I read a tweet yesterday by Sophie Long who I suspect is now a former member of the Progressive Unionist Party. Ms Long offered her condolences to the family, friends and comrades of Martin McGuinness. In this country such a small act of decency is brave but to keep it where it belongs, it is as I said just decency.

The subsequent abuse directed at Sophie was no great shock to me and I suspect to her  but I read through a few hundred responses and strangely most of the abuse was because she included the word comrades. The fact that she had expressed condolences  to a former IRA commander appeared to be irrelevant and I suppose in the world of not an inch, that is a form of progress.

There were also the usual references to “silly girl” , “stupid women” , “Marxist” and other derogatory comments that seem to be acceptable within some quarters. The South Belfast PUP felt the need to disassociate itself from Sophie’s comment, perhaps in fear of losing some of their huge support base.

Anyway it brought me back to a line of thinking I’ve had for sometime, and it’s based on direct interaction with Loyalists. Are Loyalists who led from the front, did the dirty work as they see it, of not only defending their communities but took the fight to Republicans, content to be led by political representatives who even they acknowledge, used loyalism for they’re own ends. Are they content to be led by people who view them as terrorists, and who look down they’re noses  at them as at best a necessary evil. Remember one of the points of contention in the current talks is victims and the unionist elites are not just saying the families of republican combatants aren’t victims, that opinion extends to the families of loyalist combatants.

I’ve engaged in conversation with Sophie Long for a while now and find it refreshing to see how she has moved the debate on to serious social issues which impact all sections of the community. Open minded debate on these issues is required by the community as a whole. Ignorance on issues around social injustice, LGBT+ rights, feminism, poverty, educational disparity and cultural diversity is not exclusive to loyalism, it applies to the C/N/R community too.

I can’t help but wonder though, who is the voice/advocate for unionists/loyalists who are Gay, Feminist, socially deprived, educationally abandoned or culturally frowned upon. I see hope for loyalism and for the multitude of diverse groups that are part of the loyalist unionist community in the views expressed by Sophie Long and I seen courage in her comments relating to Martin McGuinness yesterday.

You see that type of courage requires a response, it requires reciprocation and it challenges Republicans to think differently. We have common ground on all of the above issues and many republicans, particularly former combatants would gladly work with all in the community to address them. I suspect also that many former combatants from all sides are more determined than most politicians to have no return to the past.

Just a finishing piece of food for thought – Sophie Long showed a level of humanity yesterday that a lot of Republicans wouldn’t and I include a lot of Martins former comrades. This woman knew she was taking a leap in a country where more leaps of faith are required. David Ervine was very similar and it made republicans sit up and listen. Maybe he didn’t face the same level of abuse because he had time served loyalist credentials or maybe it was because he was a man.