Review of Tony Novosel’s book on Ulster Loyalism

Here’s my review of Tony Novosel’s excellent Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, which was published by Pluto Press in 2013. The review originally appeared in Political Studies Review in September 2014:

“‘Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity’ takes its readers on a journey into the soul of Protestant paramilitary politics in the 1970s and 1980s. It is written by an American historian who has been studying the Ulster ‘troubles’ and peace process for many years. The book is an important contribution to the study of Northern Ireland because of the ‘frustrated promise’ of the progressive politics it details within a community closely aligned to the Ulster Volunteer Force and Red Hand Commando, two illegal terrorist groups that between them killed over 500 people between 1966 and 2010. Dr Novosel argues that loyalist attempts to find a way out of the Ulster killing fields, prior to the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, represent a ‘lost opportunity’.

Dr Novosel has performed an invaluable service for scholarship on Ulster loyalism precisely because he has challenged the weaknesses of glib criticism found in the otherwise invaluable work of Steve Bruce and Jennifer Todd that loyalists were ‘incapable’ of thinking politically (pp. 5-6). Indeed, this kind of caricaturing is echoed in the work of other established academics and has done little to deepen our appreciation of Irish politics or terrorism. Exploiting an impressive ensemble cast of interviewees and under-utilised documents, Dr Novosel disputes the empirically unreliable interpretation of loyalism as anything other than thuggish sectarianism. He argues, convincingly, that it is not true that loyalists never attempted to put their political thoughts into action. As he states in relation to the Progressive Unionist Party document Sharing Responsibility (1985), ‘if accepted as the basis for discussion and negotiation [it] would have accomplished what the GFA did twelve years later and in the process saved many lives’ (p. 195). Dr Novosel has shown conclusively how loyalism has much more nuance and complexity to it than is often admitted.

Dr Novosel’s book is also important for other reasons, including, vitally, by its challenge to loyalists themselves to plough their own fertile history for more positive political episodes. That public meetings have been held in Protestant working class areas, including the Shankill Road, to discuss ‘Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity’ is perhaps testament to how well the book has been received by the very people Dr Novosel has written about.

In sum, ‘Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity’ presents us with an alternative history of the origins of the peace process and the role of loyalists within it. It should be compulsory reading for scholars and students precisely because it overturns old shibboleths about Ulster loyalism and challenges us to think more seriously and imaginatively about politics in this deeply divided society.”

You can purchase a copy of Tony’s book via this link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Northern-Irelands-Lost-Opportunity-Frustrated/dp/0745333095

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About aaronedwards2012

Historian, Writer, Academic. Views all my own.
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