Pride and Prejudice in Ulster
There is nothing that confirms middle class people in all their self-regarding sanctimony than the doings of working class people. As Stephanie Lawler* argues pretty persuasively, middle class identities are forged to a large extent through their disgust at working-class existence and by comparing their own good taste, high morals, work ethic and spending power with the assumed absence of such qualities among the lower orders.
You can see this very clearly in the response of ‘middle Ulster’ to the loyalist flag protests.
They ridicule working class Protestant accents (#flegs). They point to the apparent fecklessness of protesters, complaining about how ‘these people’ are stopping ‘us’ hard-working folk from getting home at night. And then, for me, the pièce de résistance: in an attempt to bolster a flagging economy, a campaign of conspicuous consumption in support of retailers, restauranteurs and pub owners in Belfast city centre affected by the protests.
‘Middle Ulster’ conceives of loyalists as lacking economic literacy (can’t they see what they are doing to the Northern Ireland brand?), political immaturity (can’t they see the harm they’re doing to themselves and their own communities?) and atavism (they’re stuck in the past and backward looking). Conversely, ‘middle Ulster’ self-associates with a hard-headed understanding of the economic realities that face Northern Ireland in tough times, looking boldly to the future with a strategy of… what exactly? Business as usual? Keep calm and carry on?
Loyalism, for its part, seems to have taken on the character of a downtrodden ethnic minority. It demands recognition of its identity. It complains about its lack of cultural and political representation and alleges abuse at the hands of the police. These grievances are not unique to loyalism. They are shared by just about every other marginalised and minority group in society.
But loyalism’s lament is peculiar and perhaps harder for many to sympathise with because it once enjoyed relative power and privilege, and assumed superiority over others. But that has all ebbed away. The British empire is gone. The industries that once integrated Belfast into that empire are idle. The United Kingdom is being reformed and may disappear altogether soon. Everything that gave political and economic substance to loyalism is disintegrated and working class Protestants are left with nothing to do but demonstrate their Britishness in purely symbolic terms.
If you need an illustration of just how much the ground around loyalism has changed then look at the Titanic visitors’ centre in Belfast. Shipbuilding was once the material expression of Ulster Protestant power, confidence and prestige. Today its legacy is claimed by the same post-industrial business class (and their customers) who are currently berating loyalists for injuring the Northern Irish brand.
For me this poses some serious questions for those who have been condemning loyalist protesters and pouring scorn upon them. They might want to consider whether their behaviour and rhetoric simply confirms working class loyalism’s sense of injustice and its alienation from a peace process that seems to have left it behind? They might want to ask themselves why they said so little when the bankers trashed the economy but are now very agitated at loyalism’s disruption of Northern Ireland’s economic life? They might also want to reflect upon the emptiness of their slogan #TakeBackTheCity given the advanced privatisation of public spaces and services in Belfast. In this context, criticising loyalists for public protests, while urging the police to aggressively clear them away sets a dangerous precedent.
Loyalists need to look at themselves also. They should ask whether they would be better served by a politics that demands redistribution rather than simple recognition? What’s the point in making a stand on the issue of identity when austerity, imposed by the rich, is laying waste to your community? After all working class Protestants have grievances that are surely more substantial than the absence of the beloved flags and emblems, but trying to remedy them will require that they reach beyond their own areas to form alliances with working class Catholic communities faced with the same economically grim circumstances.
*Lawler, S. (2005), ‘Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities’, Sociological Review, 53: 3, pp. 429–46.