“culture wars and shared futures make very uneasy bedfellows”

This final post in this series about last week’s PSA/Fellowship of Messines workshop – Has the Protestant Working Class lost out in the Peace Process? – looks at the fourth session of the day which asked about the place of the PUL community in a shared future.

Once again, the opening remarks by the two speakers have been embedded below, but the follow-up discussion remains unattributed.

Prof Jim McAuley from the University of Huddersfield began by referring to the programme notes from the Love, Billy play which is running in the Lyric Theatre until Saturday 25 and asked how the loyalist community sees its culture and uses it, as well as how it uses memory. [listen/MP3]

Referring to work by Desmond Bell, Jim McAuley listed three major challenges facing loyalist working class communities …

  • Economic – problems brought about by de-industrialisation and unemployment;
  • Spatial – issues arising from the breakup of long-established working class communities;
  • Political – issues to be resolved around representation following the demise of unionism hegemony.

Those three challenges were identified in 1983. Yet again, a speaker able to go back and show how little has changed – or how circumstances have repeated – twenty, forty or one hundred years on.

PSA working class loyalism  workshop

While reviewing the aftermath of the 2011 Assembly election Nick Garbutt said the following:

“Large sections of working class loyalism have now become so socially disenfranchised and so politically alienated that they form what could be best described as the lost tribe of Northern Ireland.”

There’s a very good history book by Thomas Bartlett [Ireland: A History] published last year or the year before. Unusually for a historian he brings it right up to the contemporary period and he says this by way of the final summary of the book:

“There remains a very large loyalist underclass, poorly educated, mostly unskilled and socially disadvantaged who harbour beliefs that their position in Northern Ireland has drastically slipped and that their culture is no longer valued … While such a large reservoir of hatred, rancour and resentment remains in Northern Ireland, it is hard to feel optimistic. Equally, because the devolved structures of government were expressly designed to reflect and perpetuate the sectarianism that was at the heart of the Northern Ireland state, it is only possible to feel a sort of nervous confidence where the future is concerned.”

Jim McAuley asked whether it was possible for the loyalist community to feel positive about creating a shared future while being stuck in a position of nervous confidence. He also pondered the very many different definitions and uses of the word ‘community’, including expressions of boundary, narrative, symbolism etc.

Community is deeply emotional. There is an emotional attachment to loyalism that is deeply under-researched and under-explored. Around feelings of connection, belonging, protection, recognition of feelings, shared cultural understanding, Britishness – whatever that means – religious bonds, heritage, national identity, Ulsterness and so on. The reason people define themselves as part of the loyalist community is [that] it answers questions for them. We should never forget that. People see themselves as loyalist because it’s a way of giving a meaningful response to the world that’s happening around them.

He read out quotes from his recent interviews with loyalists.

Loyalism represents part of a community that has been constantly under threat for 400 years. While most members of the Protestant Unionist Loyalist community recognise that the shooting and bombing war is over, we now see ourselves involved in a culture war that we must win.

The Orange Standard published in 2007:

The battle for the hearts and minds of people will be fought with greater intensity than ever. Let no one be under any illusions. The campaign by republicans and nationalists to erode British identity in Northern Ireland will be stepped up in many ways. The Orange Order and other loyalists will need to be in the vanguard of resistance to this latest phase in the strategy of republican/nationalist alliance to try to achieve their objectives.

Jim McAuley finished by clarifying:

I’m not saying that the loyalist community culture is invalid … I’m certainly not saying that loyalist culture is to blame. Because others in our society have constructed community identities and community cultures and community memories [that] are equally ring-fenced and equally exclusive.

I am saying that the dominant dynamic behind loyalism continues to be predominantly defensive. And that loyalist culture is seen mainly only as a way of engaging the enemy by any other means. There are serious issues to be addressed. And that culture wars and shared futures make very uneasy bedfellows.

Joe Law is coordinator at Trademark which he described tongue-in-cheek as “the anti-sectarian unit” of the ICTU working in the public, private, trade union and community sector. [listen/MP3]

At times whimsical, he raised serious points about how poorly the education system helps young people understand our own society and island: partition, reformation, enlightenment, plantation.

Those who don’t understand their past are destined to repeat it.

We’ve got the peace process. We’ve set up the structures. The big disappointment is the two political parties are there in the big house. The disappointing thing is that they have dealt with absolutely nothing. There’s not much you can do with economics as they both agree with the free market economy and they’re just administering British rule. But they have done nothing on parading, marches, flags. They haven’t even sat down …

Joe seemed unimpressed with the bringing down the walls/reimaging project and found he wasn’t alone in the room in believing:

A lot of bollocksology goes on. It’s all this community relations, … liberal, religious nonsense. We need to be real.

Most people in this place live in a world and when you meet the others and you’re having a conversation – think about it – it’s politeness, denial and avoidance. Don’t talk about the war. Don’t talk about politics or religion. Kill each other, don’t talk about it. That goes on in schools, it goes on in communities, and it’s going on in the political setup. Until we break that down …

We’re in the biggest economic downturn since the 1930s. And we’re living in a sectarian nightmare. What’s going to come of that? … Young people, milling about, nothing to do. No future. No education. And no even thought of a future. Unless it’s maybe joining an organisation that will get them a bit of kudos. Those are the things we need to be dealing with.

And it’s great that you have this audience here today … That real conversation goes on, but it doesn’t go on enough out in the rest of the community. And it doesn’t go on in the polite society as such. And certainly not going on up in the big house, not happening there at all.

The workshop asked whether the Protestant working class has lost out in the peace process? The loyalist representatives present at the workshop clearly answered the question in the affirmative while the academics offered reasons why it was a near inevitability.

Fear undermines loyalist confidence. Fear of being ignored. Fear of not being listened to by the big house unionists. Fear of being overtaken by republicans in the league of rights and culture. Fear of being forgotten.

One contributor reminded the workshop about René Girard whose scapegoat mechanism following conflict tallies with the situation loyalists find themselves in.

All the while, loyalists struggle to throw off the one-dimensional caricatures that others use to define them … and that the community sometimes uses to define itself. The discussion in an earlier session prompted the idea that loyalism needs to define new caricatures, since the media will default to using stereotypes in their reporting.

Maybe one way to reset loyalist imagery is to address the lack of female representatives and spokespeople. Not just to redress the gender balance, but to positively enrich the conversation with issues and perspectives that have been missing for decades. Dawn Purvis created a new loyalist caricature, but she has moved on. Others need to be encouraged to step forward.

The News Letter reports a statement from John Wilson of the Ulster People’s Forum:

[The UPF] view with disdain the attempts of certain people to negotiate better relationships with the PSNI claiming to be speaking on behalf of the Protestant people when these very same persons refused to support the protests and actively agitated against the protestors.

Those who did not play any part in or support the protests have no right to enter any forums or discussions pertaining to protests and the UPF view it as disgraceful that certain groups who sided with the DUP and the government against their own people now try and use the impact of the flag protests for their own gain.

Only the PUP and TUV fully supported the flag protests from the very beginning so only these parties have any right to claim to be speaking for protestors in the absence of any protest groups actually being invited.

Some of the “certain people” were at the workshop. Subsequent events will need to cast the net wider, while stopping short of setting up a parallel Unionist Forum or Ulster People’ Forum!

In his analysis in The Detail, Steven McCaffery picked up on the comments by one attendee:

A separate contributor said discussions on how loyalists might begin to show a greater acceptance of Irish culture and identity could perhaps be developed in the Unionist Forum.

He added: “There is a supremacist attitude within Orangeism that states that we’re better, that `we’re the people’.

“And that, I think, is one of the characters that needs to be seriously addressed by ourselves.

“We are all equal.”

He added: “The flags issue raised serious concerns for me because of how it was focused around something that, let’s face it, most of us wouldn’t have even noticed, ie the flag flying over the city hall.

“I think the rallying around that flag … the conduct of it was wrong.

“It came across as supremacist, it came across as fascist … moderates [were] pushed aside.

“The `flagsters’, for want of a description or a word to call them, certainly within the wider unionist family became, quite frankly, viewed as fascists and supremacists in that their association was with members of the British National Party.”

Mainstream unionism and the loyal orders do not fully scratch the loyalist itch. And (elements of) loyalism gets tolerance and respect.

In general the workshop contributors failed to show much dynamism. Leaders and stakeholders were there to listen and discuss. But reflection has to be followed by action. Will the words of another contributor captured by Steven McCaffery be heeded?

One delegate said: “I think that the challenge that has arisen from the flags protest is, how do we tap in to that disaffection that is out there that was being suppressed by political elites saying everything was wonderful?

“And anyone that asked `why are things not changing?’, they were always criticised as being dissidents or anti-peace, or being loyalist fascists.

“I think a lot of the energy that has emerged out of the flag protests can begin to help us hold events like this and begin to question how do we move the peace process on?

“How do we begin to address those issues around the marginalised, the disadvantaged, and the poor who have not experienced the benefits of the peace process?”

The flag protests demonstrated an energy and a passion. The Unionist Forum seems to be depleting people’s energy and passion. The Ulster People’s Forum is disconnected from the main parties and will struggle to be heard.

Deprivation indices may vary by postcode; however, the underlying issues are common across peace walls and community boundaries. Yet the flag protests – along with hundreds of years of history – make it difficult for national identity ever to be set to one side while a wider sense of working class identity is fostered across political and religious lines to enable more effective campaigning.

Alex Kane’s not convinced this will happen. In yesterday’s post on Eamonn Mallie dot com he argues that party politics cannot move away from us and them.

We cannot share it because we cannot agree on ultimate ownership …

Unionists can do nothing to help republicans. Republicans can do nothing to help unionists. It is not in the long term interests of republicans to make Northern Ireland look like a settled, at-peace-with-itself state, because in so doing they weaken the case and the support base for the disappearance of Northern Ireland and the creation of a new, united, independent Ireland.

Instead he advocates that the Executive concentrate on “health, employment, investment” and step away from trying to under-do each other on creating a shared future. With such an immature political settlement, working class loyalists are as poorly served as their nationalist working class neighbours.

At the moment we have the worst of both worlds: incompetent, uninspiring and often irrelevant government and a seemingly congenital inability/reluctance to address legacy and shared future issues.

So let’s just concentrate on the everyday aspects of government. Let’s, to paraphrase Louis MacNeice, concentrate on the authentic mammon and put aside the bogus gods.

If the time is ever right and people feel comfortable enough to lower their flags and push their symbols into the shade, then I’m sure we’ll realise it.

But let’s not force the issue or imagine that we can legislate them into liking or respecting each other, let alone building a shared future together!

To quote Jim McAuley to finish:

There are serious issues to be addressed.

Yet …

… culture wars and shared futures make very uneasy bedfellows.

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  • This series reflected a tired old lefty analysis and soul searching that ends up yet another cul de sac.

    The biggest caricature being the ‘working class’ and ‘loyalist’ are the same. Because that is an ideological ghetto that to many middle class commentators find comfortable, because it is safe. It puts distance between a ‘concensus’ and something they simply don’t understand, or want to forget. That is why nothing changes.

    Better a wee seminar now and then to purge the angst than actually identify issues an actually do something.

  • Yes, that’s exactly what we were doing. Hmm.

    I think everyone involved, as well as those within the ‘P/U/L’ who couldn’t attend that I spoke to, agreed that this was a positive meeting.

    We are congratulating ourselves on the back of it – we are determined to push forward and try and make real progress.

  • “Aren’t” congratulating ourselves rather!