Wednesday January 11, 2006

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Analysis of the Malaise in Protestant Heartlands

Analysis of the Malaise in Protestant Heartlands, by Mark Langhammer

Reprinted from North Belfast News

Time to stop digging, and start thinking

My grandfather, a cawker in the shipyard, came from the Hammer district. He played under Ernie Ruddock in the Agnes Street Silver Band. My mother was brought up in Montreal Street in the Woodvale. And I worked for a short period in the Hammer Community Complex in Agnes Street. I have spent over twenty years working in a voluntary capacity in Rathcoole, variously as a Welfare Rights advisor, youth worker, political representative and elected councillor, and still retain a small role in education there. Seeing a community that I know to be imbued with a generous instinct for solidarity, exuding wit, humour and earthiness, display itself as sullen, mean, defeatist and marginal is painful and unhealthy.

A lot has been said in the past weeks about the malaise, hopelessness and despair within urban Protestant working class areas. In advance of the Love Ulster rally in Belfast, I hope this article stimulates thinking and debate - because the response after the Whiterock parade served no one well.

Political causes
The immediate political cause of the trouble is that the DUP has been by passed and made irrelevant. Many Protestants voted DUP to "stick up" for them, to put the brakes on "the process". The DUP duly dug in, and rejected last December's deal. For all the talk of wanting "photographs" the text of the December deal was highly ambiguous anyway and could've been read to suit either side.

After "sackcloth and ashes", Republicans had no option but to deal directly with Blair. And Blair, with his legacy in mind, saw the prize of de-militarising the IRA as simply too big to miss. Blair has stretched the British state to accommodate. Witness the raid on Jonathon Powell's, with computer discs and information removed. Few think that anyone other than MI5 would have been involved in that.

The price of decommissioning was a deal - involving On the Runs, the end of the R.I.R., the removal of watchtowers and de-militarisation, speaking rights in the Oireachtas (at committee level) and some sort of deal allowing former combatants to join the community police layer currently mooted. On top of that, Republicans stretched everyone's patience by landing, as a "fait accompli", the Three Amigos back from Columbia.

The point is, the Protestants voted DUP to "put on the brakes", and all of this happened on the DUP's watch as it stood by, impotent.

Urban Protestant working class areas have faced a long term malaise. In some senses, it's a similar dilemma as faced by other inner city areas across the UK. As redevelopment occurs, as people become more prosperous and move on and out, the inner cities communities, usually aged, poorer and stripped of their most articulate elements, become ghettoized.

May Blood was right when she talked recently about the loss of manufacturing and access to the apprenticeship system having not been replaced by a thirst for education, but it wasn't the only side effect.

A generation ago every street in Newtownards Road, Tigers Bay, Sandy Row, the Shankill or Rathcoole would have had a convenor, or shop steward, of Health and Safety representative as a result of mass participation in the great, unionized, manufacturing enterprises of shipbuilding, aircraft, engineering and textiles. That meant that every community had people with capacity for leadership, organisation and negotiation, learnt through the trade union movement. No longer! Today, with no manufacturing to speak of, that capacity for leadership, organisation and negotiation has been stripped out.

Equally, most real, self sustaining, voluntary work in Protestant areas (outside of that propped up by state or European funding) happens within the sphere of influence of the Churches - such as Boys Brigades, Girl Guides, seniors tea dances, thrift shops, meals on wheels, youth clubs, even Churches league amateur football. With the Churches in decline, there are more holes in the social infrastructure.

The most common complaint expressed, however, boils down to "The Republicans are getting everything, they're winning, we're bate etc etc" I don't believe that resources are being distributed unequally. And need is as great, maybe greater, in working class Catholic districts - but Republicans are winning the political battles. And Unionism has nobody to blame but itself.

Unionists closed the British road
Twenty years ago, I was part of the Campaign for Equal Citizenship. I stood as a Labour Representation candidate in the 1989 European election making that case. That campaign sought to give people in Northern Ireland, all people, access to governmental politics - to be able to join and vote for Labour, or Conservative. That campaign was serious, but failed, but valuable lessons were learned. One lesson burned deep into my political consciousness as a result.
Unionists (the entirety of the Unionist family from effete UUP-ers to paramilitaries) rejected, quite consciously, the concept of Equal Citizenship. Unionism rejected Labour Vs Conservative politics - rejected the extension to Northern Ireland of the British constitution. The Unionist family chose the 'comfort zone' of "Prods versus Taigs" over the outward looking, evolutionary UK development. The Unionists, in a real sense, closed the British road. And I haven't heard a genuine argument for the Union from a Protestant politician for twenty years.

The point is that when Unionism closed the British road, they closed the only outward looking, or aspirational avenue of development within the UK. Having rejected British political development, Unionists cannot, with any shred of justification, argue against ongoing, incremental island wide political development that is currently fraying Protestant nerves. And the expression of Unionism can only be negative, about stopping things, about slowing things down, about blocking things. It's this politics of hopelessness, the politics of the cul-de-sac that starts to explain the long term malaise within working class Protestant Belfast. Without aspiration, political avenues, hope, idealism, or winning arguments, the future for a resentful Protestant working class is to be hemmed in and policed in ever decreasing circles!

Working class Protestants unrepresented
There is a big disconnect between political Protestantism and the urban working class. With respect to the Fred Cobains, Bob Stokers and Chris McGimpseys, the middle class orientated UUP not only doesn't connect, it doesn't exist in many urban Protestant heartlands. The DUP, currently in vogue, also "jars" with the working class. Imbued with the spirit of 1859 revivalism, its "good living", temperance ethos doesn't connect either with an earthy, quick witted, urban electorate, with a Labour-ist ethic. So politics aren't working for Protestants.

Into this political vacuum, and the vacuum in community and church leadership, steps the paramilitary groupings. They occupy the space, but where do they stand? From what I can see, nowhere! Take the UDA. It rejected British politics, it rejects Irish politics, it rejected the Ulster Independence once promulgated by Glenn Barr, it rejected Sunningdale style power sharing in 1974, and has rejected the power sharing of the recent "confessional" agreement signed on Good Friday 1998. It dumped its political arm and set up a research group that doesn't appear to have researched anything. What is it for? From what I can see, it "does" two things - sectarianism and "running areas" - and, maybe thankfully, the running of criminally orientated fiefdoms seems the more important at present. And the UVF? Despite a brave, post ceasefire, effort by the PUP to move its constituency to more positive ground, the UVF in places like North Belfast and Ballyclare looks like an adjunct of Special Branch no less than the drug dealers in the LVF that it seeks to put out of business. It's very hard to argue now that paramilitarism is anything but a predominantly a criminal enterprise with no politics, no ideology and no world view.

That leaves the Protestant urban working class in a very big, deep, hole - up a creek without a paddle. And it strikes me that following incoherent Orangemen, like lemmings, can only end up with another generation of young people filling the jails, and a generation of mothers on the visiting runs. It's time for a long, hard, think.