Working class sectarian living is not caused by middle class bigotry, but a pervasive willingness to turn a blind eye

Newton Emerson has two good columns out today. I’ll start with the one in the Irish Times in which he takes Danny Kennedy to task for the old PUP nostrum of middle-class bigotry being harder to tackle than that of the working class.

Importantly, he notes:

From adolescent rioting through to active paramilitary membership, everything generally considered ‘most problematic’ about sectarianism is correlated directly with deprivation, and hence at least with perceptions of class.

So how, he asks, does this middle-class bigotry take responsibility for the dastardly actions largely to confined to the other end of NI’s relatively limited social scale:

Lurking behind that belief is the assumption that middle-class bigotry causes working-class bigotry. Frankly, this is also sometimes the hope. It would suit everyone from the political centre to the far left to identify a mechanism whereby sectarianism was conveyed from parlour to peace line, making blameless victims of its most awkwardly obvious protagonists.

That makes the failure to find such a mechanism all the more glaring. How does a hostile remark at the golf club become a brick through someone’s window in the less salubrious end of town? It is not good enough to say it sets the tone. How does the thrower of the brick detect the tone?

Good question.

Further inquiry might look at the lack of signal leadership (generally from members of the middle class) has allowed sectarianism to fester, unregarded out of convenience or embarrassment, so long as it keeps to areas like north, inner east and west Belfast.

Within wider society, the middle classes have generally detached themselves, drifted off to the suburbs, and certainly in the early peace process era made the alienation of working class Protestants more visible and more frightening.

The decline of loyalism into gangsterism, despite the efforts of some of its political representatives (not to mention considerable amounts of well-intentioned government funding), has been a shaming experience.

In 2003, Slugger published its one and only major study The Long Peace: The future of Unionism in Northern Ireland. In it, we referenced Robert Putnam’s landmark study of regional government in Italy, who…

…asked why some regions have become legislative pioneers, able to drive renewal and build support among voters, while others are incompetent, corrupt and despised by the people they should serve.

Successful regional government has emerged in regions that display the civic values of ‘co-operation, trust, reciprocity, civic engagement and social well-being.’

Regional government has failed where uncivic values predominate: ‘defection, distrust, shirking, exploitation, isolation, disorder, and stagnation.’

That, at the very least, requires a rediscovery what remains valuable about the middle ground.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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