Has the Protestant Working Class lost out in the Peace Process?

That’s the title of a workshop that brought together working class loyalist representatives with some peers from other communities, interested academics and a small number of journalists. The day long event was organised by Dr Aaron Edwards and supported by the Political Studies Association’s Irish Politics Specialist Group and the Fellowship of Messines Association.

In an earlier post I posted an interview with PUP leader Billy Hutchinson at the close of the workshop.

With four sessions looking at different aspects of post-Good Friday Agreement loyalism, each session began with opening speeches from two or three delegates, followed by a 45 minute group discussion.

This post captures the prepared remarks of the contributors but not the subsequent dialogue which was conducted under the Chatham House Rule. As you listen to the speeches, bear in mind the context that the workshop was held two days before the start of the PSNI/NIO talks discussions in Cardiff.

PSA working class loyalism  workshop

The delegates were sitting around desks stretched across two interconnected rooms. Shuffling chairs on the wooden floor, mobile phones and heckling occasionally interrupted the speakers and the recording.

I’ve drawn out some quotes from the 10-15 minute speeches, but these are by no means the most interesting elements of what was said, and perhaps in some cases not said.

Steven McCaffery has a good write-up and analysis of the event in an article on The Detail website.

Session 1: The history, culture and politics of the Protestant working class

Dr Tony Novosel from the University of Pittsburgh recently published a book Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism which examined the PUP and the UVF (also available on Kindle.) I heard him speak a couple of years ago at the PUP conference. He has spent time engaging with the PUP and more recently their youth wing. [listen/MP3]

During the riots Protestant mobs fought vicious battles with the police as well as with Catholics so convinced where they that the police where being overrun with Catholics and that Protestants were being maltreated by the police. Confidence in the government was at a low ebb in the Protestant community. The unionists in the area attempted to assuage a growing band of government critics raising Protestant complaints against the police at Stormont. With such moves to pre-empt the anger the extremists were notably unsuccessful. Many Protestants now began to view the unionist party as utterly incapable of properly promoting and defending Protestant interests. A new organisation stood ready to welcome them into its ranks. They promised political action. The organisation of Protestant opposition to the unionists.

While it may sound like commentary from the height of the flags protest, the extended quote was adapted from an article by Graham Walker’s describing 1930s.

The Protestant working class returned to a life where the important issues of political and economic and social and marginalisation along with educational underachievement and social deprivation will continue to exist and may get worse. Even more damaging is the fact that – just as my research has shown – unless something within the community itself changes dramatically it will remain without a coherent and forward thinking political leadership and will be at the mercy of those … that do not have our best interest at heart.

Tony Novosel finished with a quote from an 1977 article “Think or Perish” which assessed a speech given by Gusty Spence:

Those of us who rejected the philosophy of right for the philosophy of populism in the past have been proven wrong. Let us not make the same mistake twice in so short a period of time.

Dr Gareth Mulvenna from QUB spoke next. His full text is available on the Long Kesh Inside Out blog. He also found parallels between the flag protest and the situation forty years ago. [listen/MP3]

In conclusion I’d like to say I purposely avoided dwelling too much on the conflict in this brief and informal paper. I just wanted to demonstrate how many of the losses suffered by the Protestant working class at the start of the Troubles led to a sense of frustration owing to the disaggregating effects of social forces and political violence on their sense of Britishness. This is not to say that the Protestant working class felt or feel any less British themselves. But an opportunity was lost for the Protestant working class to keep in tune with the ongoing refashioning of contemporary British identity.

While the white working class of the East End have adapted to the refashioning or withdraw into a familiar sense of British identity by moving away from the area, the Protestant working class in parts of Belfast are arguably still coming to terms with the breakdown of community and civic structures which occurred in the early 1970s. The Tartans who rioted in 1972 and the flag protesters who rioted in 2013 in East Belfast share the same core issues of unemployment and a lack of vision for the future, problems which young people across the UK faced then and now. However with the peace process, it is perceived to be designed for the benefit of republicans and a perception of being cut adrift from the rest of the British working class which once reflected their hopes, dreams and ambitions.

It is little wonder that Protestant working class in Northern Ireland feel marginalised and without direction.

Joe Bowers chairs the Fellowship of Messines Association. [listen/MP3]

So what is Britishness? I’m being told all the time what Britishness is. Is it a yearning for the glories of the world-wide civilisation of the Empire? Or is it the defence and promotion of the civilisation built by the struggle of working people at home? In which I include the Welfare State and the National Health Service as its most recent developments which are now under such dire threat … It seams to me that there are identities now that we didn’t have before, and that’s the result of the catastrophic history of the last three or four decades. We’ve got “PUL” in our [agenda] sheets. I remember when loyalism and unionism was a synonymous thing. It has emerged in our recent conflict as a badge of working classism: loyalism is working class.

He went onto refer to “unionist paramilitaries” and asked about the role of the Official Unionist Party in the setting up of the UVF.

He spoke out strongly against zero hour contracts and concluded by asking:

Is what’s happening in the streets a class issue or is it a unionist issue or a constitutional issue? These labels, you’ve got Protestant working class, Catholic working class, Protestant socialism, Catholic socialism [interrupted by mobile phone ringtone featuring the Red Army choir!] … Are we trapped? What’s the difference between Protestant socialism, Catholic socialism and national socialism? How far between them are we? Are we trapped? Is the Protestant working class trapped in an all-class alliance?

Even after only the first three speeches, I sense a feeling of loyalism being left behind, of history repeating itself, a separation of unionism and loyalism and of loyalism viewing its working class issues through the lens of republicanism victory.

An identity trapped in a negative vortex.

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll look at the next session – Challenges for Protestants in “Dealing with the Past”.

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