Dispelling the Myths Sustaining Loyalism’s Grievance Narrative: Part One

During last week’s The Nolan Show, the host, Stephen Nolan, travelled to a working class loyalist area of north Belfast to talk with members of a loyalist flute band, the Pride of Ardoyne. This was a result of numerous complaints purportedly received by the programme from loyalists about perceptions of how their community was being treated by Stephen Nolan and other media figures during a summer in which loyalism had once again been in the spotlight following the shameful scenes outside St Patrick’s Catholic Church and subsequent rioting in the Lower Shankill area.

The discussion that followed was as depressing as it was illustrative of a deeply ingrained sectarianism fuelled by paranoia and erroneous perceptions of the status of the working class protestant community in our modern, post-Troubles society. To the assembled band members, their culture was under threat, being jeopardised by their triumphalist catholic neighbours who were reaping the benefits of a peace process that had delivered little for their community but yet the spoils of victory for those across the peace walls.

When a clearly incredulous Stephen Nolan challenged those responsible for articulating the barely credible allegations, he was met by yet more hyperbole as the picture of a loyalist community pitted against the wall, facing a republican friendly media and police service was painted by those assembled -with one enraged loyalist even claiming that the PSNI were in “the taigs’ pocket.”

It was depressing stuff, made all the more so by the realization that the enduring loyalist grievance narrative is one that is not being checked by a unionist body politic that has historically struggled to provide responsible and effective leadership to its working class communities.

It can’t have helped that the scourge of unemployment that is ever-present in working class communities was clearly hanging like a dark cloud over those assembled, bringing with it the sense of despair, helplessness and disgruntlement that provides a fertile base for the type of extremist opinions exhibited on the night.

Of course, we’ve been here before.

Last summer, the UVF attack on the Short Strand precipitated another cursory media analysis of the issues affecting working class loyalists, with prominent loyalists like Jim Wilson being given a platform to once again articulate the case for the loyalist cold house narrative.

And in 2005, following the UVF/ Orange Order rioting at Whiterock following the rerouting of a loyalist parade in the area, we heard similar arguments being forwarded to explain loyalist behaviour and attitudes.

Loyalism’s grievance narrative would appear to run along two overlapping threads. One asserts that working class protestants have emerged as the losers of a post-Agreement(s) modern society, jilted of the benefits of peace which have been funneled in the direction of a socio-economically more advantageous nationalist community.

The second thread contends that unionist culture and values are being eroded and under threat as a result of republican aggression which remains relentless in spite of the guns falling silent some 18 years ago.

These two arguments will provide the focus for a short series of blogs in the coming days, beginning with an examination of the validity or otherwise of the contention that the catholics are faring better in a socio-economic sense.


The inconvenient facts regarding socio-economic deprivation

Whilst it would appear quite easy for loyalists and their supporters within political unionism, the Loyal Orders and loyalist paramilitarism to make assertions regarding working class unionism being the fall guys for the peace process, what is utterly irrefutable is that the objective evidence from every source available points conclusively to the fact that working class catholic communities remain disproportionately represented amongst the ranks of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the north of Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) produced The Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure 2010, and it is viewed as ‘the official measure of spatial deprivation in Northern Ireland.’ It collates data relating to the status of individuals residing in every one of the 582 wards in Northern Ireland, using these figures to rank the status of each ward in relation to a range of domains including Income, Employment, Health Deprivation and Disability as well as Education, Skills and Training amongst others.

Whilst separate rankings exist for each domain, an accumulative overall multiple deprivation measure ranking is also provided. From this comparative analysis, a pretty coherent picture can be painted of the profile of the most socio-economically deprived communities:

  • 14 of the 20 most deprived wards are predominantly catholic, including 8 of the most deprived 10 wards when assessed across all criteria.
    • Predominantly Catholic:  Whiterock, Falls, New Lodge, East (Strabane), Clonard, Creggan Central, Ardoyne, Twinbrook, Upper Springfield, The Diamond (Derry), Collin Glen, Water Works, Creggan South, Brandywell
    • Predominantly Protestant:  Shankill, Crumlin, Duncairn, Woodvale
    • Demographically mixed: Greystone, Ballymacarrett
  • 16 of the 20 most deprived wards assessed on Household Income are predominantly catholic.
    • Predominantly Catholic:  Whiterock, Creggan Central, East (Strabane), Falls, New Lodge, Ardoyne, Collin Glen, Clonard, Creggan South, Shantallow East, Westland (Derry), Brandywell, Twinbrook, Upper Springfield, The Diamond (Derry), Ballycolman
    • Predominantly Protestant:   Shankill, Crumlin, Duncairn
    • Demographically mixed: Greystone
  • 16 of the 20 most deprived wards assessed on Employment are predominantly catholic.
    • Predominantly Catholic:  Whiterock, Creggan Central, East (Strabane), Falls, New Lodge, Ardoyne, Clonard, Creggan South, Shantallow East, Westland (Derry), Brandywell, Twinbrook, Upper Springfield, The Diamond (Derry), Ballycolman, Water Works
    • Predominantly Protestant:   Crumlin, Shankill, Duncairn
    • Demographically mixed Greystone
  • 12 of the 20 most deprived wards assessed on Education, Skills and Training are predominantly protestant.
    • Predominantly Catholic: Falls, Whiterock, New Lodge, Upper Springfield, Collin Glen, East (Strabane), Corcrain
    • Predominantly Protestant:   Shankill, Crumlin, Woodvale, Dunanney, The Mount, Duncairn, Shaftesbury, Ballee, Woodstock, Tullycarnet, Glencairn, Northland
    • Demographically mixed: Ballymacarrett

Interestingly, a couple of demographically mixed wards also feature prominently amongst the most deprived neigbourhoods- Ballymacarrett in east Belfast and Greystone in Limavady (both approximately 50% catholic and 50% protestant at ward level.) Whilst the former is rigidly segregated, the latter can be recorded as the most deprived non-rigidly segregated mixed ward in Northern Ireland (not really any consolation in that though.) It is also worth noting that, although Diamond in Derry is more than 80% catholic, it also includes a sizeable minority protestant population.

The Peace Monitoring Report 2012 made reference to the facts regarding greater catholic levels of deprivation, an enduring feature of northern Irish life, when it reported that “the proportion of people who are in low-income households is much higher among Catholics (26%) than among Protestants (16%).”

The figures outlined above collectively point to a conclusion that, across the range of poverty and deprivation indicators, it is not sustainable to suggest that working class protestant communities are losing out to their catholic neighbours, who continue to predominate the range of lists ranking the most deprived communities in the State.

It is only in the field of Education and Skills that working class protestant communities appear to be faring even worse than their catholic counterparts, and this has been highlighted by unionist politicians and others throughout recent years (who are somewhat more reluctant to highlight the figures relating to overall deprivation, employment and income however.)

Indeed, education was back in the news yesterday with the revelation that 26 of the worst 30 wards for school pupil absenteeism are predominantly protestant, and this theme of educational underachievement and low attainment formed the basis of an excellent piece of research conducted by controlled sector educationalists, academics and some political figures, including Dawn Purvis, entitled Educational Underachievement and the Protestant Working Class: A Summary of Research for Consultation.

Their primary focus was on highlighting the worryingly bleak levels of performance by many protestant pupils in working class communities. Amongst their many findings was the revelation that “At Key Stage 2 in English and Maths, 11% of (mainly Protestant) controlled schools were designated Lower than expected (LTE) as against 3% of Catholic maintained schools.”

But within their report, the authors correctly acknowledged that a majority of those pupils failing to achieve the basic minimum threshold of 5 GCSE grades (A*-C) were in fact catholic, underscoring the reality that educational underachievement and low attainment is a factor affecting both communities, a point reiterated in The Peace Monitoring Report 2012: “proportionately more Protestant than Catholic males leave school without five good GCSEs (49% versus 46%), because of the larger number of Catholics in this age cohort, there are in absolute terms slightly more Catholic than Protestant males under- achieving at this level (2,608 versus 2,363).”

The pattern of educational underachievement and low attainment straddling the two communities is once again underlined by an analysis of pupil attendance at grammar schools from working class communities. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that a higher number and percentage of pupils from Shankill attend grammar school than those from the New Lodge ward and more from Glencairn than Falls and Whiterock (based on Year 8 pupils, 2009/10 data.)

Hence the despair when political parties seek to sectarianise a genuine attempt to address low attainment across the school sectors as was the case when the DUP’s 2011 Assembly election manifesto included the pledge to “Develop a strategy to assist Protestant working class boys who tend to have the lowest level of achievement, addressing issues such as aspiration, parental involvement and the value placed on education.”

Note the complete absence of interest in the plight of working class catholic boys who form the majority of males failing to obtain the basic minimum threshold of five GCSEs (A*-C.)

There is a real need for political leaders and the statutory agencies they control to address the genuine needs of those most vulnerable within society, and amongst this number can be counted thousands of residents of the working class protestant and loyalist estates across the north of Ireland.

But seeking to sectarianise poverty and pit the poorest against one another by peddling a false narrative which perpetuates ghetto warfare and harms the prospect of a developing accommodation and reconciliation between the working class communities who bore the brunt of the conflict can not and should not be allowed to proceed unchallenged.

It represents the manifestation of a sectarian mindset being brought to governance, and is also ironically counterproductive to the longer term ambitions of political unionism- namely, to prove itself capable of embracing those from outside of the traditional PUL base.

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