Behind the Belfast flag protests

January 14, 2013

Eamonn McCann provides the background to recent protests by Protestants over the Belfast council's decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag.

ONE OF the reasons for the Loyalist protests over flags is that Protestant workers are more likely than Catholics to feel looked down on by their own.

Flags is the word--not "flegs," much as a number of commentators seem to relish the chance to sneer at a section of the less well-off without fear of being labeled offensive.

If they derided Dubliners' accents in the same way, they'd be told to button their lips if they can't keep a civil tongue in their heads. The fact that the flag protesters can be depicted as letting themselves in for it doesn't excuse the volleys of vitriol that we find splattered every day over half-a-dozen pages of a Belfast morning newspaper.

The same satisfied scorn infuses condemnation of the main Unionist leaders. It's not that they are accessories after the fact of Tory crimes against the people of the North. Where Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt are deemed to have been found wanting is in failing to keep the Prod hoi polloi out of sight.

The Protestant lower orders have good reason to chafe at the condition in which they find themselves--this in spite of the fact that the Catholic section of the working class is still marginally worse off. (It should be noted that the main reason the gap has narrowed is not that the people of the Falls are living better, but that the people of the Shankill are living worse.)

A Protestant flag protest held in Belfast
A Protestant flag protest held in Belfast

It isn't, however, the gap that matters. More relevant to the flags issue is the fact that working-class Protestants have always been able to see--more clearly than is the case for Catholics--the upper layers of their own community looking down on them.

THE "TWO communities" are commonly depicted as mirror images of one another. But they are differently shaped in significant ways.

Down through the years, there has been much sharper class stratification on the Protestant side--big landowners, industrialists, the professional classes, skilled workers, laborers, the jobless, all bound together in their British identity, but each knowing well enough his or her own place within it.

The idea of a shared Britishness could give people without a penny in their pockets a feeling of involvement in ownership of the state. Take that away, and what's left is anger at betrayal and an enhanced awareness of being on the wrong side in an unequal set-up.

There has been a wealth of research over the past 20 years showing that the more awareness there is of inequality in any society, the greater the incidence of violence, racism, disregard for education, self-hatred, self-harm, alienation, depression, drug addiction, and so on and on.

Whole swathes of Richard Wilkinson's The Impact of Inequality, published in 2005, and of Wilkinson's and Kate Pickett's 2009 The Spirit Level--now regarded as the standard work on the subject--might have been written as a treatise on the sources of recent Loyalist rage.

Some of these points were impressively made by John Kyle of the Progressive Unionist Party in the Belfast Telegraph on January 8. But Mr. Kyle's party is incapable of addressing the issues it correctly identifies precisely because it presents itself as not just a Progressive, but a Unionist, party.

Its stated purpose in political life is to give expression to the specific interests of the Protestant working class, themselves alone. It may have made a bit of sense 40 years ago to see the interests of Catholic and Protestant working-class communities as separate and distinct--even contradictory.

Undoing the effects of generations of discrimination and exclusion meant striking a new balance between the communities. Conventional thinking saw the game as zero-sum: giving to the Catholics meant taking from the Prods.

This was never an entirely accurate, or adequate, analysis, but there was enough truth in it to make it seem plausible. Now it makes no sense at all.

Today, there is no solution to the problems of deprived Protestant areas that would not also be the solution in deprived Catholic areas.

There is no separate Protestant working class interest. The working class will advance in the future together, or, to the detriment of all, it won't advance at all. This should be the starting point of any serious discussion of the flag riots and how to ensure, as far as is possible, that they won't happen again.

First published in the Belfast Telegraph.

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