Has the Protestant working class lost out in the peace process?

The interview below with PUP leader Billy Hutchinson was carried out by the blogger @alaninbelfast following the Political Studies Association Irish Politics Specialist Group workshop on May 15 2013. Hosted by the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre the workshop was entitled ‘Have the Protestant working class lost out in the peace process?’

I gave a brief paper at the workshop so hopefully the audio of that will appear soon.

Below is a very short summary of proceedings that I wrote for the website ‘Long Kesh Inside Out’:

On Wednesday 15 May I had the pleasure of attending a workshop focused on the question ‘Has the Protestant working class lost out in the Peace Process?’ This short article is a very brief summary of some of the key issues which emerged on the day. I believe the proceedings were recorded so a better appreciation of the day will emerge when these are uploaded.

The workshop was held in the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre and was jointly organised by the Political Studies Association Irish Politics Specialist Group and the Fellowship of Messines Association. Around forty people sat around the room, forum style, to discuss this very important issue. After opening remarks by Dr Aaron Edwards and the BURC Director and Chair for the day, Brendan Mackin, the first panel commenced and sought to address the history, culture and politics of the Protestant working class.

Dr Tony Novosel, who needs no introductions round these parts, gave an historical overview of the manner in which the Protestant working class had been betrayed by ‘big house’ unionism and linked this experience with the emergence of progressive loyalism as espoused by Gusty Spence, Billy Mitchell and David Ervine. I was given the unenviable task of following Tony and spoke briefly about the sense of loss and community fragmentation which the Protestant working class in Belfast specifically had experienced during the early years of the conflict.

Ron Wiener's seminal work
Ron Wiener’s seminal work
I felt it important to mention the negative effects of poor city planning and redevelopment on kinship networks in the Shankill Road during the early 1970s. By calling upon Ron Wiener’s seminal work The Rape and Plunder of the Shankill I spoke about the comparisons to be found with similar processes in the 1950s in London’s East End. Plans to modernise the pattern of East End life were, as Phil Cohen has noted, a disaster, and crucially the planners did not allow for any effective participation by a local working class community in the decision-making at any stage or level of planning. The misery endured by the Protestant working class in Belfast through the Belfast Urban Motorway development was compounded by deindustrialisation and violence.
The Shankill
The Shankill

Joe Bowers, Chairman of the Fellowship of Messines Association, needs no introduction. Joe rounded this session off by providing a fair and even-handed mini ‘history lesson’ invoking a range of references from the Levellers to the contemporary ‘croppies lie down’ criticism of the seminal United Irishmen. Joe crucially reminded the audience of how the welfare state and the NHS are integral parts of British working class history and bemoaned the fact that fewer working class Protestants came out to protest about cuts facing the NHS than assembled at Belfast City Hall to protest at the removal of the Union flag. Perhaps a change of focus is required?

The next session sought to investigate the challenges for Protestants in dealing with the past. Reverend Chris Hudson and Dr Graham Spencer from the University of Portsmouth delivered informed perspectives, however I felt that an opportunity to discuss issues such as HET in depth was missed. This has become a vexing issue for loyalists in particular and the state of perennially existing with a Sword of Damocles dangling above the heads of many ex-combatants has created an extremely uneasy atmosphere. Jackie McDonald made the point that in the coverage of Bobby Rogers’ arrest and conviction for a 1973 murder a picture of the youthful victim was juxtaposed with a recent photo of Bobby which Jackie balefully said ‘made him look like a paedophile’.

The pictures that Jackie McDonald referred to
The pictures that Jackie McDonald referred to

This led to an interesting debate about negative media representations of loyalism. The past is all about competing perspectives and I just wish more of this session had been about attitudes within Protestant working class toward the HET and dealing with the past in practical terms. That is by no means a criticism of the two speakers whose contributions were extremely important.

Billy Hutchinson
Billy Hutchinson
The panel which followed lunch was designed to investigate the feelings of the ‘Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist’ community about the Peace Process. Billy Hutchinson, Jackie McDonald and Dr Aaron Edwards debated issues which were core to the overall narrative. One metaphor that Billy used which I found useful was that if you tell a child to be scared of the dark they will find it difficult to then come to terms with the fact that there is actually nothing about the dark to be afraid of. The same process has been used by the DUP and others over the years to utilise the Protestant working class in opposition to Republicanism. Now that the DUP are in government with Sinn Fein how can they justify using the old politics of fear? It didn’t stop them at the end of last year with their pamphleteering.
The now infamous pamphlet created by the DUP
The now infamous pamphlet created by the DUP

The last topic discussed was that of the place of ‘Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist’ community in a ‘shared future’. Joe Law of Trademark and Prof. Jim McAuley spoke around this theme and McAuley addressed an important issue – how memory can be vital in shaping the future. Instead of celebrating a revanchist vision of the past, the Protestant working class need to bring out other enriching aspects of their culture which translate to the wider British community. British identity is an amorphous thing and the Protestant working class have much to contribute in this respect to both a ‘Great’ Britain and a better Northern Ireland.

The whole day was energetic and encouraging. A remedy was not found but by brining so many contributors from different backgrounds together a step in the right direction was taken. It was agreed afterwards that a follow-up is needed. And a follow-up to the follow-up. Perhaps, as Jackie McDonald said, we should get some of the young and disenchanted flag protestors in to listen and contribute. There is no point congratulating ourselves about a great day until those who are really on the margins are brought in from the cold.


1 Comment

  1. Would like to attend any future events of this type – didn’t hear about this one until it was already booked out . . .

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