Recession, de-industrialisation and the Protestant working class: Just Learning panel discussion (November 2012)

In November 2012 I spoke as part of a panel discussion for ‘Just Learning’. ‘Just Learning’ is a community and labour education initiative based in Belfast. The panel discussion was held in the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre. On its website ‘Just Learning’ described the evening:

On Wednesday 21st November Just Learning delivered the first in our series of panel discussions themed on ‘good relations’ in hard times.

We felt it was important to explore the issues and problems around building good community relations, particularly among working class communities, in times of recession and austerity. Addressing the reality that economic hardship can lead to an increase in tension, scapegoating and even violence between communities (which may be forced to compete over scarcer resources) our first panel focused on the ‘protestant’ working class.

Dr Gareth Mulvenna, Professor Pete Shirlow and Jason Brannigan from Just Learning contributed to the panel which was then opened up for discussion and questions with the audience – ably chaired by our own Paul Donnelly.

I have included the text of my contribution below:

Recession, de-industrialisation and the Protestant working class

The topic we have come here to discuss tonight is a contemporary issue of extreme relevance for society, and also the peace process in Northern Ireland. It is also a highly complex issue, combining an historic legacy with current economic problems. These are not issues which we here tonight would be able to resolve easily, even if we sat here and debated it until next week. Though with the John Hewitt situated next door I can think of no better venue to encamp to for the purposes of a lengthy debate.

In 2004 a Northern Ireland Department for Social Development Task Force survey entitled ‘Renewing Communities’ drew attention to the problems affecting Protestant working class areas of inner-city Belfast such as Sandy Row, Shankill and The Village. Orr (2007) has highlighted how the report diagnosed ‘low educational attainment, low aspirations, physical and mental problems and apparent acceptance of economic inactivity’, drawing attention to ‘fragmentation within the community’ and ‘an absence of strong, benign and effective local leadership.’ My contribution to this panel discussion is to attempt to describe how, in my opinion, some of these problems evolved. I come from a social and political history background, and that has informed many of my observations about the contemporary situation. To find the ties from the past which bind the problems of the present.

Some historians and indeed, many of those who work in the media are quick to criticise the Protestant working class in Northern Ireland. Graham Walker has pointed out the example of Marc Mulholland describing the Unionist government as ‘pampering’ the Protestant working class in the 1960s. He also notes how the journalist Briege Gadd has referred to Protestant workers being knocked off their ‘top dog podium’ and having the ‘certainties’ of traditional employment terminated. If we look at the ferment of deindustrialisation in Northern Ireland we can point to the 1960s as a critical period. The Unionist Party was reticent to attract any inward investment, relying on the strength of homespun industry. While comparatively better off than their Catholic working-class neighbours there was no degree of ‘certainty’ in the traditional industries, particularly in the 1960s.

There were those who visited Northern Ireland during the early 1960s who made reference to the shipyards and presented an argument that the industrial backbone of Belfast was not the safeguard against poverty and unemployment which would have led to Protestants ignoring education or safely regarding themselves as being in a better position than Catholics. In her book My Ireland which was published in 1962 the Limerick-born writer Kate O’Brien recalls visiting Queen’s Island in Belfast the day after she had seen a production of Sam Thompson’s illuminating and at the time, highly controversial, play Over the Bridge.  Thompson, a Protestant who had plied his trade in Belfast’s shipyard, drafted the play which was concerned with exposing the sectarian schism that existed in the mainly Protestant workplace where Catholics were in a minority. It is important to note the social context in which the play was brought to the public’s attention. Thompson’s script caused much concern in the political echelons of Northern Irish society.

The overriding mood in the months leading up to the first staging of the play in early 1960 was one of outright indignation among Unionist backbenchers. They viewed the concept of the play as offensive and a spurious mistruth about industrial life and religion in the country which they governed. Indeed so incensed was Unionist Party member William James Morgan (Oldpark) that in May 1959 he asked Terence O’Neill, then Minister of Finance about funding for Thompson’s play:

Is it not the opinion of the right hon. and gallant Gentleman that public funds spent on these wild and indecent plays, which are entirely out of fashion, would be better spent on the art of music for what is intended, say, at the musical festivals that are held all over Northern Ireland, where possibly we would get more natural genius?

Although Morgan found it impossible to take a step back and observe the social realities of life in the shipyard Sam Thompson had first-hand experience of working in the yard and he wrote eruditely from bitter experience about the negative aspects of industrial working life. Kate O’Brien congratulated the play and wrote about Over the Bridge shortly after watching the production in Belfast in the early 1960s. Her curiosity about the play’s origins and Thompson’s inspirations led her to visit ‘the yard’ and she later wrote with gravitas about the workplace which had been the backdrop to Thompson’s script. Although she hailed from the Republic of Ireland O’Brien recognised the subtleties of the ebb and flow of the shipbuilding marketplace and the pressures that were increasingly being put on trade. She came to the conclusion that those who were employed in the shipyard enjoyed a far from settled and secure lifestyle from that which has often been depicted:

Queen’s Island, over the Bridge, is where in the past hundred years Harland and Wolff have built their famous ships. It is, or at least has until recently been, I believe, the most important shipyard in the world. It is therefore a field of drama always, industrial and personal; yielding regular work for about twenty thousand souls – or suddenly not yielding it, or threatening uncertainty, or hinting at sudden marvels – it is forever a grey, hard centre of anxiety, great anxiety and great hope, for the poor man, and a theatre of stress and competition for tycoons. Wars, markets, trade routes, imperial and national ups and downs – these make the tides of good and bad fortune for Belfast.

O’Brien’s commentary demonstrates the often uncertain nature of employment for a shipyard worker. While the work provided by the yard may have been allocated to a majority of Protestants the erratic market in which they operated meant that employment security was not always guaranteed. McAuley and McCormack have rescinded the notion that the Protestant working class constituted a ‘labour aristocracy’ in Northern Ireland and have noted that ‘By the mid-1950s…it had become clear that the traditional industrial base of shipbuilding, textiles and engineering could not guarantee a viable and prosperous economy.’ Thompson150x

In this environment a lack of education could have proved fatal to the aspirations of the Protestant working class.  For many it was precisely this fissure that made Protestant working class males prone to a social and economic disparity with their Catholic counterparts who by the late 1960s had begun to see the progression of a first generation of adults who had benefited from the Education (Northern Ireland) Act of 1947.  The fact that the Troubles were on the horizon meant that any misery endured by the Protestant working class through the process of industrial decline would only be compounded by the problems which civil unrest brought.

While deindustrialisation occurred in other parts of the UK after the 1960s, and the shipyards of the Clydeside, Tyneside and Merseyside suffered, these working-class communities did not have the added pressure of political violence to contend with. The essence of understanding the Protestant working class and their sense of angst I feel is to understand them as part of a wider British working class community: an ‘East-West’ perspective is needed. The 1970s was certainly a shock to the system for both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. Catholics suffered indiscriminately at the hands of roaming loyalist murder gangs, while both Catholics and Protestants had to endure the IRA’s reckless bombing campaigns that destroyed the commercial vitality and viability of Belfast city centre. This combination of violence and deindustrialisation affected the Protestant working class in a unique manner which is perhaps best understood by referring at least in part to Paul Willis’ 1978 work which was entitled ‘Learning to Labour’. Learning-to-Labor-9780231053570

In Willis’ study he noted that the ‘lads’ (a group terminology used by Willis to describe his working-class research subjects) formed an ‘oppositional culture’ to education, feeling that they were pre-destined to an unskilled job in the industrial workplace. I don’t think that the perceived indifference of the Protestant working class to education prior to the Troubles is a completely satisfactory reason for the current malaise. One need only look at Orangefield, Carolan, Grosvenor and Annadale to see good schools with a strong reputation which were filled with Protestant working class children. The general consensus however is that the Protestant working class attitude to education was similar to the lads in Willis’ study. Due to the process of deindustrialisation the jobs that would have been available to Willis’ ‘lads’ and Protestant working class males in Northern Ireland from the 1970s onwards became redundant. Linda McDowell (the sociologist, not the journalist), in her 2003 study of ‘Redundant Masculinities’, picked up on this phenomenon and its negative effects. She states ‘In the UK, today still a predominantly white country, male manual workers are, of course, the group currently most threatened by deindustrialisation, economic change and the growing dominance of the service sector. Rates of unemployment are consistently higher for men in old manufacturing districts…’ Speaking to a community worker in East Belfast six years ago, he was of the opinion that to be a Protestant working class male was to be at the bottom of the pile. The exclusion of young men from the so-called ‘feminised’ labour market is best summed up when the community worker in question stated that he had young Protestant men come to him and state that they wouldn’t go for a job in Tesco as a ‘replenishment officer’ as it was too ‘high-powered’ for them; above their station. Here, the language of the labour market is a stumbling block.

The great educationalist John Malone was seconded from his job as head teacher at Orangefield Secondary in the early 1970s to write a report on the effects of the early years of violence on children’s attitudes to schooling.  Malone reported that ‘Prior to 1969 there were signs in ‘Protestant’ schools of greater openness to Irish history, literature, dance and music.’ I think this point is prescient and reflects an observation made by Pete in the Irish Times on Monday when he wrote about the compatibility of cultural Irishness with a firm sense of Britishness among many Protestants in the decades before the Troubles. We will never really know what the more genial relations of the early 1960s could have provided for the long-term future of Northern Ireland. Indeed Marilynn Richtarik, in her recent authoritative account of one of the most important cultural figures from Belfast’s Protestant working class, Stewart Parker, harks back to that period and dramatically juxtaposes it with the inflamed 1970s.

Malone himself bemoaned the sudden eradication of tolerance and understanding in schools and made direct mention of the Vanguard movement which he supposed had contributed to ‘much more aggressive militant attitudes’ being displayed by pupils at the time.  Furthermore Malone highlighted that one dramatic effect of the outbreak of conflict was an explosion of ‘peer sub-cultures’.  I feel that this was a particular reference to the emergence of Tartan Gangs at the time. Tartan Gangs, much like many other socially and culturally-motivated youth gangs in cities across the United Kingdom such as Glasgow and London, provided young Loyalists in areas such as East Belfast and Rathcoole a collective voice for their frustrations at the changing nature of society in Belfast throughout the early 1970s.

Time magazine ran an article entitled ‘Teddy boys with Tartans’ on May 29th 1972 that made specific mention of how the mood in Northern Ireland contributed to the psyche of the Tartans. The journalist who wrote the article stated that, ‘In another era, the Tartan gangs would be written off as adolescents bored with the drabness of back-street Belfast, much like Teddy Boys of London in the mid-‘50s. But Ulster’s political chaos has turned them into defenders of the faith who have the tacit approval of many adult Protestants.’ I don’t think that there is anything particularly strange or alien about the emergence of the Tartan gangs in the early 1970s. I do feel, however, that their importance in the context of British youth movements has been underplayed somewhat by both sociologists and cultural theorists who have largely ignored them. They emerged at a time of a growing level of violence which was unprecedented since WWII, a time of declining industry and at a time of extreme social and constitutional uncertainty for Ulster’s Protestant community. Population movements due to violence and intimidation in the early 1970s also affected the vitality of Protestant church congregations.

One church building in particular, Macrory Memorial, has lay derelict for nearly 40 years on the New Lodge/Tiger’s Bay interface of north Belfast since subscribers to the church’s weekly offerings dwindled to zero in 1973 due to the very real threat of Republican violence. In the early years of the conflict, many Protestant working-class communities were decimated as people fled the threat of the Provisional IRA at interfaces and intracommunally the dreadnoughts of their local loyalist paramilitaries. The grip of civic guardians such as those involved with the Protestant churches and consequently the Boys’ Brigade and other uniformed organisations was dissipating; indeed many of these so-called community leaders fled Protestant working-class areas as the temperature rose, seemingly content to leave the emerging problems of violence and high unemployment behind. Trade unionists who would have provided reasonable voices and strong leadership qualities in Protestant neighbourhoods were overtaken or subsumed by the emergence of more militant workers groups, notably the Loyalist Association of Workers.

These changes in the character of the community had a dramatic effect on the Protestant working class, and it left their relationships with the rest of the British industrial working class ambiguous and almost dead in the water. Most workers in similar industries on the mainland just didn’t understand what was happening in Ulster. The Boys’ Brigade which was still so popular that it celebrated its centenary at Ibrox Stadium in August 1983, managed to draw membership from young people in Ulster. However the civic culture which still held on despite deindustrialisation in other parts of Britain, more or less died on its feet in Protestant working class areas of Northern Ireland. In tandem with the problems described by Willis and McDowell, which I feel can be transported to the Protestant working class in Northern Ireland; a toxic and depressing situation emerged for the community. These are problems which do not resolve themselves over night. These are problems which have not been resolved in a couple of generations.

The return of a civic culture may not be the catch-all solution to the problems faced by the Protestant working class. However, I do believe that it is at the grassroots where some of the most effective work is being carried out. In the 1970s many young men, like those described by Willis, left school and started work from an early age. Many of them joined the UVF, the Red Hand Commando and the UDA to defend their communities in a manner which they felt was justified. While reading a doctoral thesis written by William Mitchell of the ACT Initiative I was struck by one interviewee who stated that he rejected the narrative regarding young men being led astray in the early 1970s. The interviewee stated that: ‘I didn’t feel at the time that was my experience. Any of the guys that I knew, including myself, were more than willing. For me, it was about significance and belonging.’ We are now in a new era and the vacuum that was created in Protestant working class communities in the 1970s is slowly being filled once again with reasonable voices. The sense of significance and belonging which convinced young men to take up arms in the 1970s is now being replaced by a sense of significance and belonging which involves work with their communities on issues such as suicide intervention, community relations, transitional and restorative justice and re-empowering communities which for so long have felt neglected and marginalised. It is a long time since the early 1970s, but memories don’t fade very quickly in Northern Ireland. It will be a long road, and a tough journey to get the Protestant working class back to having a sense of empowerment and purpose. Recession is playing its part in making this an even more arduous task, but it is one worth remaining strongly committed to.



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