Bare facts of life in Protestant Working Class Communities 

The Socio-economic explosive
The ‘flag-issue’ has undoubtedly exposed the often-ignored underbelly in relation to the full spectrum of Social-injustice, that continues to adversely impact on all working-class communities, and has left those who already experience their lives at the edges and margins of society, feeling even more disenfranchised, neglected and discarded.

In Health our communities remain susceptible to high mortality, suicide, drug-dependency and mental health rates, combined to a lower than average life-expectancy. These stark facts are compounded by the emergence of post-traumatic-stress-disorders as a residue of the conflict.

In Education the underachievement of our youth continues to ensure a failure that will dictate and determine the life chances of what is our successional generation.

In Employment high levels of unemployment are a phenomenon that continues to rage unabated and many have been left unable to effectively compete in the market, where there exists a distinct poverty of opportunity in terms of both job creation and in making our communities employment and investment ready.

In Environment dereliction and deprivation remain rife, and more pronounced, particularly on interfaces and within isolated communities.

In social Welfare reforms are now at an advanced stage which are anticipated to adversely affect those most vulnerable and susceptible to poverty within our communities.

It is important to reflect that these reforms advance with the full consent, concerns and input of our political representatives. These Westminster so called reforms ought to take cognisance of the fact that we are an area of the UK still emerging from conflict and dealing with the particular legacies of that conflict. We would argue these changes  have to be tempered to take account of Northern Ireland’s unique set of circumstances. Under the terms of the GFA in the section on a  proposed Bill of Rights it is underscored that any legislation should be informed by the particular circumstances obtaining in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, on a policy front the lack of co-ordinated programmes and action plans to address poverty is itself indicative of the failure of Government and an abdication of their inherent responsibility. Indeed, the UPRG have made several calls (as yet unanswered) for the setting up of a dedicated poverty task force to address deprivation and poverty across all working-class communities.

Many believe that the whole Union-Flag issue has unnecessarily distracted from political delivery at a time when the whole spectrum of social injustice continues to adversely impact on all working-class communities. This flag débâcle is taking place in the midst of recession and the tightening squeeze of austerity, with what many see as inadequate delivery in regards to health, education, employment, investment, environment and social welfare. 

These social-injustice issues that have come to the surface themselves bring additional layers of complexity into the issue, and this has served as a fertile environment for the forging of inward  looking and regressive mindsets.
These factors are the socio-economic explosive that lurks within the restless undergrowth of our new society. It is also important to acknowledge, that these are all working-class phenomenon, which are not determined by religion. Indeed, many of these issues pre-dated the Good Friday Agreement, and not some new phenomenon.

So why have these issues erupted in and been confined to the Loyalist section of our community, when these are issues that impact across all working-class areas? To understand this, we must consider two complicatory factors that have made one community more susceptible than another.

The Political Vacuum:
Clearly, with Sinn Fein ensconced  in Government, Republicanism has been able to successfully translate ‘feet on the street into bums on the seat’ and have had enough ‘actors’ accessed to that political ‘stage’ to dictate and determine how the ‘political play’ develops and proceeds. As a consequence of Sinn Fein now being an integral part of what has always been referred to as the ‘State apparatus’ there is a creeping reluctance within that particular community to be seen to challenge the State in relation to social-injustice issues. For the Republican constituency, to publicly challenge what their representatives are or are not doing would de facto, be seen as a criticism of the party. One of the fall outs could be to damage the ideological umbilical cord.

In contrast, the ‘flag issue’, as it has become known, has been further compounded by an underlying representation issue that is currently expressed as a democratic deficit within Loyalist communities in particular, that does not exist in Republican ones. Indeed, it is evident, according to voting-returns and poor electoral turn-outs (with some areas varying between a low 12-30% return), that a section within Loyalist communities simply does not vote, or similarly feels that they have nothing for which to vote that adequately reflects their interests. This fact itself evidences a disenfranchisement with politics, and disenchantment with delivery on the social justice agenda. The poor electoral turn-out itself is a major factor that has ‘set the stage’, and has afforded others enough ‘actors’ on that stage to dictate how the political play is directed. In this context, we must all share the responsibility for the current issues, without resorting to apportioning all the blame conveniently elsewhere, and begin to shoulder what must be understood as a collective responsibility. In this context, there has been a failure to strengthen representation between our elected representatives and the Loyalist working-class Unionist electorate, in the forging of a participative democracy, where Loyalists can begin to interact with those who claim to represent us, hold them to account in terms of that representation, contribute to the generic decision-making process and influence policy. Indeed, there are clearly many within Unionist working-class Loyalist areas, that not only feel that they do not have a voice, but also that they cannot be heard, or feel no one is listening to them.

Whilst some elements within Unionism and Loyalism are undoubtfully embracing that challenge and forging new relationships, that has seen improved delivery, others have been too slow to grasp the challenge and remain to be convinced, and there are still those who downright refuse to consider that the Loyalist community can have a viewpoint, voice or articulate thought to share. However, the accredited protest-vote to dislodge Peter Robinson to the benefit of the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long, should have served as a warning shot to Unionism that all was not right at its democratic tail. Unionism did not listen then, but it MUST now! The challenge is for Unionism now is to reconnect to that democratic tail…
Indeed, the problem with the body-politik is that there is a top tier, no discernible middle and increasingly restless undergrowth. The UPRG continues to state that, ‘the best way to express your Loyalism is to exercise your democratic right! ‘Loyalists must learn how to make the ballot-box work because weaponry (or violence) is no longer a viable option.  We must learn to utilise the ballot-box to maximum effect because dividing unionism is not the way to do that, as some would have us believe.’

It must be recognised that the same representation issue, or democratic-deficit, clearly does not exist in the Republican community, where representation has been closely forged, underpinned with and intertwined within a working-class based politik. This presents a complicatory factor underlying the social-injustice issue and consequently how it is experienced differently within Loyalist communities in comparison to republican ones, where the same political disconnect clearly does not exist.

The identity fuse:
In terms of identity, we must acknowledge that there are many in the Unionist/Loyalist community who perceive the ‘Flag issue’ as the continued erosion of their British identity, experienced and felt through the removal of the Union-Flag and expressed through protest. Indeed, it must also be understood, that for many in our communities, the removal of the Union-Flag is interpreted as being simply the latest event in a back-catalogue of Republican moves to erode and reject all aspects of the British cultural identity to which we subscribe. Indeed, there are many who would still refer with anger and resentment to the former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile failing to hand out a certificate to the young Army Cadet.  That is still taken as a personal insult to the protestant community and the values to which it subscribes. Similarly the naming of a park by Newry City Council in honour of the IRA man Raymond McCreesh, that glorified the Republican sacrifice offends . The same respect or dignity for those who have defended their communities on the Loyalist side or indeed through loyal service in State Forces would not be afforded. We have which witnessed with their open hostility to the British troops homecoming parade and their constant denigration of Loyalists with expletives that portray thuggery.

Now we have the absurdity of emergent sound-bites towards boycotting Orange owned businesses being professed in the midst of this: add to this the continued failure to accommodate the Loyal Order parades as a valid expression of cultural identity, one-sided inquiry processes that focus exclusively and overwhelmingly on all other ‘armed-actors’ and events outside the Republican sector (despite Republicans being responsible for the majority of conflict related deaths and injury). This sustains a particular mindset within our community, which identifies with the historical connection of an identity under siege. 

We could not fail to acknowledge at the same time that there is no doubt that Republicans will also have their own back-catalogue lodged in their memory. Many are also conscious that the parading-season is fast approaching us, and are anxious that these current issues do not intertwine and play out within that arena, as another aspect or expression of cultural identity also gets subsumed into that eclectic mix playing out on our streets.

 The recent issues playing out on our streets are 
clearly more complex than a flag

Stormont the seat of power

 First Minister Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt

Senator George Mitchell 

This opinion piece was developed by the North Belfast Branch of the UPRG.

It has been submitted on behalf of the North Belfast Branch by John Howcroft, a former life-sentence loyalist prisoner and community activist.