Regaining the virtue of Protestant aspiration

There’s an interesting feature in the Belfast Telegraph signed by five Protestant Ministers. It lays out their hopes and vision for what needs to happen in the areas targeted by the £33 million pounds announced last week by the Minister for Social Development. It is probably significant that this call comes from an unquestionably independent strand of civil society, the Churches.

The Minister spoke of a ‘poverty of aspiration’. Government cannot change that on its own. So in our public debate, we need to look beyond the immediate financial pressures and the deep underlying problems that seem to be permanently with us.

What do we aspire to see happen over the longer term? What might be some of the marks of a healthy, confident and happy community 10 years from now? To see hope and to describe a better future is an essential part of making the most of whatever opportunities are available.

We are not prophets, but here are some of our own aspirations for North and West Belfast:

* A place where culture and tradition are celebrated happily and without any sense of threat; where celebrating the past is not an end in itself, but provides a spur to build great things for our grandchildren to celebrate from our generation; where festival is both normal and hugely attractive.

* A place where the very best possible education is sought by, and provided for, both children and adults. The Minister drew attention to the gruesome fact that ‘of the 15 wards performing worst in educational achievement, 13 are predominantly Protestant’ (and most are in the greater Belfast area). Historically, the churches were at the forefront of providing public education, and there is a new and awesome responsibility on them to argue publicly, as well as privately, for the very best education to be provided in our areas.

* A place where young people are valued, but also seriously challenged to become the movers and shakers of the future; not written off or demonised as a generation, but given all the encouragement and support they need to become active participating citizens, and where their gifts and talents are channelled into highly productive and satisfying work.

* A place where senior citizens both feel safe and are safe in their own homes; where their wisdom and their company is valued; where younger neighbours help willingly, and inter-generational contact is normal.

* A place where family life is important – and where both parents care for both daughters and sons; where the rates of teenage pregnancy fall, and the rates of marriage rise; where conversation and encouragement matter more at home than cable television and the rented DVD.

* A place where those with disabilities and those who are vulnerable make their own contribution to the life of the community, and are properly cared for in that community.

* A place where petty crime is not accepted as part of the landscape, and where criminality is rejected and unprofitable.

* A place where people want to live right throughout their lives, because the housing is excellent; the education is first rate; transport is straightforward; community life is vibrant; and the streets are safe 24 hours a day.

* A place where government departments and public agencies are properly represented on the ground by people who care about its future, and are themselves prepared to live in it as well as work there.

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

  • Yokel

    All makes sense dont it but sadly i’ll be another community and drop in centre cos the other side have one and so do we.

  • willis

    Education and “Poverty of Aspiration” are linked.

    The obvious difference between the Shankill and the Falls in regard to education is the involvement of the church. It should be no surprise that a church which takes a holistic, long term approach to education is going to deliver more in the way of aspiration.

    There is an obvious need for money to be spent on a Brand new all ability school on the Shankill as a focus for aspiration. Yet the people who have led the way in the creation of new dynamic schools have been in the Irish medium and Integrated sectors. If the Orange order and DUP believe in their Ulster Scots culture then start a school.

    The sad thing is that this open letter comes primarily from the traditional Protestant denominations. Knowing some of the ministers involved, I would be surprised if they had not approached other Protestant churches in the area for their support. If the Free Presbyterians or some of the independent pentecostals had also been signatories that would have sent a much stronger message.

  • kensei

    None of those things could be objected to by anyone. Which is part of the problem. Statements like this do not tackle /*how*/ such a state of affair is to be achieved, and the debate that goes with it.

    And Yokel, a decent and active community centre could be a great help in achieving those aims, particularly as support for adult education.

  • harry

    Nationalists generally refer to themselves as ‘Nationalist’ not Catholic but Unionists frequently speak about themselves as ‘Protestant’ or ‘The Protestant people of Ulster’.
    Sounds very sectarian.

  • Yokel


    I dont disagree that a community centre or other facility, properly used can be useful, my point is more that very often people who will get to influence where this money goes orientate towards ‘things’ rather than tools, i.e. lets have a community centre. Obvious as it sounds, its not what it is its what you do with it. My own concern is that it will go on things that won’t get used effectively. A trip up and down the Shankill area for example will show facilities, training suites, church owned resource centres and so forth.

    The other thing Kensei is that there are adult education outreach centres all over the place including in said areas where this money is going to go, very often covering basic adult literacy & numeracy etc. Add on the fact that a short bus journey into the city center for example opens up other courses, the issue doesn’t seem to be to the facility, but one of will and organisation.

    Do I begrudge them the cash? Yes I do, on the basis that there is no apparent plan behind it and it seems like a buy off and a poor one at that. It allows certain politicians to stick their chests out and say look what we’ve secured. But for what and how did they go about securing it?

  • willis


    what’s your point in reference to the article?

  • Mick Fealty


    Let me field that, since I blogged the original in those terms. Protestant and Catholic are key markers for quite different socialisation patterns – irrespective of the politics of individuals.

    Roughly, Protestant communities tend to be much more ecumenical and eclectic than Catholic communties – thus the undersigned here represent five different churches. Social capital is accumulated around multiple and independent centres of interest, some church orientated some not.

    In contrast social life (though it has perhaps lessened in recent times) in Catholic communities tends to rotatate around (not necessarily focus on) a single church, the school, and the Parochial Hall.

    These distinctions are not peculiar to Northern Ireland or even Ireland. You find them anywhere these two denominations exist.

  • Paul

    ” Yet the people who have led the way in the creation of new dynamic schools have been in the Irish medium and Integrated sectors. If the Orange order and DUP believe in their Ulster Scots culture then start a school. ”

    I believe that the DUP, (or at least their religious wing), do have several schools in the Province. But I really doubt that this kind of school, with what would inevitably be a very narrow and inward-looking curriculum, is the answer to the “poverty of aspiration” and educational under-achievement found in places like the Lower Shankill.

    The mainstream churches have, by and large, followed their English counterparts’ example over the last twenty years and become more middle-class in terms of both attitude and their personnel. Their focus ( like”respectable” political unionism ) has drifted away from the w/c areas and only belatedly they’ve discovered what a socio-economic mess they’re in.

    It’s high time for them to start helping to put some of the good theories outlined in the article into practice by actually getting their hands grubby.

  • willis


    I think you are right. The problem is lack of a sense of ownership.

    I don’t know who really cares.

  • elfinto

    Yikes. Free P schools! Surely this is the last thing Norn Iron needs. Consider that Nigel Dodds and Nelson McCausland both have firsts from Cambridge. Educated bigots. No thank you!

  • kensei

    “Do I begrudge them the cash? Yes I do, on the basis that there is no apparent plan behind it and it seems like a buy off and a poor one at that. It allows certain politicians to stick their chests out and say look what we’ve secured. But for what and how did they go about securing it?”

    Oh, I begrudge the cash too, on the grounds that it should be needs based rather than sectarian (if loyalist areas are more disadvantaged, then they naturally get more cash under such a system), and yes it should be tied to some kind of plan.

    But let’s not prejudge. It’s easy to be cynical and the money might be put to good use. In a year we’ll know.

  • Mick Fealty


    it seems you’re having some ‘visions’ of you own. There’s no mention in the list of a free P minister in the LIST OF SIGNATORIES, never mind free P schools.

  • anonymous sources say they have a leaked document that proves that the protestant ministers with the money want to build more presbyterian churches, buy more union-jack flags, and order bucket loads of paint for the red, white and blue on the kerbsides.
    Ministers immediately denied this,saying the money would be used for out-reach projects, and power-sharing initiatives to help overcome sectarianism within their community.

  • Yokel

    Free Presbyterian school on the Shankill? It would probably be popular but it would have bugger all to do with the religious aspect in itself, more that it might just be a better school just as church schools often have a better reputation whether real or imagined. Anyway I don’t believe that the Free P’s have a big hold in the urban areas at all.

    Kensei, maybe its the businessman in me, maybe its the West Belfast cynic who has seen these communities close up but I want a plan and I dont think we’ll ever quite see one. For a start wouldnt it be an idea if the areas where this money was pumped into was considered a network so that each area may have certain amounts pumped into meet particular need (which i suspect may be largely the same across each area) but these resources are in turn shared. More for yer pound so to speak. I spoke,argued, with a person I know who is in community development over this money quite recently and I mentioned the network concept and, in short, no one had mentioned it yet in the community development circle. For loyalists communities the sense of disenchanment & isolation is apparently considered great, wouldn’t a closer association in some way with other loyalist communities through such a network be a good thing along with the many cross community leel initiatives that do exist? The only association these areas have in some cases is probably following parades up and down roads.

    Out of curiosity, does anyone on the loyalist side know who is pitching for a share of this cash?

  • Alan

    To be honest I wonder about the locus standi of some of the protestant churches in these areas. There was some research a number of years ago that suggested the smaller gospel halls were more reflective of the population of the local area. Many of the main Churches had significant numbers of their congregations travelling to services from without the locale.

    There was an excellent proposal a few years ago to have an integrated college on the peace line between the Shankill and the Falls. That would have had real meaning. There are problems in re-directing protestant pupils from other integrated schools in the area, but rationalisation of smaller schools could help there.

    It would also be a good idea for it to be an integrated SECULAR school for a change.

    You may also be interested in the DE’s EQIA on the revision to the RE syllabus ( or you may not ) which will directly discriminate against all religions other than the Christian – not to mention humanism and atheism. Check it out at

  • Alan I think most of the money must be spent on undoing the damage of the years of poisonous rhetoric within unionism. e.g The drugs problem is just the tip of the iceberg, the moral of the story is: you can’t feed people lies and expect them to be healthy, everywhere you look you’ll find sickness in one form or another.

  • aquifer

    “A place where the very best possible education is sought by, and provided for, both children and adults.”

    Where adults are historically underqualified, and even insist that their kids remain the same, adult education would be a great start.

    “where criminality is rejected and unprofitable. ”

    Pay to forensically mark property in Prod areas so that it is not worth stealing? Or sting a few extortionists.

    Great things Vision Statements, say what you want and you can begin to think about how to get it. We should insist that every Unionist politician writes one.