be a hundred John Kyles?
“Oh no, God forbid! I think it is clear that there is huge need in the world, and our commission [as Christians] is to preach good news to the poor. I think that it’s important that we should be continually engaged wherever there are issues, wherever there is need, wherever there is injustice, wherever there are problems and people struggling with really significant socioeconomic and personal difficulties. I think the church needs to roll up its sleeves and be involved there.”
I note in passing that the Presbyterian Church’s Good Relations Conference in February is picking up this theme. Describing “peacemaking” as “not so much about ‘ecumenical’ matters as it is an outworking of Christian discipleship in relating to others around us within our diverse society”, they are offering delegates from Presbyterian congregations seminars on building better relationships with Loyalist communities, ethnic minorities, people from different religious backgrounds, and those from other political backgrounds.
Billy Hutchinson took over as PUP leader at their October conference, but was gone quiet since. John Kyle explained what the party was up to:
“The party is very active. We’re restructuring. We’re looking at our policies. We’re debating and discussing what we view are the crucial political issues of the day. And I think we would hope that when the next round of elections comes round we’ll have something constructive and fresh to contribute …
The way that our political institutions are set up, any party which doesn’t have an MLA or an MP doesn’t get funding and therefore when there’s no funding it does mean that life is challenging as a party. We have a significant number of volunteers, but we can’t employ the staff that other political parties can to develop their strategy and do their work.”
At their conference, a presentation on ACT (Action for Community Transformation) explained the UVF’s change process that had so far involved 1,400 members.
“I think that’s a very active programme. The goal is to see UVF members making valuable contributions to their community and I fully support that, and it is work in progress.”