February 2014        


Creating a shared future

When Eugene McCartan, general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, asked me to write an article on how we engage the Protestant working class of the North in a real debate about a shared future, I felt stumped. This is an issue I have despaired over for years and especially since December 2012, when the Belfast City Hall flag protests began.
      He asked me because, like many comrades in Belfast, I come from a Protestant working-class background. My family come from the lower Shankill and Sandy Row. They were Orangemen, Apprentice Boys, members of the Black Chapter; my grandfather was a B Special.
      Like many people of Belfast Protestant heritage, I grew up believing I was British. I remember as a child correcting people at Butlin’s holiday camp in Ayr who assumed that my Irish accent and the fact that I was born and raised in Ireland of Irish parents meant that I was Irish.
      Our sense of “us” and “them” was blind to class: it was about religion and identity. As a child, the grown-ups in my world did not rail against want and squalor: they railed against “the other side,” against Popery and the fear of Dublin rule. Their fear led them to side with the “big-house” Unionists who swanned in before each election, holding their noses and waving orange collarettes, only to disappear when their seats were safely won.
      The flag protests illustrate the fact that many of today’s Protestant working class are similarly duped. Unionist politicians stir the sectarian pot when their leadership is criticised or their support is flagging. It is a well-worn trail, used to undermine Presbyterian support for the United Irishmen in the 1790s and dragged out again to create division in the Belfast dock strike of 1907 and the outdoor relief strike in 1932. Unionism’s continued and shameful siding with the rich ensured that they always betrayed the poor. Any sense of class-consciousness and unity that fuelled support for the Northern Ireland Labour Party was drowned out with the onset of the “Troubles,” proving a boon for the extreme unionism of Orangeism and loyalist paramilitarism.
      But Eugene asked me to write about how to create a shared future, not why. To establish a peaceful and socialist shared future in Ireland we need to bring about working-class unity. This can only be achieved by fostering a sense of class-consciousness within loyalist communities. So how can we do this?
      If we begin by explicitly campaigning for a united Ireland, we will fail. Sectarian mistrust is too deeply ingrained, and it would be all too easy for the usual suspects within unionism to attack: it is their modus operandi after all. Where they are on less firm footing is on individual social issues: issues such as unemployment, high suicide rates among young men, and poor educational outcomes.
      One aspect of the flag protest movement was a strong sense of disillusion with the unionist parties in the Stormont Assembly. There exists a belief among loyalists that everyone has gained from the peace process except them. A former loyalist paramilitary “commander” in a large Belfast housing estate talks of frustration that the nationalist community are perceived as having secured concessions on policing and parades, for instance, while working-class Protestants have only lost out. He says there is a feeling that the unionist politicians and middle classes have left them behind, and that alignment with middle-class unionism has achieved little, though the idea that organising politically with their natural allies in deprived nationalist areas, he feels, would be a “hard sell” in the current political climate.
      So what can the left do to politicise these communities in terms of social issues, and challenge the unionist neo-liberal orthodoxy? Firstly, there are already a sizeable number of trade unionists and other progressive thinkers in these communities who have at present no voice. The Progressive Unionist Party could have been that voice, and made some welcome comments on social justice, but appear more enthused by populist banging on about flags and parades.
      We need a new movement to provide a voice for socialism within these working-class estates: a coalition of trade unionists and left-wing thinkers who could campaign along social issues and nothing else. The movement should seek to be inclusive of disaffected and progressive unionists but refuse to take a position on the constitutional question.
      The People’s Assembly Against Austerity in Britain provides a useful template: trade unions, progressive political parties, charities, pressure groups and individuals coming together and focusing on clear, specific issues such as welfare cuts and tax evasion.
      Welcome moves are already being made to set up a Northern Ireland People’s Assembly on a cross-community basis. It would be hoped that the intrinsic narrow focus on social and welfare issues would allow for a progressive movement where tribal and sectarian baggage could be put aside. Attention needs to be drawn away from symbols such as flags and towards the real problems we have in poverty, housing, employment, health, and education. Elected politicians need to be challenged to work towards fairness and social justice rather than the easy ground of flag-waving and posturing.
      It would seem sensible to hope that an increased consciousness within loyalist communities on class issues would expose the truth of unionist unity as being good for the rich and bad for the poor. Such a realisation could create an arena where greater cross-community co-operation on social issues became the norm. Pressure would be put on the unionist parties to address the real problems facing working-class people and make it harder for them to benefit from sectarian division.
      An Ireland united in peace and socialism will require working-class unity. To achieve that unity the left needs to reach out to loyalist communities in the North. The People’s Assembly can be an important step on that road.

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