Home > General Politics > The EDL and loyalism: why the shyness?

The EDL and loyalism: why the shyness?

The English Defence League is a strange beast politically. I’m unconvinced that it can be seen as a classic fascist organisation and it has drawn much of its support and organisation from outside the existing far right in Britain, its origins lie in right-wing football firms motivated into political action by anti-Muslim sentiment.

I’ve generally thought it useful to compare the EDL to the previous time football firms entered the political arena in significant numbers, in opposition to Irish Republicanism in the early – mid 1990’s. During this period certain football firms mobilised large numbers to attack events of republicans and their perceived sympathisers, notably the London Bloody Sunday commeration march in 1993. Like EDL marches participants in anti-Republican gatherings were pretty sure what they were against, less sure what they were for.

Recently, this got me thinking about the curious mutual disinterest between two political groupings that, on paper, seem to have a lot in common: the EDL and loyalism.

Far right groups on the UK mainland have always viewed loyalist groups with the kind of wide eyed admiration usually associated with primary school kids meeting Premiership footballers. It was what they aspired to be; successful political groups combined with well organised militant wings to deal with opponents.

It’s worth noting that this admiration was not usually reciprocated but when it was, such as by former National Front member Johnny Adair and his Shankill C Company, British fascists responded enthusiastically. Some went much further than cheerleading from the sidelines and got actively involved in ‘The Troubles’, longstanding NF activist Terry Blackham was jailed during this period for gun-running.

Given that much of the EDL’s support is drawn from right-wing English football fans it’s not difficult to see what they have in common with loyalism. Both like marching, flags, the Queen and some EDL members even enjoy sectarianism (here’s the EDL’s token Asian member Adbul having a sing-song for instance). Chanting ‘no surrender to Al Qaeda’ is not a million miles from ‘no surrender to the IRA’ and the main EDL website is peppered with rhetoric borrowed from loyalism, the repeated use of ‘no surrender’ and the abbreviated form n.s. is a bit of a give away, and the general theme of defending Britain from a terrorist threat.

It’s interesting then that the EDL have made absolutely no effort to cultivate links with loyalist groups in Northern Ireland or on the UK mainland, even those who have previously been closely involved with the far like the British Ulster Alliance (who used to advertise in Blood & Honour magazine). They failed to send any sort of delegation to the Twelfth of July marches or the parade in Southport, a traditional summer holiday destination for British fascists.

There’s also the sister organisation of the EDL the Ulster Defence League. While the EDL has been successful at building up a profile, a sense of momentum and attracting thousands of supporters to marches it’s counterparts in Scotland and Wales have been poor relations, unable to gain any traction and heavily outnumbered by counter-demonstrators on their rare public excursions.

The UDL has not even been able to gain these lofty heights. Apart from operate a rarely updated Facebook page (it’s currently advertising a march in Dudley that took place last April) and briefly running a website it’s not clear that the UDL does anything at all.

This could be of course because they are a sensible bunch who have correctly realised that Northern Ireland has more pressing problems that being overwhelmed by non-existent scimitar-waving, sharia-imposing hordes but I suspect not. The sentiment is certainly there, here’s their mission statement illustrating standard loyalist rhetoric:

The Ulster Defence League highlights the threat to our shores from Militant Islam Extremism.The U.D.L is also highlighting the Extremism we face from republicans in our own Lands. Ulster knows only too well the realities of living with terrorism and its consequences. Our spineless Government prioritise the Human Rights of Terrorists before the basic right for Britons to live without fear in our own country…


Thankfully this isn’t accompanied by any action. Why not though?

It’s not a question of an unwillingness to travel. EDL supporters have made it to Amsterdam, and plan to return there on October 30th, and popped up in New York a couple of weeks ago. A short ferry trip to Belfast is surely not too difficult to organise.

The unwillingness of loyalist organisations to play ball hasn’t much to do with it either. Most loyalist groups were uninterested in an array of British far right groups propositioning them in the 80’s and 90’s and that didn’t stop fascists from repeatedly asking them them out.

Instead, I think that the seeking international allies in the American and wider European anti-Muslim movement and ignoring the traditional preoccupations of the far right shows why it’s difficult to place the EDL in the British fascist tradition. It’s a different beast.

This may not be a satisfactory answer to the EDL ignoring loyalism. Any alternative explanations gratefully received.

Who will defend Ulster? Not the UDL

  1. September 24, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    I’m afraid I’m unable to give any better an explanation on which kind of beast the EDL belongs to, but what I will say – in anticipation of a high turnout for this article – is if the EDL and the UDL do pal up with one another, it won’t be over the principle of self-determination. After all, is this not the raison d’etre of the EDL? Or is flying the Israeli flag just a means of causing tension? Surely not.

  2. September 24, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    I definitely think it’s wrong when people lazily dub the EDL ‘fascist’. It’s simply inaccurate: while a relatively small number of its members and supporters are in, or closely linked to, the BNP or other fascist organisations, most of them are not (and its leaders are hostile to the BNP, a dislike which is thoroughly reciprocated).

    The thing which bonds EDL supporters together is virulent Islamophobia, which has grown in recent years. The EDL represents a fairly extreme version of neoconservative racism. Note the EDL’s tendency to fervently support the ‘war on terror’ and Israel, whereas the BNP is ostensibly ‘anti-war’.

    My impression is that EDL supporters are largely sympathetic to Loyalism, though I’m not sure if there are organisational links (as you say). But the primary context for the rise of the EDL is the growth in Islamophobia – here and internationally – and neoconservative ideology.

    • Duncan
      September 24, 2010 at 6:58 pm

      I don’t think that the EDL has the political coherence that you’re suggesting Alex, I would agree with Carl that the EDL waving the Israeli flag about is based the hope that this will provoke the most reaction from the opposition.

      On a related note about the failure of the Defence League concept to catch on outside England the Casuals United blog is claiming that the Welsh Defence League has been disbanded, ostensibly because the mythical bogeyman ‘Swansea Combat 18’ tried to hijack it.

  3. September 24, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    Well, it depends what you mean when you refer to the EDL. Many of them are hooligans who are to a certain extent inspired by the ‘social’ side of it, shall we say. But it’s important to a) interrogate the politics driving the leaders and the core activists, and b) ask why this is happening now. When we consider those issues it becomes obvious that it’s right to talk seriously about the movement’s politics, rather than seeing it as ‘incoherent’. EDL leaders cultivate links with highly islamophobic and hardcore neocon organisations and individuals in the US and Europe.

    The motivations for waving the Israeli flag are probably a mix of 3 factors: sympathy for neocon aggression and the racism associated with it; identifying Israel with fierce hostility to Muslims (so, as you point out, waving the flag is a provocation); and perceiving an analogy between Israel and ‘Ulster’. What is the exact weighting of each factor? I’m really not sure, but it would be misguided to assume it’s simply a mindless provocation.

  4. Elvis
    September 25, 2010 at 4:09 am

    I see little evidence that the EDL is right wing or fascist.

    They are a collection of people upset about violent totalitarian Islam. If anything they are the biggest anti-fascist group in the UK.

    Wait until some Islamists murder some children at a school. The EDL will have a hundred thousand members … or a million.

  5. Connor Caple
    September 26, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    The ‘fascist’ label was old hat in 1935 when George Orwell was laughing at it and assured us it now just means “I don’t like you very much – have a label”.

    The EDL are highlighting an issue that is on the minds of many people in England – unchecked Islamic immigration and the related threats it brings. The ‘home grown’ terrorists have proven that it is a dangerous ideology, yet the British government have played it down to avoid ‘racist reprisals’ against Islam. How to shoot yourself in the foot in one easy lesson?:)

    Islam is not a race, but most of its adherents are easily recognised owing to their complete failure to integrate into English society – even Dublin is getting overrun with them. The mode of dress, the refusal to speak english, the ‘Halal’ foods, etc., just make them stand out.

    Islam is a dangerous ideology for various reasons that probably don’t belong in this discussion and the EDL have recognised that. The outgoing Labour government kept very quiet about their immigration policy, for very obvious reasons. The figures came to light (3 million new citizens, 8 million immigrants) and people realised just how much they had been lied to by Blair and his cronies.

    The attempts to link the BNP and EDL are laughable. BNP members are expelled if seen participating in EDL protests, but I’m sure that non-members who support the BNP would also support the EDL since the aim is to preserve English culture and fight against the encroachment of Sharia Law and ‘Islamic traitors’ who line the streets to insult and abuse British Troops.

    If you want to be able to beat your women, rape them when they won’t acquiesce to your sexual desires, get everything to yourself in the divorce and kill them if they commit adultery, you may want to support it. On the other hand, if you want to be -any- kind of Christian, you would eventually have to either convert to Islam or die under Sharia Law.

    If the BNP actually got organised and utilised the EDL (and NF for that matter) as a militant wing, they’d be pretty unstoppable in England so perhaps people should be happy the two organisations are separate:)

    [Incidentally – Fascism sprang from left-wing, Communist and Socialist roots. Mussolini was a leading Communist and was praised by Lenin as such. Hitler’s ‘populist’ policies were pure Socialism, hence the Socialist quickly labelling them Nazi so as to avoid the association in people’s minds with National SOCIALISM. Lenin and Stalin’s dictatorship, Castro’s dictatorship, etc.. *grins* Still amazes me how many people think it’s a right-wing ideology.]

    • Duncan
      October 1, 2010 at 10:38 am

      The EDL are highlighting an issue that is on the minds of many people in England – unchecked Islamic immigration and the related threats it brings.

      A few hundred people standing in a city centre surrounded by police, Al Qaeda must be quaking in their boots Connor!

  6. September 29, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    A really interesting article Duncan.

    It seems to me there is a strong structural similarity between Loyalism and the EDL, and the football hooligan nexus is important too.

    I was in Belfast recently, and walking around Shankill there are of course a couple of Israeli flags. I didn’t get the sense that this was part of any coherent support for Jewish national self-determination, though, and when I asked a Loyalist about it, he gave a fairly incoherent answer that revealed little knowledge of or symapthy for Israel. It seemed to me that the Israeli flags there come completely from the binary logic of sectarianism. The Republicans’ chain of equivalences (expressed clearly in their murals) equate their struggle with that of the Palestinians; the Loyalists mirror this back with Israeli flags. (Probably the blue and white colours help – fit in nicely with the Rangers and Linfield colours!)

    I think the EDL use of Israeli flags comes from the same place, certainly for the rank and file membership. It’s about winding up the reds. “identifying Israel with fierce hostility to Muslims” is also undoubtedly a major factor.

    Among the EDL leadership, there is probably more of an ideological commitment to the hard edge of neoconservatism (the Pamela Gellar persuasion), but I wonder how much this trickles down to the cannon fodder?

    • Duncan
      September 30, 2010 at 12:12 pm

      Among the EDL leadership, there is probably more of an ideological commitment to the hard edge of neoconservatism (the Pamela Gellar persuasion), but I wonder how much this trickles down to the cannon fodder?

      Not very much would be my guess Bob. As I wrote in a previous post on the EDL: I think the wider agenda of some of the fruitloops the EDL leadership are cuddling up to will go down like a pint of cold sick with most of their supporters.

  7. September 29, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    P.S. Glad to see Alex say “I definitely think it’s wrong when people lazily dub the EDL ‘fascist’. It’s simply inaccurate: while a relatively small number of its members and supporters are in, or closely linked to, the BNP or other fascist organisations, most of them are not (and its leaders are hostile to the BNP, a dislike which is thoroughly reciprocated).” I completely agree with this.

    It is also why the Unite Against Fascism strategy is a complete disaster.

  8. Jon
    September 30, 2010 at 1:12 pm

    @Duncan no.3 – I saw the Welsh Defence League’s last demo in Cardiff, and there were at best 30 or 40 people involved, surrounded by twice that number of police and being abused from virtually all quarters. At least half the participants were wearing England football shirts or waving English flags, which showed that:

    a) they were almost definitely bussed in from England, and
    b) they were unaware of the hostility of many Welshies to said flag.

    The choice of date also demonstrated their lack of local knowledge, as they chose the day of a rugby match in Cardiff – rugby may be the reserve of public-school poshos across the River Severn but in Wales it’s a national institution. As a result, they turned up on a day when thousands of locals were turning up for the game, feeling more Welsh than ever, waving English flags and generally pissing everyone off, not just the anti-fascist lot.

  9. Connor Caple
    October 1, 2010 at 6:39 pm

    Duncan :
    A few hundred people standing in a city centre surrounded by police, Al Qaeda must be quaking in their boots Connor!

    Would you prefer they started bombing mosques? I’m sure even a ‘few hundred’ supporters would be enough for that, although Police figures put the EDL contingent in Bradford at closer to 1,500.

    If the Westminster bubble doesn’t start to listen soon, it will probably come to that. Currently they’re just dumping the odd pig’s head at the mosques…

  10. Bob
  11. Bob
    October 13, 2010 at 10:59 am

    One tiny little piece of the jigsaw: this semi-official EDL video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zOTmVpwSa8c Am I wrong to see the “Simply the Best” soundtrack (UDA C Company theme tune) as a Loyalist reference?

    • October 14, 2010 at 8:53 am

      I think you’re looking for something that isn’t there, Bob, with the theme tune idea.:)

  12. eddie
    October 14, 2010 at 11:20 am

    Im told that all is quiet in Northern Ireland in terms of the UDL because they are currently recruiting.

    I met a guy in Belfast town wearing a T-shirt with UDL on it so i stopped to have a chat with him to see what it was all about. I was expecting a drunken ignorant fool but he was quite pleasant and reasonably articluate in his arguments. He was the one that told me the recruitment drive was ongoing and that young men in particluar were flocking to the UDL flag as it were.

    Not sure were i stand with the UDL – we have murderers, bombers etc in our government so i dont really see the argument that disallusioned young people are necessarily evil!

  13. Alfie North
    May 12, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    If anyone had any doubts about the EDL here’s a link that exposes their financial backer who believes in a ‘final solution’ and the saviour of the hardcore fascist “Swedish Democrats”.


  14. Ben
    September 7, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Some thoughts…

    Tommy Robinson (the EDL leader) is the son of Irish Catholic parents….so is Steven Lennon…

    I am an Irish nationalist and I am disgusted by Ulster Loyalist groups, eve the sight of them makes my skin crawl…I dont get this feeling from the EDL. If one ignores the minority of EDL folks who are obviously blow ins from Combat 18 and other Nazi groups one senses that theres something different going on in that movement…

    Time will tell what it is. All I can be sure of for now is that I am glad I live in Dublin…we have had no attacks from Islamic militants, no Sharia courts, no groups of extremists posting posters around our city telling us not to drink or dance, no madrasa schools (did I spell that correctly?) beating and abusing children (see series of dispatches progremmes about these schools in UK), and our security forces are free to chase crazy dissident Irish republicans because they dont spend all their time chasing crazy Islamic extremists…

    So who are the EDL? I think they are exactly what it says on the tin: a working class movement who want to protest about all the problems that the Islamic presence has brought to the UK, problems such as high crime, endemic welfare dependency (yes I know these issues exist in the indigenous population too, and and Scotland, ha), Sharia, abuse of women and kids, etc etc.

    My last word: if bearded wide eyed loopers start to march around Dublin screaming for Sharia in Ireland, calling our women whores, and claiming Allah is the supreme authority…then I just may head off on a counter demo with some Irish version of the EDL.

    • Pádraig
      December 4, 2011 at 2:15 am

      Fantasy island thoughts there, Ben. You’re obviously attracted to an EDL mindset. Loyalist groups have no need for an anti-muslim stance as there is only a few muslims in NI. However mainstream unionist politicians had no problem opposing the building of a mosque in Craigavon (it never happened). Loyalism is focused on the ‘threat’ of Republicanism which they identify, wrongly, with Catholicism. Virtually all racist attacks in NI occur in loyalist areas. Loyalist paramilitary groups have kept a lid on this sort of thing generally as it’s appalling p.r. material but in the right circumstances and with a critical mass of muslim immigrants, they would have no problem adopting an EDL style stance, out of ideological sympathy and to keep control of their areas. Just substitute muslim for catholic, it’s the same poisonous impulse

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