Unionists are notoriously divided on almost every issue under the sun and finding common ground is an extremely difficult task, however, online abuse directed towards Unionists is one rare example of almost unanimous Unionist unity. For my last article, I outlined an overview of the issues that Unionists faced online concerning abuse, harassment, and generally criminal behaviour, for this article, I wanted to explore further those who were targeted, the trends, trigger points, and the impacts of online abuse. I have in the past been critical of aspects of Unionism and undoubtedly such criticism will occur in the future, but as someone who wants to see internal change including the need for more women, new faces, and younger people to get involved in Unionism, it would be extremely hypocritical and utterly pointless for me to ignore a key reason as to why many are opting out namely online abuse.
For this article I gathered approximately 50 testimonies from Unionists across all shades and backgrounds and in doing so I began to understand some key trends that drove the abuse and what the trigger points were. Overwhelmingly Unionists felt that the online targeting was both deliberate and targeted and almost exclusively it happened without any repercussions. Six Unionists within the testimonies reported that they were involved in a live police investigation relating to online abuse (some details have been removed due to ongoing investigations) and the general feeling was that the cases would be dismissed with a requirement to pursue an expensive libel case which was unaffordable for all of the Unionists in question. Unionists that I spoke with reported a significant degree of harassment and diatribe aimed at them and I found that there were four main categories of Unionists when it came to abuse:
Group 1 Unionists – This comprised of Unionists who took a strong position on most points around the Union, it would include Loyalists and was overwhelmingly working class. This group could discuss the weather and would generally receive a range of abuse completely unrelating to the topic.
Group 2 Unionists – This included women, younger Unionists, and new faces to Unionism who expressed pro-Union positions online. This group could expect sustained and targeted online abuse often sexualised and predatory in nature.
Group 3 Unionists – This comprised of Unionists who took a traditional but sometimes more pragmatic position on most things around the Union, it would be interspersed with periodic internal criticism. This group reported that the abuse was constant but on subjects around the Union, it increased.
Group 4 Unionists – Mostly middle-class Unionists who took a more self-critical approach to Unionism and frequently included Unionists on a constitutional journey. This group generally reported an easier online experience until they started making pro-Union statements etc, at which point tropes like “the mask has slipped” were common along with a range of derogatory slurs.
The main trigger points for Unionists incurring abuse were:
- Criticism of Sinn Féin
- Criticism of the IRA
- Taking a pro-Union position
- Support for Loyal Order and bands
- Criticism of the Protocol
- Support for the DUP
- Criticising the Irish government
- Rebutting a pro-Nationalist point
- Criticism of statements from a Nationalist politician or commentator
- Flagging inconsistencies from pro-Unity groups
- Expressing concerns about a United Ireland
Many Unionists have flagged that on points 1, 2, 4, and 6 the backlash is so sustained and abusive that they generally stay away from such subjects. Interestingly on point 6, several Unionists reported that online they masquerade as an Alliance voter to reduce the levels of abuse they receive.
The general feedback amongst all Unionists was that they were happy for Unionist positions and Unionist individuals being fairly challenged on any given subject, it was the unmitigated onslaught of diatribes that was the problem. Anonymous troll accounts were flagged as a significant issue, especially those buoyed on by a large enthusiastic audience, however, there were numerous accounts of how high-profile journalists/independent journalists, people in academia, people in media, politicians, commentators, and various other professionals had encouraged and indeed platformed the trolling and abuse that would multiply once traction was gained online. There was a general dismay at how little was being done to both highlight and address the abuse Unionists receive as well as nothing being done to hold those to account who were distributing it. The police were flagged as ineffective and there was criticism of the DUP and UUP, however, members of both parties were as much the victims of abuse as those individuals who were not in a political party, both parties were also offering support to Unionists who were the victims of online abuse.
Some Unionists flagged Jamie Bryson’s name, including several who had engaged in online arguments with him. There was a concern that much of the abuse directed at him was not related to his politics but was personal and steeped with classism, with putdowns such as “Bin lid” etc. being a regular retort. Unionists noted that when a tweet of theirs was shared by Jamie Bryson they would find the abuse directed at them accelerated. Whilst Jamie Bryson did elicit a degree of sympathy from many, there was also a desire to see him engage in a more conciliatory, thoughtful, fact-based, and consistent manner online.
There was an overwhelming desire from Unionists to present a much more positive message online and to better protect Unionists who were the victims of online abuse. Unionists in general wanted to continue seeing a robust and fair exchange of views between Unionists online but were exhausted at some of the “blue on blue” attacks which many felt were counterintuitive.
Unionists consistently flagged that there were a small number of Unionist and Loyalist accounts online that were both problematic and undermining the Unionist case. Many had pointed out that they had challenged such accounts in the past resulting in several being removed but there was a feeling that such actions were not reciprocated when it came to the vast number of Nationalist and Republican troll accounts that had gained high volumes of traffic. Troll accounts such as “Loyalist Lloyd” were mentioned which Unionists outlined was regularly engaged in low-level sectarianism, this account was not only not challenged on this but was cheered on by some high-profile figures in public life including journalists.
There was generally a feeling of disrespect shown to Unionists with accounts regularly seeking to humiliate, disrespect, and dehumanise Unionists online aided sometimes by those in the media. There was a theme of frustration about abuse directed towards Jeffrey Donaldson, Unionists who didn’t support the DUP felt that as the leader of Unionism, he should at a minimum be free from abuse of a personal and defamatory nature. There were multiple examples of Jeffrey Donaldson being trolled but several people flagged a dubious article in a Sunday newspaper about how he was not being invited as DUP leader to the King’s Coronation because of the collapse of Stormont. The result was two days of extensive trolling which was aided by several high-profile individuals, the trolling continued long after the story had been debunked and was generally personal and venomous.
When I reached out to Jeffrey Donaldson, he was unambiguous about the experiences of Unionists online:
“There is much talk these days about the end to the conflict in Northern Ireland but for some, the sectarian intimidation and threats that were an inherent element of that conflict have continued in the form of online abuse on social media platforms such as X and Facebook. As a Party Leader, I have encountered countless incidents in which our elected representatives, members, and supporters have been subjected to horrendous sectarian abuse that is often vile in nature and threatening in content. This is especially the case but not exclusively for our female representatives whom brave republican trolls seem to regard as soft targets for such abuse. Sectarian ‘pile-ons’ on social media have become the new form of attack and can have very significant and detrimental impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of their targets.
But it isn’t just the cowardly trolls who often skulk behind ridiculous nom de plumes that are responsible for this abusive behaviour. Some well-known and respected figures within nationalism tend to take an approach in their online content which is gratuitously offensive to the vast majority of unionists. They have a right to express their opinions on the widest range of issues but there is no need for the kind of toxic language often used which sets a dreadful example for others who then think this is acceptable behaviour. It is sectarianism bordering on hatred and it is no way to build a shared future in Northern Ireland, never mind on this island and across these islands.
Then there is the Sinn Fein social media machine that is funded by their rich pickings in the States and elsewhere, designed to reinforce their drive for domination and directed by some kind of mystery organisation based in Serbia of all places. When a unionist makes a comment or post on social media, especially one critical of Sinn Fein, you can see all the ‘Shinnerbots’ rolled out by this machine to go on the attack with their blatantly offensive and sectarian observations, often of a very personal and hurtful nature. It is thought that some of the ‘Shinnerati’ can be operating well in excess of 10 fake accounts each on social media.
This is not just an issue for unionists though. Sinn Fein also targets their electoral opponents in the Republic of Ireland, with Shinnerbots often making abusive and misleading comments on social media directed against Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and other elected representatives in the south. Consequently, there ought to be a common cause for those of us who believe that peace is not just the absence of violence but the end of abusive and sectarian attitudes and behaviours that harm individuals and damage relationships to the extent that it sets back the prospect of societal reconciliation in Northern Ireland by years. We should not stand for this.”
Doug Beattie leader of the UUP had the following comments on the subject of online abuse:
“Social media can be a source for great good. It can help connect people, promote good causes, and ensure information is disseminated at speed and in a targeted way. Social media can also be a toxic cesspit where extremism can flourish. It is obvious that valid opinions, shared by those from a unionist, loyalist, or pro-union background, are pounced upon by those who wish to force those people and their opinions off social media. The attacks lack substance and rarely engage the points being made, but instead focus on appearance, community, or other unrelated issues. They feel organised and come from anonymous accounts who feel a sense of power attacking young unionists or young females. It creates a negative atmosphere where individuals do not feel at ease sharing their thoughts or opinions. Of course, unionists, loyalists, and pro-union accounts are not the only groups to feel this negativity, nor are they blameless in some cases. Indeed, having open discussions and opinions as a moderate unionist will normally be attacked by equally vile accounts with a pro-union stamp. I know this from personal experience. Within unionism, it is important to have the ability to have discussions and opposing opinions. This should be done respectfully. Likewise, unionist opinions should be open to challenge from those who disagree; as an open society, no opinions should have free passage. Yet those vile and vulgar anonymous accounts that troll social media will always be there. They are small-minded, weak people trying to exert power and feel powerful. They are best ignored.”
A name that was continually mentioned concerning online abuse against Unionists was that of former DUP leader, Arlene Foster:
“Goodness where do I start. To be honest I rarely look at responses now as they are in the main vile. Apart from the threats and attacks on my personal appearance (really a man, is there an uglier person alive etc) the delegitimising of my British identity is common. I do believe that women who are unionists come in for much more bile than our male colleagues. I am the wrong type of woman in politics for the world of social media – if I was a republican, liberal it would be a different story.”
Arlene Foster stated that it was difficult getting people involved with Unionism due to the abuse she received, however, Deborah Erskine was one person influenced by Arlene Foster and is now a DUP MLA. When I contacted Deborah, a trend was starting to become apparent:
“In recent months I have noticed the levels of sectarianism that I see on my Facebook page have increased. In part, I believe that is down to the commentary that exists from Nationalism / Republicanism in our mainstream media. Articles from household names such as Brian Feeney and Joe Brolly with their vile slurs shared on social media, newspapers, or on TV are accepted, and people then believe it is ok to go further. Cancel culture certainly hasn’t affected nationalism or Republicanism. I do not believe for one second that if Alex Kane or Ben Lowry came out with the same drivel they’d continue to get regular slots as commentators. In fact, recently, Ben was mocked on social media for becoming passionate on the radio and TV about Unionist ideologies. I’m concerned by the caricature of Unionism as a whole. Stories of Unionism highlighting a problem are always met with the headline of “Unionist fury” and that goes for mundane issues. Yet I noticed that isn’t the same when Nationalism / Republicanism has a concern. Therefore, there is very much a feeling that Unionism says no at every opportunity and we are open to scorn. As someone that speaks to young people quite a lot, that comes up in conversation – the characterisation of Unionism. Phrases from young people such as “I’m a unionist but I keep my head down on social media because you get attacked or abused.” Unionism is a broad church, much broader than Nationalism. Therefore, on social media, those from the opposing side can’t comprehend that Unionism can think differently on a range of matters. The Unionist Unity Network that you may have seen and engaged with on Twitter. They were literally set up to combat the narrative that exists on social media.
They were annoyed that there wasn’t the same “army” of people from a Unionist perspective hitting out at misinformation or putting the Unionist perspective forward. Those guys have got a serious amount of social media abuse. They need to be encouraged at all costs. Young people can’t be what they can’t see. The challenge of viewpoints and an opportunity to help people think differently about Unionism must be put across. This leads me to my next point – when Sinn Fein reps or Republican/nationalists tweet on social media their narrative is shared. Albeit despite the fact they may disagree internally. That doesn’t happen to the same extent in Unionism. We are very keen to debate with each other. Nationalists / Republicans have a cause. Unionists can’t make up their minds at times about what battle they are fighting. Therefore, it always seems like there are legions of abuse online from one section. I’ve had everything including commentary about how I look. If I wasn’t in this job, I probably wouldn’t be on social media. For many the abuse has become too much. Faceless accounts of which there is no accountability can really play on some people and I’ve seen this first hand with colleagues I work with or indeed Unionists I speak to. I continue to manage my own social media as I cannot subject my staff to some of the stuff that goes on. I know what that was like when I worked for Arlene Foster. Honestly, I believe it is a tactic to silence people. If I had a pound for every time I have asked people to stand for election and won’t because they couldn’t withstand the social media abuse they see, I would be very rich! It’s a major problem in getting female Unionists to stand for election. It’s a sad reflection of society today that people cannot give back to their community because of social media. Which 10 years ago wouldn’t have been a consideration for people going forward for election.”
Debrorah Erskine is one of a number of Unionist politicians connecting with and mentoring younger Unionists, two others continually mentioned to me were Peter Martin from the DUP and Robbie Butler from the UUP, this is what they had to say:
“I am really encouraged by the younger Unionists coming along, I have been working with many including those from the UYN and they’re a great bunch of individuals. It is difficult to ignore the deliberate targeting of both them and female Unionists, not to mention the rest of us. Its orchestrated and we have to make sure those Unionists on the receiving end of it are protected. My daughter was recently targeted by an online troll for the crime of putting up election posters with me, she really enjoys politics and comes along with me to numerous events. It’s a step too far when trolls target your family and threaten to report you to social services.” Peter Martin DUP Councillor
“When I entered the political sphere, and more particularly the NI Assembly, in 2016 it was patently obvious to me and many others that when engaging with young people’s groups that young Unionists more than any other cohort tended to say less and contribute to a smaller degree. As the UUPs children and young people’s spokesperson I have been perplexed by this conundrum and have came up with a number of possible explanations. Lack of political role models in Unionism has been suggested, failure to mentor and promote young people has been another but what I can see manifesting over the past few years is actually more insidious and potentially dangerous. I and many like me have been assisting and promoting young Unionists to be more confident in their identity, to value their person and values and to be courageous in sharing and convincing others of the vision and future for Northern Irish Unionism.
However, the evident and visible assault particularly by troll accounts, on social media, on young people and young Unionists in particular, is something which cannot be ignored nor allowed to develop. Twitter in particular is a vulnerable space for young people. It is used by most of the main stream media outlets like the BBC, UTV and print media to gather information, and therefore most of us use the platform to promote or debate our points. Sadly, the trolls are almost being outdone in their ridicule of Unionism, the wider Ulster Scots identity, and by extension our young Unionists, by regular disparaging contributions from people from purported professional backgrounds. These are often supplemented by un-elected and un-recognised commentators who’s aim seems to be to undermine and create division. Whilst age and experience equips most of us with the ability to shrug these myopic comments and statements of, the same cannot be said for young people entering the arena. It is not enough to say that this is how it has always been, our young people are worth way more than what we grew up with. Its not our children we need to see grow up, but actually some who already should have done the same.” Robbie Butler, UUP Deputy Leader
A number of members from the UYN reached out to me to make the following statements:
“Unfortunately, the harshness of politics, especially in this part of the world, means many will resort to turning a blind eye in order to further their cause. One less unionist espousing their views is a good thing for them in the long run. Brian Feeny feeds into this, with his articles essentially being a regurgitation of the same points that only serves to add fuel to the fire. Additionally, Ireland’s Future was willing to platform a ‘cultural Unionist’, until some of their most disturbing and downright hateful comments were brought to light. It’s a dirty game, and with social media having the ability to really impact young people’s perspectives on politics, they are willing to use any tool in the book to win.” Matthew Shanks
“The extent of online abuse directed toward unionists online is utterly deplorable. To any other group, it would be wholly inconceivable, yet an exception is made in this case, that Unionists must have their views ‘challenged’. This, I entirely agree with. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences, and thus we must expect to engage in civil, rational debate. However, the abuse is simply vitriol; it is malicious and intended to hurt Unionists, not challenge their views. On a personal level, people have attempted to use the way I dress as a way of invalidating my political beliefs, as though it makes my opinions somehow inferior, or even wrong! The calculated vulgarity of their antics is precisely what makes the abuse all the more insidious. I warmly welcome those who seek to engage in decorous debate, grounded in facts and civility. I repudiate entirely those who wish to demean me for the way I present myself, and they really ought to know that it is more so an insightful reflection upon their character, than it is an attack against Unionists.” Jack Steele
“The best way I can describe it would be. When I put out a tweet, a tweet that is positive in nature. Something I’m proud that I’ve done like the interview with the BBC. Instead of being met with admiration, it was met with disgusting tropes of which sexual in nature. Thankfully, the big names saw this like Arlene Foster, Jeffery Donaldson, and Doug Beattie. However, this happens no matter what I post. Whether I’m critical or positives. 99% of the time, the comments are filled with personal attacks rather than constructive criticism. The reality is, if unionism was to display such vile nastiness on Republicans Twitter, it would be front page news. The media reality we live in dies not stans up for unionism. Zak Taylor-Clarke
“I do feel as if us unionists face significant hate on platforms like Twitter, enduring comments targeting our appearance, bodies, and facing verbal attacks for our opinions. There’s a trend of homophobia directed at certain gay Unionists, despite their alignment with parties advocating for gay rights like Sinn Fein/Alliance. Recently a prominent known troll of a more senior age sent inappropriate comments about UYN members’ sexual orientation, along with deleted remarks about a unionist needing to be “laid” and a crude comment about a teen’s intimate life. There has been a noticeable surge in the acceptance of words like “planter,” “bigot,” and “colonialist,” which is concerning as their usage seems to be increasingly normalised despite their derogatory and divisive nature. Especially words they would use towards Jay Basra to do with his origins whereby they call him a “turncoat.” Chelsea Munn
I don’t think my experiences are terribly dissimilar from others but I’ve received strangely sexualised and harassing messages at times. Coming from presumably older men against myself and others in the UYN. Ryan Stanage
Jay Basra’s testimony can be found in my previous article.
Young elected Unionists were also a prime target:
“I tend to lock my account to prevent the abuse and trolling, which of course I shouldn’t have to do but it really is a sewer. Joe Brolly and Brian Feeney almost provide permission to abuse those from the Unionist tradition, a carefully crafted strategy to denigrate Unionists to exacerbate our electoral decline – aided and abetted by a silent mainstream media. Of course, Unionism/Loyalism don’t help ourselves at times, but the abuse levelled at anyone who dares articulate a Unionist position on X is shocking. I do genuinely believe that the abuse is a coordinated and deliberate attempt to silence dehumanise and denigrate any semblance of the Unionist position and culture and has, perhaps, worked in accelerating our electoral decline and the rise of Alliance. Again, we don’t help ourselves at times, but in what other society is it permissible to elect those who eulogise innocent murder, yet in much of the media’s eyes, it’s the Unionists who are always at fault.” Stephen Hollywood UUP Councillor
There is a very hostile and aggressive attitude towards any Unionist on social media – whether that be an elected representative or not. Unfortunately, there is no understanding or appreciation of the position of Unionism and too often the criticism is based on very personal attacks or simply name calling. Too often I have seen replies to a Unionist being along the lines of ‘bigot’ or ‘dinosaur’. Aaron Callen DUP Councillor
One Unionist who is very open about his battles against online trolls is Richard Garland.
“Like many Unionists, I have been subject to a campaign of abuse on social media that has now lasted for as long as I can remember. The abuse I face is derogatory and psychological in nature. It is designed to hurt me and to undermine my confidence and self-esteem. In the words of Malachi O’Doherty, the underlying objective is to make people like me “tire of social media, to feel that it is always going to be a disheartening, uphill struggle”. I wrote about the topic for the Belfast Newsletter in 2020. The crux of my argument was this: how can we persuade young Unionists to speak out in support of their community when they see nearly any other unionist who speaks out being treated in this same manner, no matter how moderate and reasonable their opinions? My confidence had been thriving at this point. The article did exceptionally well. I was invited on to Nolan and Talkback to discuss the issue. I couldn’t have been happier. Unfortunately, I faced yet another onslaught, one high profile individual who I looked up to even legitimised the abuse, attempting to suggest that I was making this up and that the abuse I received was legitimate criticism of my political opinions, and that I was turning myself into a victim. I had written the article in an attempt to stop others being subjected to the same treatment.
I am not sure how anyone decided that abuse aimed at my appearance, my family, my character and smears about my personal life were legitimate criticism, but for me that was breaking point. I don’t know why it upset me so much but it did. Perhaps I was vulnerable due to a history of issues around mental health that I have struggled with for a long time. Or perhaps it was just that the abuse was so unrelenting and psychological that many in the same position would have been affected in the same manner no matter how often they make claims to the contrary. I broke down and I was forced to telephone both shows to cancel my appearance. I knew that if I spoke about it, I would have burst into tears at the very least. That was something that I wasn’t prepared to do on a public forum. That was the end of that. At a time when I was beginning to be offered more opportunities, I had alienated myself from two well-known radio shows and I haven’t been invited back, except ironically to discuss a death threat I received from an anonymous individual in my own community last year. People don’t realise how bad things can get until they have experienced this for themselves. Everyone has their advice on how to deal with this issue, ranging from the patronising advice to ignore it and hope it goes away, to telling us to “man up“ and “have a thicker skin.” The reality is that nothing works when people are this dedicated to making your life a living hell. These people are bullies. There are no depths to which they won’t stoop to defame my character and to undermine my arguments. My mental health is as expendable as my reputation. I recently took a break from politics and social media because it was having a bigger impact than it had for some time, and even though politics is my biggest passion in life I nearly didn’t come back.
That wasn’t the first time I didn’t nearly come back. On at least one previous occasion I felt that I couldn’t continue with my life. That is so hard for me to even admit, let alone publish on a public platform, but I will say it for the sake of others. Particularly for the young people out there who deserve to be supported like anyone else out there who is facing the same issues. I have said before and I will say again that politics needs to be open to people from all backgrounds, including those who are vulnerable for mental health reasons. I am willing to play my part and to call this out wherever I see it. Nobody is saying this is all “one-way”. This is just one serious aspect of a wider problem that needs to be addressed. When I see the derogatory and dehumanising abuse aimed at women like Stacey Graham and Carla Lockhart, I am aware that things could be a lot worse. This problem won’t change until political parties start showing leadership on this; until politicians start challenging their own supporters in their own comments and replies, and telling them directly that they aren’t wanted. One public statement isn’t going to cut it. We need to do better.”
A number of people flagged the abuse directed specifically at Loyalists, John Kyle from the UUP made the following points:
“The abuse suffered by young Loyalist women is, in my view, quite unacceptable, and often vindictive and cruel. There is an onus on all of us to stand against it.”
Two Loyalists women outlined their own personal experiences:
“For me having only stepped into the political pool just over two years ago, the more I perverse through with my community, charity and political work the more the abuse grows. Previous to this I’d had debating conversations online but not that you could say was abusive or demeaning. My first incident I can remember was during the recent Assembly election, a photo of me canvassing a comment was made and it spiral. Someone had said the party was using me as a honeytrap for voters. Some thought this was funny and at first I had a laugh about it, but as time grew the negativity of this comment surfaced. My value was being disintegrated as if the only thing I brought to the table was a female body for people to ogle at. Shortly after that I challenged a cartoon that featured in the Irish times and when posting a photo that day the vitriol hate towards me showed it’s true face. Yet again the content is shared was not picked about, it was my body. I know that all Unionists who are targeted online receive a barrage of hate but I find women seemed to be targeted more often and on a personal level. For me no matter how personal it gets it won’t detract from the work I do or me putting myself out there because for every attack there has been multiple others who have walked away and a good strong voice has been lost.” Rosemary Bell-McCracken
Fellow Loyalist, Stacey Graham’s account can be found in my previous article.
Loyalist men were also singled out for abuse, a number of people I spoke with felt there was a class issue at play as well as low level sectarianism. Moore Holmes recounted the following:
“In one case of mine, a frequent agitator who regularly posted personal attacks on my social media, posted a picture of my daughter’s (I was not even in the picture.) She tagged social services in the post alleging I was not fit to be a father and should have my children taken from me. The attack had little impact on me, but the same could not be said of my partner. She became upset, angered and confused. She could not believe a total stranger had retrieved images of our children and was now spreading them online. This is just one example of many that people from a Unionist background have had to endure.”
Unionists on journeys reaching the “wrong” conclusion endured a unique form of abuse and it was a theme several recounted to me:
“My whole conscious life I’ve been aware of the slogans “Brits Out!”, and “you took our land!” Then one day as I was listening to Misha Glenny on BBC Radio 4, specifically to the series ‘The Invention of Brazil’. The Brazilian academic Dr Luciana Martins of Birbeck College recounted that many young Brazilians wish they were colonised by the British, and not Portuguese. To hear this was remarkable. I shared this factual statement one night before going to bed. I made one small mistake of saying that Brazil was colonised by the Spanish, as opposed to the Portuguese. The level of hatred I woke up to was truly alarming. From anonymous Republicans trolls to a well-known Republican film-maker – each and every one apoplectic with rage and venom. All because I shared a factual statement (with a typo) from a Brazilian academic. The personal attacks of “false consciousness” and mindless colonist were truly jolting. To experience this after I had spent a few years openly and loudly criticising unionism – which was feted and cheered by republicans – was doubly jolting. More recently I shared another fact which triggered absurd levels of fury and mockery. For weeks and months I was unable to buy glue from a massive hardware supplier that has huge warehouses dotted across the UK.
Surely anyone with a brain would wonder why the leading hardware chain in the UK doesn’t supply the most basic of hardware supplies for weeks and months, and would think something is up. I shared this anecdote, plus that a member of staff who stated it was something to do with Brexit, plus the qualification of “it would seem”, to make sure I was saying nothing categorical. This single tweet about an artist unable to acquire glue for weeks and months then triggered a week and more of flat-out mockery and hatred. It was truly bewildering. A friend told me when the trolls first came for me; they don’t want confident and articulate unionists to speak. They want the caricature so they can pigeonhole and demonise unionism. I could not agree more. Fortunately, I’m self-employed and am largely immune from professional repercussion. That said, as illustrated by the most innocuous of requests, I was flat out denied by every Sinn Fein councillor in Belfast from painting (in the style of William Conor) council proceedings in the chamber. So, I have good reason to believe that I have lost business. But principles and values mean more than money.” Brian John-Spencer
I was intrigued by your previous article as I had a similar experience with Ireland’s Future. I was on a journey and somehow, I liked-up with several unity groups. They knew I was critical of unionism and opposed the orange order so they courted me, before and during Covid my online experience was great and I was popular. Then I criticised Sinn Fein, possibly twice on breaking the Covid restrictions to attend Bobby Storey’s funeral. I received a private message from an Ireland Future member to say “some” in the group were uncomfortable with my messages and to stop. I was shocked, I didn’t realise that only certain views were allowed.
I can’t describe my feelings then, it was like I realised I was in a cult. Most shunned me and quietly unfollowed me, negative tweets about me were liked by a few members. Undoubtedly there are good people in IF and other assorted groups but some are not. I then noticed that despite what Sinn Fein did nobody from the group would criticise them but they pounced on any transgression from within Unionism. I think there’s a lot of fear there, I now look at things differently. Independent journalists such as Amanda Ferguson who chairs many these groups which is a conflict of interest highlighted by the fact she never challenges Sinn Fein on anything. Although far from the only “journalist” guilty of this. I also supported the Alliance party but they seem inherently afraid of Sinn Fein too and seem obsessed with the DUP and unionism. David Honeyford’s comments on unionism are appalling, some of which are still on his account and I was shocked at several sweeping statements from Michael Long via social media on both Unionism and Bloody Friday, this simply would not have been accepted against Nationalists and I suspect both would had to resign if they did express such anti-Nationalist views. Anonymous Unionist who has finished with social media.
Away from the world of social media, other platforms such as Reddit and Slugger were flagged as problematic, with almost no footfalls from Unionists on them, Ian Clarke and Simon Riley shared their experiences:
“A small number of people on platforms like Slugger go out of their way to prevent serious engagement by unionists and in so doing make the platforms repetitive and pointless. For example, the constant need to harp back to the pre 1969 situation here as if those of us who weren’t alive then are somehow expected to accept blame and make atonement for that era. Republican “commentators” on all our media here are free to strongly advocate Republican causes, and to articulate very cliched and exaggerated versions of the flaws in Unionists/Protestants, often in the most strident and cliched terms, most of those who are promoted as “unionist commentators” almost solely comment about what is wrong with unionists. It’s as if they are not prepared to take the abuse and vilification that goes with speaking up for unionism. Instead, they are happy to be patronised and trivialised in the “why can’t you be more like….” responses to others. So, its left to balanced commentators from a CNR background to criticise the worst excesses of nationalism and praise or at least show understanding to unionists when its due. Ian Clarke, Unionist Commentator
“I am frequently subjected to sectarian abuse online in many forms: from being told I’m a “Planter” or “invader”, to being told I’m not British (very common) to being subjected to justifications of the IRA campaign against us and the blaming of Ulster British victims, collective blaming of Ulster British people for the Troubles, being told we have “no culture” and so on. What is very clear is that some nationalists seem to regard parity of esteem as something that only applies one way: that it is perfectly acceptable to say or imply that PULs don’t have a culture worth respecting, are deluded about their nationality, or don’t really belong. These things are regarded as fair comment in some quite mainstream nationalist circles, it seems, rather than called out for the sectarian nonsense it is. It feels to me like it’s got worse too. I have posting on Slugger since 2009 and have noticed a marked coarsening of nationalist rhetoric; at the same time, a nasty triumphalism has established itself, based on the (erroneous) belief a united Ireland is close. It’s been an awful backslide since the high-water mark of Hume-ist post-nationalism in 1998. The haters and sneaking regards are on the rise. Nationalism has fallen, without apparently realising it, into a deep moral crisis as it’s drifted towards alignment with SF values. The impact on wider society – the polarisation and bitterness that brings – is palpable.” Simon Riley
The mainstream media and some of those involved were also highlighted as frequently giving a licence to troll Unionists. There were innumerable examples of Unionists being introduced to media programmes as “Unionists” whilst their Nationalist counterparts were introduced without any constitutional preference. Many echoed Ian Clarke’s criticism that for Unionist commentators to be taken seriously had to prepare a “criticism sandwich” namely – criticise Unionism, make a small pro-Unionist point and then criticise Unionism again. One prominent Unionist recounted the following:
“I think the difference between the abuse of unionists online and nationalists is the level at which the abuse takes place. What I mean by level is the people who are doing it. A local newspaper journalist was appallingly offensive to me. Mocking my voice and appearance as much as my contribution. I can’t imagine a local editor of a paper in a unionist area getting away with that. The abuse got to such a level that I blocked them. When I did and they pointed out I’d blocked them, people sent me direct messages from their accounts. Some of the people were other nationalist members of the press who thought it was amusing! I had to point out I had blocked the journalist in question for a reason and didn’t find it funny and didn’t want to see it.”
The journalist in question (amongst others) popped up time and time again with Colin Berry a former UUP member surmising:
“Twitter can be a hostile environment for discussion as a UK Unionist. It is not uncommon for those who engage with data that challenges baseless statements about the Protocol, economic growth, and other policy areas beyond orange/green politics to encounter derisory or personal attacks. Most of these accounts are anonymous, but a ‘high profile’ journalist took issue with me and another individual who work in integrated education. An individual working in Integrated Education was unmasked and his accounts were swiftly deleted. There is a need for young unionists to utilize technology to expose abusive Twitter accounts, such as those who responded to a post about a young unionist organisation with various perverted, racist, and derogatory comments.”
At the time of writing this article, DUP Councillor Sarah Bunting was on the receiving end of a sectarian troll attack, Sarah wanted to highlight her overall online experience:
“I’ve found that I could post nice things that I’ve done in the community, positive delivery, mundane day to day things, and nobody cares. As soon as I mention the words Unionist or Loyalist or post in support of other members of my own party, that’s when the trolling starts. That definitely seems orchestrated, like Unionist or Loyalist are key words that attract trolls. It’s definitely not called out by non-unionists, but if unionists don’t show support for abuse towards non-unionists then we’re demonised for it. There’s also usually more abuse when posts are retweeted by the main DUP account, or people like Jamie Bryson.”
Sarah’s DUP colleague, Councillor Tracy Kelly also had experienced abuse online:
“Social media especially Twitter/X I feel is an absolute curse and sometimes not worth the hassle. I, not so much as a female elected rep but a DUP elected rep especially feel the wrath far more than others. It would seem that minds are made up even before we put our opinions or comments forward just because we are unionist, just because we often tell it how it is. I come from a working-class area, the Donegall Road, I’m extremely proud to represent this area and “get” many of the issues effecting my community. When I try to put those opinions, worries and concerns online they are immediately shot down and the “pile on” begins. I know of certain male accounts that will be straight onto my tweets, vile, insulting and nasty comments, usually set out to belittle me and my party. I know this is done to shut us up, put us off and to be honest a lot of the time it works.
I have on many occasions typed a reply only to delete it again feeling it’s not worth the negativity that will follow. Women in the DUP have had to put up with a lot of vile comments about looks. We can all be brave and say it doesn’t matter but deep down it really does have a negative effect of you. Over the last two years I have spent more time and energy working on my mental health and avoiding situations that do not allow me to be ridiculed by idiots on Twitter. Some people may think that this is letting them win and pushing more and more unionists offline, it may be true but to be honest what is Twitter anyway? To me it’s a digital platform that allows hate to freely troll and upset people with little or no consequences. Trolls hiding behind fake accounts, out in their numbers to degrade the unionist community. I gave SM up for a while in 2021, did I miss it? No. Did I need it? Yes, for work purposes only. Sad that we now live in an era where we talk more to people in a digital world than the real world. Unionism needs strong articulate voices, we need to stick by each other and help and support each other when the trolls are on the attack.”
Attacks against female Unionists was a theme with some testimonies edited due to being involved in police investigations, two such Unionists who wished to remain anonymous recounted their experiences:
“Undoubtedly unionists online are being abused in an orchestrated way that is both unreported on or when it’s mentioned it’s dismissed, ridiculed or cheapened by whataboutery. The police are not doing enough and Unionism is not doing enough, I have a legal case ongoing so I can’t say too much. Suffice to say I was threatened with “revenge rape”, the revenge being due to me being a planter and stealing some old man’s land. This is where we are at”. Female Unionist remaining anonymous due to ongoing police investigation.
“For nearly three years I have been relentlessly harassed, maligned and lied about by two Republican accounts well known for their harassment of people. Hundreds of screenshots were sent to police who had forwarded two separate files onto the PPS with recommendations to prosecute such was the vile nature of the offences only for the PPS to come with no prosecution despite having successfully prosecuted other much less serious cases of harassment of well know personalities in NI. Then folk wonder why there is no trust in the judicial system and take matters into their own hands? People must understand that there’s a line between free speech and challenging and outright victimisation of people.” Female Unionist remaining anonymous due to ongoing police investigation.
High profile women involved with Unionism undoubtedly had the most to deal with, Kate Hoey made the following points:
“Whenever I get a tweet which is abusive or uses disgusting words inevitably when I check it has come from someone with under 20 followers. Clearly there are accounts which have been setup deliberately by Republican supporters who do nothing else but troll pro-Union people and attack their every tweet. I just block. I think they believe that by attacking women and saying how ugly they are or that they are ‘old hags’ that will deter us from tweeting but it just encourages me to continue even more.”
Emma Little-Pengelly was another high-profile woman regularly attacked online:
“I have been trolled relentlessly from the outset. I only joined twitter about a week before I was co-opted in to the MLA seat in 2015. At that time, twitter was still fairly new and the focus was very much about engagement. Almost immediately there were both faceless accounts with abusive comments, but others that were identified which shocked me. The first thing that hit me was how both the tone and the content of what people would say was very different from normal face to face engagement. It was much nastier, humiliating at times, aggressive and abusive.
The NI twitterati have built a narrative and perception of me that does not remotely match with who I am. In my view, trolling takes on a number of forms and for a number of reasons: – people who just don’t like you and want to “take you down a peg or two”. This happens to everyone with a profile (on twitter or a public profile). This leads to the forum being generally nasty and exchanges polluted by these types trying to dominate. This could be dealt with better by something around removing anonymous profiles with no accountability and better rules around conduct on the site. It is clear that many of these types are angry people, or just downright nasty. – people who attack personally because they want to attack the political message or position.
This can align with people in the first above, but it is clear these are divided into some sub-groups. I do believe that the “shinner bot” or “republican bot” attacks appear to have some coordination and has an agenda to bully unionists off the platform and if not, to tear apart the person by attacking message and credibility. I can post something and immediately have abusive messages and tweets by republican accounts that I don’t follow, and that do not follow me. This seems odd to me.
It is also striking that the scores and scores of accounts that attack me because of alleged actions of my father are often accounts (once I click in and see their account) that unapologetically support republican violence/IRA campaign etc. This suggests that the attack is not on the principle of anti-violence, but on the identity/politics issues of it. It is hypocritical but very much a consistent attack by 100s of accounts. I now immediately block these accounts. The second sub-group attack is underpinned by hate, sectarianism etc. These people are vile due to the unionist identity due to their view, perception or stereotyping of unionism or loyalism. This includes but is not limited to ideas such as – “loyalists are thick”, “only unionists are small minded and sectarian”, questioning the motivations of unionists, DUP, orange order etc, attaching derogatory sentiments or views to unionism as a block etc, demeaning or dismissing unionist concerns (gas lighting the whole community), demeaning and even entirely opposing the cultural institutions, traditions and expressions of the unionist ethnocultural identity. Some who do this may not realise what they are doing is the very definition of sectarianism. Generally, this is done to deliberately “other” unionists, to attack the credibility of the reps or of the message, to promote their own agenda, to attribute derogatory motivations or views to a political ideology to damage it (a form of culture war). If I put up a particularly “political post” and leave comments on, I could have hundreds of comments and/or quote tweets with common attack lines. It is consistent, relentless and abusive. At a time in my political life it would have impacted on me, now it doesn’t. I rarely read any comments or quote tweets. I immediately block ‘yer da” and sectarian or abusive accounts.
I close down my tweets to those who I follow – twitter (of X) is simply no longer a forum that you can engage on, the moment people see you are “live” on X and responding, they take the opportunity to jump on. If people want to engage there are plenty of ways to do it. All in all, twitter is an almost impossible place for a unionist, or at least one that doesn’t toe the line of the NI twitterati. The twitterati mob will periodically attach themselves to an account that is ostensibly a unionist one (or one that identifies as being from a Protestant perspective) but saying what they prefer and will praise, promote and engage with that account more positively. A strange form of cognitive behaviour training, giving affirmation and positivity to the views they deem “good” while brutally attacking, hating on, abusing and “othering” accounts with a more mainstream unionist perspective. So some key things I have learned: – the abuse is designed very often to chase unionist voices off the forum – it is done by “pack hunting” with multiple accounts regularly attacking – some is deliberative political strategy – others are simply motivated or underpinned by sectarianism or hate – unionism is regularly “othered” on the forum – X/twitter is not somewhere a unionist can now engage (though nor will I give in to be bullied off it) – the abuse of unionist women by calling them stupid or attacking their looks is a deliberate strategy and is appalling Most importantly, twitter is not the real world. No one should make the mistake of thinking it is. The NI twitterati/community is largely dominated by a few hundred that regularly tweet and then second accounts or a couple of supporters who come in behind. The vast, vast majority lurk without posting or engaging and remain silent. They do not represent views out on the ground.”
There was an ongoing theme that attacks on Unionists and the bastardising of Unionist topics and discussions was deliberate and orchestrated, Lee Reynolds observed the following:
“There is no doubt that Unionists and Unionist topics being targeted by trolls on social media is both deliberate and orchestrated, however, there is a clear positive to be taken from this being that those involved do not have a strong positive message of their own and therefore have to engage in tactics focused on trolling and disruption”.
There was a raft of Unionists not linked to any parties and who were relatively low-profile online but still faced sustained trolling when they made a comment:
“I would say there has been a hesitancy from myself to sometimes tweet what I would like to say on all things Unionism (or Loyalism). There are two reasons for this; 1) Trolling – I posted up a picture of me in Derry in August for Derry Day, and I ended up having to hide replies due to the personal nature of the trolling. Even a number of years ago, on the 12th, in which we paraded around our own area, I posted a few photos of that day including one of myself and Jonny Harvey, and the trolling again was personal. I know the saying, and i use it as well, that making things personal, means you have lost the argument. That is true, but still doesn’t make the comments any less hurtful.
2) one box fits all – a bit of a weird heading I know, but it seems the likes of Brolly etc and others within social media, like to use a ‘one box fits all’ narrative. For example, Unionists couldn’t possibly be Liberal on social issues. Yet, here I am, left of Centre on a number of issues, same sex marriage, education, welfare, environmental issues etc. Yes, of course, there are some things that I remain centre ground on or just to the right, terrorism, and undecided in what we need for the economy (tax the rich but less government regulation, so no idea where that puts me). As much as I have pinpointed Brolly etc, there are those ‘Unionists’ who also try to fit all of us into one box, and when they don’t get their way, I am labelled, a Lundy etc. It genuinely feels like a no-win situation. I think overall, I pull back from what I post on social media regarding Unionism, due to the trolling and one box fits all narrative. It just isn’t simply worth the hassle. Gavyn G East Belfast
“My experience of social media as a unionist is one of abuse, deflection/ whataboutery, a suggestion to feel guilty and then we have supremacy. Being made to feel responsible for the last 400 years of our history, being spoken down to as if we are beneath each other and the repetitive claim that our time is over. Being born in Co. Antrim in 1990 and being called a planter does make me chuckle. Meeting many great nationalist accounts who can debate kindly and disagree kindly, and other accounts who are only on to deflect from bad publicity, lead us down a rabbit hole away from the topic.” Chris Co Antrim
“The minute you mention that you’re in a band/loyal order you’re very often disregarded immediately. I spend a lot of time trying to stick up for these things but I can see very little effort from nationalists (and some within our own community it has to be said) to actually understand the views of members and what these organisations mean to the people in them. It very quickly descends into abuse before we even express an opinion – bigot, knuckle dragger, dinosaur etc. This is surprisingly prevalent amongst those who advocated for a “New Ireland” where Unionist identity will supposedly be embraced and protected. As such, I remain anonymous online The GAA by contrast is generally reported positively and there is a total double standard here despite the fact that similar criticisms could be directed at both. It feels like a deliberate attempt to demonise a large section of our society. If our largest news outlets can do this then it makes us fair game to abuse for many.” Arron is a young Orangeman.
“I tend to be fairly discreet on X and social media and rarely start a thread but would express my opinion and that’s when the abuse starts. My profile has a NI badge so it seems like a red rag to a ball when it comes to the anonymous profiles. In recent debates about casement for instance there are repeated pile ons with allegations of Windsor being a cess pit for sectarianism, Paramilitary flags etc and always the same claim that we need to move on and embrace a new future. The message is constant ly move on, forget the past until you dare mention any Republican act in recent years then it starts. The past is thrown back to hundreds of years ago, planters, colonialists are all labelled. The whataboutery is so strange it just puts me off trying to debate at all. I’m also a member of the Orange Order and even this morning seen the following comment and I regularly see the same question posed ie “I’m a Catholic, can I join” then a barrage of claims about it being like the KKK and other extremist groups” Gareth Walker
“I recognise and condemn the abuse directed towards young people and women in Unionist political circles in particular, it has a much more detrimental effect on young & female unionists getting involved in the political process and needs to be addressed.” Ryan Warren
“It’s got to a stage I don’t really use Twitter (X) to the degree that I used to, and when I do every post has the option for replied turned off. In recent months I have had a number of more serious issues and threats and due to this I need to remain anonymous for the purposes of this article.” Unionist who wished to remain anonymous due to online threats directed at them.
“I have noticed, not necessarily against myself but other Unionists and Loyalists would come under vicious attacks, no matter what they posted, I know it happens to Nationalists and Republicans, but it does seem to be coordinated and vicious against Unionists. Whether that is directed or a natural combining of people who come online to keep the flames and hatred of the past alive, who knows? My fears for such online behaviours that it can lead not only to the mental and emotional suffering of their intended targets who nobody, myself included, knows what day to day struggles the people behind the account struggle with, but also the division it can cause. These attacks can lead to normally open-minded people to grow more closed-minded against a section of our community, based purely on the abuse they receive. For me, I see that a lost opportunity to not only heal our past division but a digital version of creating more division.” Darren Leckey
“Blatant troll republican accounts feel no compunction about abusing Unionists online as there are no consequences. They feed off this narrative that they are an oppressed people so can react or act anyway they choose.” CL is a liberal Unionist who wished for his identity to be protected.
“I haven’t been writing much on twitter for a while. I made my profile private as I was intimidated by trolls and couldn’t be bothered with pile ons. When I first commented on twitter about certain issues such as the Protocol, trying to highlight why it is of concern to unionists, there was a mob of trolls with condescending comments such as ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’ etc basically trying to shut down my opinion as wrong or unimportant. I have noticed when young unionists comment there are many trolls who mock and are very dismissive of their opinions, but hopefully they stay strong and it doesn’t put them off as it is most likely the objective of trolls to silence sensible unionist voices. Nationalist commentators such as Brian Feeny, Chris Donnelly & Joe Brolly do themselves no favours. Their mask always slips. They say they want a ‘New Ireland’ but they are so rude about the very people – unionists who they should be trying to convince or entice to their cause.
The laissez-faire attitude towards comments such as Up-the-ra and wolf tonnes songs is helping normalise such behaviour. Such as the Ireland ladies team singing oh ah up the RA after qualifying, if that is seen as an okay thing to say, how are unionists meant to feel comfortable in their do called ‘New Ireland’. They do nothing to see things from a unionist perspective, they accuse unionists of being the problem for everything in the past and present but are blind to their own failings. They often fail to criticise the IRA and or understand why unionists are disgusted when bombers and killers are eulogised. Joe Brolly’s recent comments disgusted me when he accused Ulster Scots protestants of supporting genocide. They portray unionists as pathetic flag waving dumb Orangemen without allowing for all the different nuances and opinions within unionism. Sorry bit of a messy rant off the top of my head, been doing coursework all evening, but hope it helps a bit.” JP is a young female Unionist who wished to remain anonymous.
“I’m finding I’m getting more abuse as a Unionist in recent time. It used to be more indirect I.e. retweeted by Jamie Bryson or the like but seems more direct now. I just mute them.” Andrew McKinely
“I have tended to block those who just engaged in sectarian or classist mudslinging. Perhaps the most useful testimonial I can offer is that I have generally stopped engaging in debate, or attempted debate on Twitter / X. Regardless of whether with loyalists or nationalists and republicans these people feed off the extremist, fringe and historically illiterate view on every issue you care to name. The constant drip feed of articles by Feeney etc where everything is the fault of unionists, Westminster or even Cromwell does nothing to advance the actual merits of a UI / UK.” Iain Kennedy
“I don’t think I get anywhere near the same amount of abuse as Stacy Graham or other loyalist women. Think that’s because I’m seen as a user-friendly Prod, also think I get a bit of a by ball because I’m middle class. It’s completely unfair. Now, saying that, I’ve had abuse. The worst of it has been because I’ve espoused a unionist opinion like not liking the IRA (that topic consistently brings abuse into my mentions). That’s when I get called planter, imperialist etc. Criticising Sinn Fein always brings a flood of mentions. The online space is not unionist friendly.” This is a high-profile female Unionist who wished to remain anonymous.
“I have been targeted repeatedly by online republican trolls who have fabricated lies about me just because I am unionist in order to denigrate me. They screenshot tweets and then make up their own twisted story about them that had nothing to do with the subject of the tweet. It is done quite deliberately to infuriate other users into communicating to me their misplaced outrage without realising the troll has manipulated them into doing this. I had contacted elected representatives for advice and I had made a report to the PSNI. Unfortunately, the PSNI cannot act on any social media communication that does not break a law so responsibility is with the social media platform. Despite multiple reports to the social media platform about very clear and damaging trolling, the anonymous trolls still continue trolling.” Michael Palmer
“Abuse received is a constant as a unionist, constantly harassed and told we are wrong and our ancestors did wrong, bullied and harassed, afraid to voice our opinion because you’ll be chastised for it when you do.” Mark Robinson
Two Unionist party members from the UUP and DUP observed the following:
“I find Twitter as mostly an echo chamber for the same voices that don’t reflect properly the reality of the wider public so tend to not use it for much else than an outlet for news. For other social networks, I find there is nowhere near the amount of abuse directed towards unionists as is the case on Twitter, however, it does seem like the amount of abuse even on Facebook pages such as Deborah’s MLA page or others such as Fermanagh Band Scene is increasing more in the last year, even without the anonymity that Twitter offers.
When it comes to Brian Feeney, I can’t say I take much notice at all of what he says. Anytime I have ever read any of his articles, he has always been very bitter and nasty. Whatever he says, it doesn’t really annoy or frustrate me as it strikes me as a man howling at the moon with absolutely nothing useful or constructive to say in any way and therefore, I can just disregard it. I also think that most within media circles view him the same way as his only output is always his Irish News column with very few other news sources giving him any coverage at all. If I were subjected to the same level of online abuse as others, I would be more bothered by what he says. I am of the opposite opinion when it comes to Joe Brolly. It seems to me that given his background, Brolly gets treated differently by the media in general than even Feeney does.
His following is much more diverse with well-respected people from across all sections of society compared to just the Republican trolls that would absorb and regurgitate what Brian Feeney has to say. I must say that this drives me crazy as Joe can come out with things as equally ridiculous and insulting as Brian Feeney but still seems to be treated as a more legitimate voice. His comments earlier this week about Ulster-Scots Protestants supporting genocide are as bad, if not worse than the drivel Brian Feeney often provides. It already appears to form the template for all abuse aimed at unionists for the next number of weeks regarding any comment they make on the situation in Israel and Palestine. Even when unionists, with incredibly empathetic and reasonable comments, tweet on the issue, they are accused of supporting war crimes.”. Aaron Elliott DUP
“Like most unionists, I’ve received abuse online, but I’ve not had it as bad as others. In the past I’ve been on the receiving end of a number of pile-ons from Republicans, eventually, I got fed up and took a zero-tolerance approach to it and started blocking straight away. Nowadays it’s the occasional abusive tweet, such as “planter”, “dirty proddy” etc, in response to the most innocuous of tweets. I still see tons of abusive tweets directed at other unionists, some of them very personal. Articles like Brian Feeney’s are prejudiced nonsense, and I find that it’s unhelpful that the Irish News prints these views, as it legitimises them in the eyes of many, as a result, we see this abuse on social media.
Similar views written about other groups wouldn’t be printed. However, it’s not just Brian, things like Ian Knox’s cartoon depiction of loyalists, printed in May last year, have had the same effect. In the aftermath of that, I saw scores/hundreds of Republicans defending that cartoon, with no consideration for the feelings of those offended. Ironically, a cartoon was later released of Joe Biden dressed as a leprechaun, many of those who defended the loyalist cartoon were up in arms about the Joe Biden one. That cartoon wasn’t even making fun of Irish people, it was making fun of Biden’s obsession with being Irish, whereas, Ian’s cartoon denigrated an entire community. Another is Joe Brolly, I know his views are mostly in a personal capacity on Twitter and not in a newspaper, but the fact that he’s platformed by RTE, etc, again legitimises these which wouldn’t be tolerated if they were directed at another community. I think Irish society has a deep misunderstanding of PUL people, were seen as outsiders, “planters”, not from here, fair game to abuse, and seen as a punching bag, used to let off steam for past grievances. Somehow our people today are at fault for the plantation, famine, etc, therefore abuse against us is acceptable. We hear a lot of talk about how we would be respected in a UI, but we’re given zero respect at present.” Tom Brown UUP
And last but by no means least an historian involved in Unionist politics for many years:
“I observe just how colossal the hate-filled responses are to a number of unionists or anti-nationalists that I follow on social media. It is frightening in its intensity while there is no equal and opposite rage coming from loyalists. When there is the BBC moves in rapidly to expose it. The liberal left looks the other way if it is from republicans.
It is triumphalist in essence and appears to be coming significantly from young males in the south, often new to politics. I assume they are those radicalised by the rise of Sinn Fein there. Very noticeably, the Twitter posts are insulting and threatening. At their core are the themes of age, sex, class, looks and race. Quite a few are exterminatory.
Those unionists, I notice, who get the greatest torrents of hate are significantly female.
In England, class aside, these themes would be regarded as the preserve of white racists and sexists. Class is interesting where Jamie Bryson is concerned. He probably gets the most hate and most of the attacks are about his working-class origins. He is regarded in particular as jumped up. That he is one of the tiny numbers of post-conflict loyalists to speak out coherently, compared to hundreds of young ‘advanced’ nationalists, may explain the matter. Are they especially frightened of him or just keen to suppress any sign of political life in the Protestant working class? In the now-ending PUP days, such views and speakers were corralled in a labourist-type reservation but may be escaping. The great danger is that they are quite literally targets.” A very prominent Unionist historian who wished to remain anonymous.
The testimonies could have gone on and on and on. They can’t all be lying or imagining this issue and it’s time that this rather large elephant in the room was addressed by those with influence, the police, and improved online legislation. The experiences of Unionists online are overwhelmingly negative with much of the abuse received being threatening and often criminal, aimed at deterring and dehumanising those from the Unionist tradition. If you don’t feel it’s an issue or if you want to defend it, deflect it, or engage in whataboutery then you are part of the problem.
Choyaa is a Fermanagh Orangeman. Blog first posted on sluggerotoole.com.