ACT Initiative East Belfast – Cordner/Long Lecture February 2015

Almost a year ago I was invited to speak at the inaugural lecture of the East Belfast ACT Initiative.  Other speakers at the event were Iain Turner (Balaclava Street) and William Mitchell, the ACT coordinator. Below the flyer is the text of my contribution.

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As we know, on Monday 3 December 2012 an amendment motion was passed by Belfast City Council which meant that the Union flag which had flown over the dome of Belfast’s City Hall for 365 days a year for many decades would be retired for all but 17 designated days. Sinn Fein and the SDLP had originally demanded that the flag be drawn down completely but it was the intervention of the Alliance Party, who tabled the amendment, that saved the disappearance of the Union flag from city hall altogether. The republican mantra seemed to be to bring this debate to the fore at a time when loyalist morale was already low; the message seemed obvious: destroy unionist and loyalist confidence and the rest will follow.

I think that many of the debates that surrounded the resulting flag protests brought into sharp focus the problems which have faced the loyalist and Protestant working-class communities in Belfast since the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed many of these problems perhaps have their genesis in events as far back as the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Much of the present in Northern Ireland, and our understanding of its meaning, is so often anchored in the turbulent past. In this respect there has been no better demonstration of the seemingly constant repetition of history than when the flag protests emerged. Briege Gadd wrote in 2005 that the Protestant working class were the ‘top dogs’ who constituted a labour aristocracy in Northern Ireland. The truth is that ordinary working class Protestants have never felt anything but anxiety about their position within the Northern Ireland state or its economy, and thus the UK as a whole.

The overwhelming majority of studies about Northern Ireland’s turbulent contemporary political history have portrayed the late 1960s as a period when the country was at war with itself due to the competing forces of Civil Rights campaigners protesting against forty odd years of Unionist misrule; while the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community and the Royal Ulster Constabulary and ‘B’ Specials sneered at and beat down the perceived ‘traitors’ within the Catholic community for daring to criticise their cherished Stormont Parliament. This narrative fits in with the long-held perception of ‘Protestant Exceptionalism’. All, from the ‘Big House’ Unionists to the unskilled labourers in the slums, have been cast together as being one triumphalist mass. It came as a surprise to many when during the flag protests of the winter of 2012-13 the loyalist working class began to talk about their ‘civil rights’, with the Twaddell camp following that summer.

In terms of the familiar language of Northern Irish social and political discourse this was a new development. Protestants have however never felt anything but anxiety about their position within the Northern Ireland state and thus the UK as a whole. The flag protests in 2012-13 were a stark demonstration of this; but I don’t think things were that different at the dawn of what became known as the ‘Troubles’

Due to the inexorable rise of Paisleyism and the undermining of O’Neill’s tenure as Prime Minister in the latter half of the 1960s the Protestant working class found itself in a state of flux. While a number of young men joined the recently formed UVF at this time to assist in agitation and the undermining of O’Neill’s credibility there was also a tangible sense of frustration at the perceived partisan stance which the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had adopted – indeed some Protestants saw the campaign for Civil Rights as exclusionary. It wasn’t just that some were convinced that it was a Trojan horse for an emergent Irish Republican conspiracy in the wake of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising; ordinary working class Protestants simply could not comprehend how they were any better off than Catholics at the time. Although Billy Mitchell was a biblical and political follower of Paisley at this time he explained to me in an interview nearly a decade ago that class unity should have been the defining feature of the Civil Rights campaign. He was one of many working class Protestants at the time who viewed the movement as being constitutionally driven rather than representing a true appeal for working class solidarity in opposition to the Stormont regime:

The 1960s wasn’t just about being seduced by Paisley. I think the Civil Rights movement had a role to play in it too: ‘One man, one vote for Catholics’, ‘Civil rights for Catholics’. The whole thing was sectarian – Hutchy’s father was right ; I got a slum quicker than a Catholic, but it’s still a slum. If it had been about uniting the working class – and I think that’s something that the likes of Cathal Goulding would have wanted – but it came to us as working class Prods that this is simply about civil rights for Catholics: ‘One man, one vote’; I didn’t have a vote. Unless you were a property owner you didn’t have a vote. 

The perception of inequality in housing was particularly vexing for residents of working class Protestant areas such as the Shankill. Mitchell recalled how conditions in the Falls and Shankill were similar and also underlined the manner in which bosses in the large industrial workplaces used the threat of the Catholic working class replacing Protestant workers if they considered dissenting:

We needed better housing too…I remember the old Shankill – there was absolutely no difference in the housing in the Lower Shankill and the Lower Falls. In the early days when Ballymurphy was built for instance it was nearly all Prods that lived there so there’s no difference in a house in Ballymurphy and New Barnsley or the old houses on the Shankill and the Falls. There might have been a difference in jobs but Mackie’s philosophy was ‘if you don’t like it there’s a hundred Taigs’ll take your job tomorrow’ – that was exploitation. 

Indeed if we think back through the decades it is worth recalling what the late Hugh Smyth had to say about the working-class community in Belfast and the leadership show by its politicians, whether they be orange or green:

Historically, Unionist politicians fed their electorate the myth that they were first class citizens…and without question people believed them. Historically, Republican/Nationalist politicians fed their electorate the myth that they were second class citizens… and without question the people believed them. In reality, the truth of the matter was that we all, Protestant and Catholic, were third class citizen, and none of us realised it!

The Protestant working-class have borne the brunt of political expediency and exploitation, whether it be through manufactured sectarianism in the work place encouraged by businessmen, or through the sabre-rattling of the ‘no surrender’ but ‘keep your distance’ brand of unionist politician.

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 stresses of political violence to contend with. If one considers the shipyard as the main employer of working class Protestants then it is perhaps necessary to further put into perspective their experience as workers there. A shipyard worker who had been interviewed by Sam Hanna Bell during the first half of the century highlighted the degrading effect of lining up to be chosen for work (cited in Megahey, 2009):

You always left your pride and dignity at home when you went down to the Cattle Market. Everybody was pushin’ so as the foreman would get a good view of you when he came out. It was damnable to hear your mates squabbling among themselves about who was standing in front of who. It was humiliation all right.  

Between 1960 and 1985 manufacturing declined by forty-five per cent and by 1985 Harland and Wolff (with a large government subsidy) employed only 4,000 in comparison with 26,000 in 1945.  During this period of economic free-fall the violent atmosphere of the early 1970s in Northern Ireland brought a sense of deep anguish to both sides of the community. Young men who would never have been in trouble with the law became involved in paramilitarism.

In the wake of the flag protests there were many parallels with the early 1970s – young loyalists came out onto the streets and found themselves in confrontation with young republicans; importantly however things are different now – many young loyalists have, through involvement with the flag issue, become politicised; not just in terms of a desire to get involved in electoral politics, but through a desire to work with and for their community.

In 2012 and 2013 there was much talk about Protestant working class areas such as the Shankill and East Belfast undergoing a so-called “loyalist spring” – the sense that loyalists finally felt able to grasp the opportunity to have their voices heard. To outsiders, loyalist projections of social, political and cultural identity may appear to be inverse and backwards, but that ignores the progress that is being made at ground level with an emerging thirst, particularly among those young loyalists, to learn more about the civic aspects of their history as an essential component part of the wider British working-class community.

The sense of significance and belonging which convinced young men to take up arms in the 1970s and beyond is now being replaced by a sense of significance and belonging which involves, through enterprises such as ACT, work with their communities on issues such as suicide intervention, community relations, transitional and restorative justice thereby re-empowering communities which for so long have felt neglected and marginalised.

It is a long time since the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s, but memories don’t fade very quickly in Northern Ireland and the legacy of the conflict – whether it be disputes over flags and parading and the past; or societal problems such as low educational attainment, unemployment and mental health issues – has left huge hurdles to overcome. It will be a long road, and a tough journey to get the Protestant working class back to having a sense of empowerment, purpose and civic pride. The ripple effects of the conflict are still being felt among working-class communities in Northern Ireland.

ACT however must be congratulated on providing strong leadership and hope by the grassroots for the grassroots.

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One thought on “ACT Initiative East Belfast – Cordner/Long Lecture February 2015

  1. Really enjoyed this; lots that familiar and resonant in your observations, especially the exploitation of the angst and insecurity, which provide the feedstock for our political ‘entrepreneurs’ (the parties of the propertied classes). How do we interrupt the over-determination of this continuing anxiety by the parties, given that they continue to exploit this source of insecurity for electoral reasons

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