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.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com