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Pride and Prejudice in Ulster

January 29, 2013

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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. beta77 permalink
    January 30, 2013 7:43 am

    Interesting points, especially on how working class Protestants might better serve their communities, but what should pro-active middle class Protestants do now instead?

  2. January 30, 2013 7:48 am

    You can contextualise all of this in terms of the struggle of the working class and oppression by the bourgeoisie but I think that’s a load of old waffle.

    The issues for this bourgeoisie, middle class, catholic-raised, university-educated, status-quo-ist (meaning unionist) are the lack of leadership from the politicians raised from these communities, the lacklustre response from the PSNI (in dealing with criminals, I have no issue with protests except that if I caused a minor infraction with no injuries, I’d be dead to rights) and finally the amount of bleating about the man “on the ground” who, if he actually cared about the “#fleg”, would have actually influenced the vote beforehand. The lack of consistency on the #flegs issue across Northern Ireland, even in unionist-dominated councils, highlights how this is nothing to do with #flegs and everything to do with exacting revenge on Alliance for “yellow-bellied unionism” (a charming term applied to unionist politicians seeking discourse rather than protest) and their success when Peter Robinson was revealed to be dealing under the table in property.

    I don’t want to see people criminalised (or even demonised) for legal protest, but at the same time, society has rules and those rules need to apply to everyone. Society is built upon personal choices and there are many choices for people who refuse to abide by society’s conventions.

    I’m disappointed this #flegs issue has become globally recognised as “those crazy Northern Irish bastards who can’t even live with themselves.” The world doesn’t see this as a class struggle, they just see violence and thuggery. And the NI media feeds it to them with glee. Now who would have taught them to do that*?

    *yes, it’s all your fault 🙂

  3. oldfart permalink
    January 30, 2013 2:40 pm

    Ha ha ha… what a load of twaddle…… written by someone who has never been at the end of a sectarian beating….. These people are the same characters who gave us the murder squads in the 70’s and 80’s….. Pasley’s People, (before he saw the chance of being the Great Leader of the Northern irish people – but don’t get me started on that) and UDA UVF UFF Red Hand…… 15 to 25 year old males with hatred inbred and fed to them with their cornflakes, led by the middle aged thugs of yesteryear…… only now with the guns handed in (and paid for by the way – peace divident to “community leaders”) intimidation of me (and everyone else who disagrees) is their weapon of choice…. and you dare to say that the rest of us who have rejected such ways of dealing with difficult issues are somehow to blame for being some sort of reverse “class warriors”……. What’s wrong with supporting the city’s pub and club owners….. shops and businesses… I did the same when the IRA were trying to do the same with bombs and murder the sh*t out of us……. Loyalist’s Lament my arse – catch yourself on…….

  4. Rab permalink*
    January 30, 2013 3:52 pm

    Welcome Beta77 & Matt and oldfart,

    Many thanks for your comments.

    I’m not suggesting that loyalists are oppressed by Ulster’s middle class. If that’s what I was accusing them off, I’d have to conclude that they’ve done a pretty bad job of it. In any case, as oldfart points out, loyalism is more than capable of being intimidating, certainly more so than a store full of Marks and Spenser’s shoppers on a Saturday afternoon.

    I agree entirely that the DUP’s politicking has played a decisive part in the trouble. The tendency for mainstream unionism to stir up feeling and then act surprised when things get out of hand never ceases to amaze me. Paisley was a fantastic rabble-rouser who was always off-side when the trouble started. I’ve heard a number of loyalist ex-prisoners complain about his Grand Old Duke of York routine. Drumcree is another occasion that springs to mind. And here I’m thinking about the death of the Quinn children in Ballymoney. I remember watching the special news bulletin on UTV when Mike Nesbitt broke the news that the young brothers had been incinerated in their home. He was choked; could barely speak. He interviewed an ashen-faced David Ervine. I say interview, it was barely that. Just two shocked looking public figures trying to make sense of the death of 3 children in an attack associated with the Orange Order’s assertion of the right to walk ‘the Queen’s highway’.

    Now as leader of the Ulster Unionist party, Mike Nesbitt has played his own ignominious part in the current trouble. Wouldn’t you think he’d know better? As you say, Matt, where are the leaders?

    I don’t know that loyalism (or unionism) has ever had satisfactory leadership. It seems to attract weather vanes. People who test which way the political/communal wind is blowing and then point in that direction accordingly. Paisley was a master of this. I don’t know that he ever really led, he simply articulated the mood of a certain section of the Protestant community. And did it with great electoral success, although for a long, long time that was to the detriment of the whole of Northern Ireland. It would have been better if he and others had perhaps engaged in the sort of frank self-examination that I’m proposing above. But there probably would have been less votes in that.

    Neither do I doubt that there are paramilitary groups and other political forces involved in the protest and riots with an axe to grind. But that in itself doesn’t mitigate my broader point that the sense of loss in working class Protestant areas is deep and severe: loss of political power, economic power and cultural prestige and position, and yes, a loss of loyalisms’s sodding superiority. It’s all gone or going. In addition, loyalism went into the peace process intellectually ill-prepared for it. Of course, it had some outstanding spokespeople like the late David Ervine but generally it never seemed to ‘own’ the process in the way republicans did.

    I made the point in a previous post:

    Many of the young loyalists on the streets and being arrested won’t remember the ‘troubles’. They don’t know what fire they’re playing with when they engage in violent protest. But equally important is the fact that they belong to a generation emerging into a world of shit jobs, low pay, cuts in education, welfare and health care. True, none of them have ever thrown a stone in anger at the dismantling of Britain’s greatest institution, the NHS, but who has?

    In Belfast the politics and language of class is under-used and less understood. But what people do have recourse to in that city is sectarianism as a long-standing way to voice and demonstrate their frustrations and alienation.

    Yes, I’m a ‘class warrior’, if you like. But better that than be hidebound in middle class prejudices or standing on ethnic exclusivity.

    There are serious political and economic problems in Northern Ireland, and I see the loyalist protests and riots as a symptom of those. We voted for peace but there was never a sufficient debate about the quality of that peace beyond some vague reference to a ‘peace dividend’. Well, the peace dividend ain’t coming and no amount of shopping and supping in the city centre is going to change that.

    I’m tired of going on peace rallies. I’ve been on lots of them but this time I want some substance to my peace. I want to #TakeBackTheCity but I want to take it back from private interests. I want a commitment to a dramatic increase in social housing. I want a commitment to national health care. I want a massive investment in education. All that for a start, and if I could rouse enough people I’d block the fucking roads to get it!

    I don’t want to live somewhere that has no greater ambition than exploiting a 100 year old maritime disaster as a delightful marketing opportunity and selling its young people as cheap labour to corporations in the global free market.

    So, I’m sorry, oldfart, I’m not going to come galloping to the aid of the Northern Ireland brand but neither will you find me lobbing stones at the police wrapped in the union flag because I have the political nouse to see that neither is a particular effective strategy for getting us out of the mess we’re currently in.

    Finally, my friends, my family and myself have all been the victims of sectarian intimidation or violence (there are few people who grew up through the ‘troubles’ who weren’t) but I don’t see victimhood as the sole quality legitimising someone’s contribution to a political debate on Northern Ireland. Christ, if it does, then you’re welcome to Willie Frazer.

  5. July 19, 2013 2:44 pm

    I think you’re spot on. The blame here lies squarely at the feet of unionist leaders imo. As you say they just gauge the opinion on the ground then go with it.

    Middle class protestants do seem to look down on the protesters and are more than happy to call them out on their ‘ignorance’ , the reality though is that they have the most to lose.

    They need to start voting for the more progressive parties, DUP will always be happy to exploit any working-class grievances.

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