Loyalists Against Democracy want you to stop being negative about Northern Ireland – they're perfectly capable of taking the piss themselves. The group use their Facebook (21,000 likes), Twitter (13,000 followers), YouTube (2,000 subscribers) and blog to lampoon idiots, expose bigots and generally stir the Northern Irish pot. They're so good at it that when they shared an inflammatory sermon by firebrand preacher Pastor James McConnell, in which he condemned Islam as "a doctrine spawned in hell", it made the news all over the world and forced a ham-fisted response from First Minister Peter Robinson, a member of McConnell's congregation. This, in turn, led to a great deal of soul-searching in Northern Ireland around the issues of racism and bigotry, substantial protests in Belfast and elsewhere, and an apology from Robinson. Not bad for a bunch of “internet trolls.”
That’s not the description by one of LAD’s boo-boys, but of its founder “Billy”, who met me in a Belfast coffee shop. Despite LAD's pervasive influence among the disaffected and generally pissed off liberal population of Northern Ireland (which is bigger than the news would lead you to believe, by the way), and their track record in breaking substantial news stories, he's disarmingly blasé about the whole operation.
"LAD is a collective of people who are fed up with the constant negative spin that's put on life here and [we] try to find the humour in it," he says. "You know those crazy old men who stand and shout at passers-by? That's all we're doing. It started from just shouting into the internet."
LAD started in December 2012, provoked by the so-called "flag protests" – a response to a Belfast City Council vote to fly the Union flag from City Hall on 18 designated days throughout the year, as opposed to every single day as had been the case since 1906. Unionists and loyalists, unsurprisingly, were furious, and all hell broke loose with protests and violence outside City Hall and, for several days, throughout Northern Ireland.
Billy responded by creating the character of an incoherent, hate-filled loyalist and started to post statuses, jokes and memes on Facebook and Twitter. As LAD developed, they settled into a prolific diet of posts exposing the unhinged witterings of loyalists, Photoshop lulz (such as this series lampooning a paramilitary mural) and a general eagerness to poke and prod at the absurdity of politics and society in Northern Ireland.
"I was frustrated with what was happening," says Billy. "I work in an industry that is dependent on foreign direct investment, and you had negative stories coming out about the city. And there were just lots of funny people doing funny things. It was a way of bringing all those people together and working as one character, under one umbrella.
"The name was just a throwaway comment. Basically what you had happening was a load of loyalists out protesting against the democratic process. So it just worked. And then it became LAD, because it was shorter to write and it gave it almost a movement. And people have really bought into it, which is a bit scary."
The LAD character
The McConnell/Robinson story was clearly LAD's crowning glory – a perfect storm of firebrand preaching, religious intolerance, and the interconnected nature of Protestant churches in Northern Ireland with the Orange Order and the highest echelons of political unionism and loyalism. Many influential DUP politicians have close links to McConnell's church, including First Minister Robinson and his wife Iris, current MP and former NI Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, Belfast councillor Guy Spence and both Nigel and Diane Dodds, MP and MEP respectively.
The story got even better when the First Minister spoke out to defend McConnell with some choice comments about Muslims – as expressed to the John Manley of the Irish News. "I wouldn't trust them in terms of those who have been involved in terrorist activities,” he said, digging himself a hole. “I wouldn't trust them if they are devoted to Sharia Law. I wouldn't trust them for spiritual guidance. Would I trust them to go down to the shops for me? Yes I would. Would I trust them to do day-to-day activities? There is no reason why you wouldn't.”
Billy says he knew full well how big a story it would be when LAD shared McConnell's initial bigotted comments. "You see it and you go, 'this is going to be huge'," he says. "And it was huge. It was a big news story, but it just went to show that the majority of journalists weren't aware of it. They weren't looking for it. Their attention was elsewhere. So it was like, ‘Look – this is going on and it isn't quite right’. What about all those Muslims who live and work in Belfast and the wider community in Northern Ireland? Can we really have this guy who is friends with the leader of the country saying these things? And then more importantly, what is the opinion of the leader of the country?"
A spoof LAD news page
Robinson's response added fuel to the fire and eventually he was forced into a public apology. "He let himself down," says Billy, "and that was just a gift – I don't think we were expecting that. We'd exposed the Pastor McConnell thing and people paid attention to it, but we were not expecting Peter Robinson to come out and lend his support. That was the icing on the cake."
Soon afterwards, LAD dug up some anti-Catholic Facebook posts from a newly elected Belfast councillor – Jolene Bunting of the TUV – and made the news again, but Billy insists that he's not really interested in leading the news agenda. He'd rather stick to LAD's bread-and-butter – using humour to satirise the worst aspects of Northern Irish politics and society.
"It would have been a very depressing first year of flag protests if there wasn't some kind of humour," he says. "Humour is the antidote, otherwise everybody would just get down-in-the-dumps. I like trying to be funny."
LAD are not without their critics. They may have targeted republican paramilitaries, racists, anti-gay campaigners and politicians of many stripes, but the majority of LAD's ire is aimed at flag-waving loyalists. Doesn't that leave them open to accusations of bias? "We go where the material is," says Billy, "If nationalists and republicans say something we'll jump on that as well, but I think they're all a bit mad. It just happens that the most reactionary people in this city are the loyalists. It's part of their culture to shout."
Then there's the fact that much of LAD's humour derives from pointing out loyalists' mangling of the English language – snobbery, basically. For instance, one of LAD's favourite slogans is "are fleg will flow again" (our flag will fly again, if you need that translated). "Yeah, but so what?" Billy counters. "It's there. I don't even think it's something that we do a lot of. It's something that people who follow us do."
"Billy" refuses to go on the record about his own background, job or anything else that could identify him. Loyalism is a broad spectrum and there are never more than a few degrees of separation between the public and private figures that LAD targets and mocks, and some very unpleasant masked men. Billy's response to this is a little ambiguous. "I'd like to think that the majority of people who live in this country have a sense of humour and can take a slagging," he says. "That's all it is – it's a slagging. But I've never threatened anybody with physical violence so I don't see why anyone would want to threaten me with physical violence. And if somebody wants to expose us, I don't see the benefit. If you find out how boring the people behind it are in real life, you'll ruin it for everybody else. But am I worried about being exposed? No."
Despite having drawn attention to the stupidity of Northern Irish politics, Billy isn't all that hopeful that it'll change anything. "Ah, it's fucked," he says when I ask him about the future of Northern Irish politics. "As long as we have us-and-them politics, then Northern Ireland is going to be stuck in this status quo and in five or ten years it will be the same as now or five or ten years ago. It needs somebody to come and shake things up and move the process of politics forward.
"It's hard to know what's going to happen, but the likely thing is that it's just going to go from one political storm to another. It's a bit depressing, really." Looking on the bright side, at least LAD won't run out of stuff to laugh at.
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