Engaging Grassroots Unionism: Room for the Churches & Working Class Loyalism?

I recently crossed paths with the moderator of the Presbyterian Church, Norman Hamilton, and he asked me if I had any insights on how the Protestant/unionist middle class might be encouraged to ‘care’ about working class Protestantism/unionism/loyalism.

Last week when I attended the session on ‘engaging grassroots unionism’ at Slugger’s Political Innovation (Un)Conference, I had Hamilton’s question in the back of my mind.

I don’t recall either the Protestant working class or ‘loyalism’ even being mentioned in that session, although surely they would be considered part of grassroots unionism? Is that a coincidence, or does it reflect middle class unionism’s blind spot for working class loyalism?

Hamilton, of course, has identified his moderatorship with addressing sectarianism and the legacy of the Northern Ireland conflict. But he said he also wanted his concern about working class Protestantism to outlive his term of office – to be taken more seriously by the Presbyterian Church. And he wasn’t quite sure how to do that.

The best I could do was ask him if he had talked to Philip Orr, whose research on the topic has been published by the Centre for Contemporary Christianity as New Loyalties: Christian Faith and the Protestant Working Class.

Hamilton had talked with Orr, who highlights how people in many working class Protestant communities feel abandoned by their churches – and by the main unionist political parties, for that matter. So there has been plenty of diagnosing of the situation, but few constructive suggestions about what to do or even how to get people excited about doing it.

These experiences have helped to clarify some questions for me. First, there are some questions arising from Hamilton’s query:

  • Why should the churches (or in his case, the Presbyterian Church in particular) care about the fate of working class Protestant communities?
  • Even if Hamilton’s middle class unionists could be persuaded to care, would their concern not be paternalistic?
  • Has anyone asked working class Protestants what they want (if anything) from the churches?

The last question is similar to one that Slugger commentator Anne Warren asked in response to my previous post about ‘engaging grassroots unionism’: Why not ask “Grassroots unionists” what they want? Seems an obvious starting point.

Indeed. I’m not sure to what extent the main unionist political parties, the churches, or the people who participate on the Open Unionism website have asked so-called ‘grassroots unionism’ (whoever that includes!), what they want.

Theoretically the Open Unionism website is a forum where that could happen but I think the jury is still out on its ability to really get to the furthest reaches of the grassroots – including working class loyalism.

  • HeinzGuderian

    You could start by dropping the word,’protestant’ !!

    What do working class Unionists want ? The same as working class republicans/geordies/cockneys/scousers/brummies…eetc,etc,etc………………Jobs. A higher standard of living. Half decent political leadership……………….and an end to Global Cooling !! 😉

  • There was a point made on Saturday in this regard, but was passed over quickly. Wouldn’t want to particularly single out the Presbyterians. All the main reformed churches largely sit and wait for people to come through the door, with little effective outreach into the communities of which they are meant to be part. There are exceptions, but generally their outreach is along traditional, well worn lines.
    There needs to be a thorough rethink, and where that has been presented it is met with curiousity and incomprehension rather than any great enthusiasm.

  • Glencoppagagh

    Isn’t the idea of ‘outreach’ more often than not simply a case of telling people they need to be ‘saved’ with little in the way of actually helping people. It’s a nice cheap option, of course, and satisfies the born-again pharisees that they have done God’s work. Anything more might be construed as ‘works’.

  • Yes. And most fail to do even that.

  • White Horse

    It seems to me that the problem is that Ulster Protestantism is so deeply, if there is anything deep about it, imbued in the Old Testament value system of the Nation State that it sees poor people as a burden on the state and therefore unpatriotic. The work ethic is at the centre of this value system as honouring the individual and consequently the Nation State, and they are prepared to fight wars to prove this.

    Clearly whatever it is, and there are different extremes of it, it is not Christianity. Clearly when the Book was opened, it was opened at the wrong chapters.

    Christianity is a universalist approach that does not defer to the GNP of any nation, and its values are subsidiary to that universalism. When you love your enemies, you cannot war with them. Jesus’ attitude was to serve the poor and the sick and the downtrodden.

    The difference between the Old and New approaches is essentially empathy for others. Serving an imperial imperative dims love and leads to a service of the empty gods of Money, Mammon and the rest.

    Empty gods lead to empty people living in defiance of Christ with an addiction to materialism and an attachment to their own selfish interests that leads them to destest poor people.

    And it shows.

  • percy

    beautiful and simple.. amen to that bro

  • Stephen Blacker

    The so called middle classes do not care because they went through the system and succeeded, others had their chances but never took them. That is the middle class attitude to less fortunate people in their community. The so called working class are probably linked in with the jobless and are looked on as an under-class by some people – ignore them and everything will sort itself.

    Unionist politicians have showed their reluctance to help this situation with their actions on selection and the education system in general. The facts speak for themselves, a problem that is worrying because it has an indirect effect on everyone.

    Rev. Norman Hamilton has a hard task ahead because a sense of hopelessness is rife in some areas. There is no easy fix and it will take decades to achieve the necessary results. Education and jobs is a good place to start, religious beliefs will get stronger as the hopelessness fades.

  • anne warren

    The attitude you are describing appears to stem from Calvinism and The Protestant Work Ethic. This concept expresses the Calvinist emphasis on the necessity for hard work as a component of a person’s calling and worldly success as a sign of personal salvation.
    Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect; thus, protestants were attracted to these qualities, seeking to be obedient to God to whom they owed their salvation.
    The notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_work_ethic

    Hence the attachment to selfish interests (the more wealth, the closer to God and Salvation) and the detestation of poor people who are obviously not of the Elect.

    As you say, this rather pernicious doctrine has little to do with Christainity as it is understood in terms of “Love thy neighbour” etc

  • jolico

    One of the last great acquisitions that the Anglo Irish Bank part-funded was, some might say, ironically, the acquisition of the Racing Post. I wonder how that one is getting on?


  • anne warren

    I briefly examined this aspect of poor educational performance by working class Protestant children in an earlier thread:


    My comments:
    Seem to remember some report showing pupils from the Shankill and inner city E Belfast do much worse in UK state exams than their counterparts in W Belfast.

    The report is
    Education in NI 1is report of session 2005-6 House of Commons, NI Ireland Affairs Committee
    Page 75
    Section 1.3 Proposing solutions
    Paragraph 2
    . . . .the above statistics and analyses how that . . Protestant working class areas of Belfast suffer distinct levels of educational underachievement, even when compared to similar Catholic areas.
    The planned reorganisation of education in N Ireland and simply abolishing the selection procedure will not answer the problems in areas like the Shankhill and inner East Belfast”

    Best wishes for the success of any initiative to improve matters

  • Zig70

    The argument seems over egged to me. Are people who live in these areas all thinking the same things? Don’t think so. Some would go to church, some would rather scratch their eyes out. Arguably a large percentage don’t vote unionist or vote. I think the chattering classes need to drop the labels. Most would be talking now about the legal aid rip off, xmas and the jungle. Not this rubbish.

  • Mike

    White Horse

    Wow. Try reading things like: “so deeply…imbued in the Old Testament value system of the Nation State that it sees poor people as a burden on the state and therefore unpatriotic” or “The difference between the Old and New approaches is essentially empathy for others. Serving an imperial imperative dims love and leads to a service of the empty gods of Money, Mammon and the rest” with Judaism (given that you’re denouncing the value system of the Jewish Bible) rather than Ulster Protestantism in mind and you might find yourself sounding rather Judeophobic. Religious Jews value their scriptures and also place importance on charity.

    By the way, you may try to characterise Jesus of Nazareth as universalist, but in one story he’s depicted as likening gentiles to dogs…

  • joeCanuck

    Jesus saves but probably not in the PMS. The Rev. Hamilton’s predecessor is flying a trial balloon today, as reported in BBC News, that because of legal reasons, the Church may not be able to contribute to helping the stranded savers. Some nonsense about only being allowed to donate money to registered charities.
    So, for a start, Hamilton could distance himself from that attitude or is it a case of the “working class” not being savers anyway.
    Come to think of it, to get an answer to his question perhaps he should offer his definition of working class.

  • White Horse


    Sorry, I had no intrention of wowing you.

    Yes, Old Testament values make sense the less empathy a person has. The words honour coldness. Their god is a man-made creation.

    Some Jews stand pecking at walls just as the unionists honour Derry Walls with relgious significance.

    Some Jews, and Protestants, honour the social conscience not because it is teaching, but because it is good. Others don’t.

    Yes, Jesus came to the Jews because they were prepared for him, but the message was intended for all mankind, ” Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” (Mk 16:15).

    The choice always has been between God’s way and man’s way. Empathy takes man to the New Testament and coldness to the Old Testament.