I’ll be intermittently posting old articles I have written on this blog. This, from the Belfast News Letter in December 2008 concerns the short-lived Tory love-in with the UUP and the resultant message it sent out to the Protestant working class.
One thing that has become clear since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 is that working class Protestants in Loyalist areas have, on the whole, felt a sense of detachment from the ongoing ‘peace process’. Of course this sense of dislocation has both short-term and immediate causes which are rooted in a perception that the political negotiations have given Republicans and Nationalists a winning margin in the ongoing redrafting of Northern Ireland’s short but tumultuous history. However it has become increasingly obvious to the more acute observer of the Protestant working class in the province over the past forty years that recently noted anxieties have, in fact, longer and deeper explanations than many would care to admit or give proper attention to.
Yet one of the most obvious and central backdrops to this ongoing crisis has been the less than smooth relationship that the Protestant working class has had with the Ulster Unionist Party, which sat unchallenged for so long in Stormont until 1972. The Troubles, however, highlighted the declining faith that ordinary Protestants had in the seemingly monolithic political force. Challenges to the Unionist Party from the DUP and Vanguard in the early 1970s raised awareness of a class schism within Protestant politics and society in Northern Ireland, and that sense of discord has been increasingly important in the confrontations between Ulster Unionism’s different faces.
It seems strange, then, that at a time when working class faith in the UUP is still low the party would try to reinvigorate its links with the Conservative Party whose leader and potential future Prime Minister David Cameron was invited to the UUP’s conference at the weekend. Chris McGimpsey, who worked tirelessly on the Shankill with families affected by the paramilitary feud of 2000, was dismayed at the formation of the UUP/Conservative bond. The negative reaction of McGimpsey toward the alliance may have been a minority verdict within the UUP, yet it was vital in highlighting the reservations that many working class Protestants hold for the Conservatives.
On one level it might be suggested that this pessimistic response can be traced back to more recent reservations about the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the mid-1980s, however it is also possible and perhaps more crucial that many working class Protestants are also aware of the labourist tradition that has long existed within their community. The PUP for example has often proclaimed its Northern Ireland Labour Party credentials.
While the UUP’s flirtations with Cameron are an attempt to reassure errant supporters about the future shape of the Union, it seems that the party has overlooked the importance of labour politics and trade unionism to many working class Protestants in Northern Ireland – an historic factor which needs to be reclaimed by the Unionist and Loyalist community if attempts to empower a people often regarded as experiencing a process of social and political decline are to prove successful.