I apologise to those readers who hate Twitter, but awful though it can be, it’s a fact of life and like all political journalists I have to read it.

Published: 15 February 2022

Last week’s highlights for me were not the usual entertainment of Shinnerbots spewing insults at anyone who utters the mildest criticism of any person or prejudice they hold dear (actually, there’s a lull at the moment because Mary Lou McDonald is doing a bit of making nice so the brakes are on), but unionist engagement.

First, there was the reaction to the announcement of another loyalist initiative and second, the public response to the Alliance attack on the UUP.

Let’s Talk Loyalism (the web version of this article will link to the website https://letstalkloyalism.co.uk), “an advocacy group which aims to articulate loyalist perspectives and initiate positive change for the loyalist community”, is seeking views on “education, the Northern Ireland protocol, policing, culture and identity, media, paramilitarism, politics and housing”.

It will invite public figures, politicians, and community groups to participate in its two-year Missing Peace Research Project and is “open for input from any person or group willing to make submissions online via email”.

As the loyalist Stacey Graham put it, “it is an attempt to not just diagnose some of the challenges loyalism faces today, but develop a collective idea and strategy about how best we can overcome them”.

There were some constructive responses, but others from the haters, eg.

“How much is a bag of coke these days lads?????”;

“In search of grants, hand outs, funding. £o¥@li$t$”;

and “Q1. Paramilitaries They kill taigs and sell drugs. Q2. Media tell people what we do. we don’t like it. Research finished.”

I recommend anyone nervous about the reaction if they are seen to help this project to read and share an article by Sam McIlwaine on ‘I am a loyalist’ (the web version of this article will link to it at https://letstalkloyalism.co.uk/i-am-a-loyalist-by-sam-mcilwaine).

Any people of goodwill want to see decent loyalists escape from thugs and criminals just as they want decent republicans to be free of the IRA/Sinn Féin sinister cult.

Now to Alliance Councillor Michael Long’s attitude to the Ulster Unionist Party’s engagement last Thursday with the wrong people: “Disappointing to see the UUP attending the anti-protocol rally. We need longterm solutions via negotiations. So much for pragmatic Unionism — back to ‘Ulster Says No’ tactics.”

What had upset him, he explained, was the attendance of deputy leader, MLA Robbie Butler, alongside panellists TUV leader Jim Allister, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib and ex-Labour MP and minister Baroness Hoey, who to Long are beyond the pale.

Butler, as he and Doug Beattie and many others then pointed out to Long, was also unionist and anti-protocol, but had a strategy of dialogue rather than confrontation.

Beattie: “Engaging on a key issue in an MLA’s constituency is important. Surely you can see that.”

Long: (Referring to Beattie’s attendance last June at an unnotified demonstration in his constituency, which, as Beattie had said at the time, was to listen to his constituents, not parade): “Bit like your, I was there comment re. Portadown. Want to appear hard line to hardliners. It has been the UUP way for as long as I remember. If you were in line with TUV, DUP and Kate Hoey, that is fine”.

Beattie: “Nice try Michael. Not interested in your attempts to smear good people like Robbie Butler.”

Long: ‘I don’t smear anyone. I’m highlighting your interestingly contrasting positions.”

Beattie: “Yes you did. You used a picture of Robbie, connected it to ‘Ulster says no’ in an attempt to smear him. I have no issue with you Michael but on this you are wrong.”

Long: “It looked like an Ulster Says no rally just.”

Beattie: “It was engagement in a major event in his constituency area. Unionists and most other people have issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol. Whether its name changes or not is irrelevant. The content is what’s important and the impact it has on Northern Ireland Protocol.”

North Down candidate UUP Naomi McBurney took off the gloves: “Robbie was right to attend and listen to the concerns. May I also be so bold as to suggest that perhaps an Alliance party rep should also have attended to engage with the ‘all’ that you are representing! Its tiresome, troubling & speaks volumes!”

Of the few hundred tweets I read since then (the vast majority of which supported Butler and Beattie), I choose a few.

“Unionists take note, the sneering Alliance Party having a melt down because a unionist elected rep engages with unionists.”

“A leading Sinn Féin member lectures unionists and others from the podium during a eulogy to IRA bombers who killed themselves: Alliance silent. SF’s youth wing eulogise a would-be murderer who tried to kill a council dog warden: Alliance silent. UUP attend a meeting…”

“Mrs Long went to Dublin as part of the Pan-Nationalist Front during the pandemic to call for rigorous implementation [of the protocol].”

“This is exactly the sort of tweet that will reaffirm the decision of many unionists who ‘loaned’ their vote to @allianceparty to call in that loan.”

I think Councillor Long has given quite a boost to the Beattie policy of ‘More engagement not less’.

I hope this can now extend to supporters of Let’s Talk Loyalism.

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