The changing nature of six-county society

The article below provides much more detail than my short piece on the socio-economic indicators outlined in the Peace Monitoring Report #1, here.  Liam wrote it in late 2011, but the stats it provides are confirmed by the Peace Monitoring Report (February 2012).

Two faces of Belfast: working class and wealthy

 

 

by Liam O Ruairc

For many commentators, ‘Northern Ireland’ in 2012 is a ‘post-Troubles’ society(1).  With its ‘propaganda of peace’, the media is giving the public an explicit narrative of ‘an end to violence’ and of a ‘political settlement’ having been achieved, as well as an implicit narrative according to which Northern Ireland is fit ‘for integration into the consumerist society and the global economic order’(2). For example, in its editorials, the Irish Times keeps stressing that the north “is a better place” (3) and “has improved immensely in recent years”(4).  The so-called ‘Troubles’ are now “passing from the realm of contemporary politics into that of history” (5).

Some time ago the Belfast Telegraph spoke of a “new era”: “Northern Ireland has changed so much in recent years that it can be difficult now to recall the darkest days of the Troubles.  A new generation is growing up which has no memory of bombs, bullets, rioting or roadblocks.”(6)  There is a generation gap between those who were involved in the conflict, many of whom are already grandparents, and people who were ten years old or less at the time of the 1998 Belfast Agreement: “The Troubles are fading from memory into history. . . For many of the younger generations living in Provisional heartlands, ‘the struggle’ is not something contemporary”(7).  For example, when the book Voices From The Grave came out in 2010, Brian Feeney noted: “Hughes’ tale is so long ago.  The majority of the population in West Belfast is under 40, half under 25.  Arguing about who did what and when 35 or 40 years ago is of little interest to them.  That’s for their parents and grandparents.”(8)

Things have sufficiently moved on for the Troubles to be now re-packaged as a “sanitized zone for ‘tourism’”(9).  For many, the conflict in the six counties thus appears to have been settled.

The conflict was part of what is known more generally as the ‘Irish Question’.  C.Desmond Greaves defines the nature of the ‘Irish Question’ as “the question of whether the sovereignty of Ireland is of right vested in the people of Ireland or in the English Crown.”(10)  More specifically, after 1921, the conflict was about the constitutional status of the six counties.  So in whose interest has the peace process and its various agreements settled the question?

For Gerry Adams, “the point of the Good Friday Agreement is that (the British) are a government that is now committed to legislating for a united Ireland” and “The important thing is that this isn’t as British as Finchley. This is a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Northern Ireland bit has a semi-detached relationship.  The Government of Ireland Act, which gave a British government control for ever and a day, has been removed, and now it’s like two partners, parents, deciding to divorce at some point up the road, as opposed to deciding to stay together for ever.”(11)

However the Northern Ireland Secretary of State has stressed that it is not some kind of “hybrid state” edging towards divorce and made clear that the present government “will never be neutral in expressing our support for the Union.”(12)  In fact, according to Anthony McIntyre, the North is now “more British than Thatcher’s Finchley. . .  Finchley, remember, has no MI5 knock out centre. Britain has no strategic reason to keep Finchley.  Whatever else, the North of Ireland has more strategic value to the current British state than Finchley.”(13)

If the result of the peace process represents a defeat for Republicanism and a victory for Unionism, that does not mean that it has not brought about significant changes. With the Belfast Agreement “the original constitutional political status quo has not changed – instead it has been restructured. . .  Essentially, the old partitionist structure has been re-figured to place majoritarianism with power-sharing.”(14)  What have been the consequences of this?

The Belfast Agreement has a double logic.  On the one hand, it represents a defeat for republicanism, copper fastens partition and strengthens British rule.  But, on the other hand, it also represents a victory for nationalism in that it advances nationalist communal interests within the North itself.  As Suzanne Breen points out: “There has been undeniable advancement in many areas for Catholics in the North, but within existing constitutional arrangements.”(15)

Research carried out by academics from Queen’s University shows that Catholics gained more from the social and economic benefits of the peace process than Protestants.  Ten years after the Belfast Agreement, it is the nationalist community which is making most of the opportunities in the post-troubles era.(16)  It is thus not surprising that the Provisionals’ newspaper could note from early on the “growing confidence within the nationalist community” (17).  The peace process was said to have created a community “on the march” which would no longer accept the status of second-class citizens.(18)

This can be illustrated in economic, cultural, educational and political terms.  In 1990, when the Monitoring Report covered firms of more than 25 employees, Catholic employees were 34.9% of the monitored workforce for whom a community background was identified, which was 5.1 percentage points less than the estimated 40% of those available for work who were Catholics.  Twenty years on, that overall imbalance no longer exists.  The December 2010 report, based on firms of more than 10 employees, shows that Catholics constitute 45.4% of the monitored workforce, which matches the current estimated percentage of Catholics available for work.(19)

On the contentious issue of policing, the PSNI now enjoys the support of all nationalist parties including Sinn Fein, and the proportion of Catholics in it increased from eight to 29.38 percent, which reaches the Patten recommendation of between 29 and 33 percent. Although there is still debate over the need for an Irish Language Act, areas of nationalist culture such as Irish dancing, traditional Irish music and Gaelic sports appear to be thriving.  Speaking Irish is even seen a an indicator of belonging to a social and educational elite.(20)

Compared to Protestants, nationalists are now less likely to leave school with no qualifications and more likely to have a degree. UCAS, the national application system, does not collect information on the religious background of students but, in 2008-09, of those who declared a religious affiliation, 43.9% of full-time undergraduate students at Queen’s University Belfast identified themselves as Protestant, 56.1% identified themselves as Catholic.  The University of Ulster, across its four campuses, confirmed it had 11,099 students registered as Catholic.  This was in comparison to 6,378 Protestant students.(21)

The richest part of Belfast, the Malone Road, now has a Catholic majority, and the majority of customers for private jets came from that community, which made one commentator pertinently ask: “What did Bobby Sands kill himself for anyway?  Was it so that his fellow northern Catholics could own jets? Drive Beemers ?”(22)

This upward social mobility has resulted in an aggressive nationalist triumphalism, that can be witnessed from the tribalism of Gaelic football and Glasgow Celtic shirts -wearing students in the Holylands (23) to the new Catholic bourgeoisie marking out its territory with GAA flags on the Malone Road.(24)  In the words of Paul Bew, this represents a transition “from ethnic rage to ethnic vanity” (25).  Nationalist communalism is now firmly entrenched into what Christopher Lasch called “the culture of narcissism” (26).

Since 2001, the Provisionals have increased their electoral support and are now the largest nationalist party in the North and are part of its government.  According to a former senior election director, the Provisionals attract “new Catholic money. . . largely apolitical but nationalistic in its aspirations” (27).  While in the past Provisionals promised no return to Stormont, their argument today is “Why should we be afraid of Stormont?  It’s our parliament too.”(28)

The Provisionals’ electoral progress is mainly due to their ability to portray themselves “as the best defender of nationalist interests in Northern Ireland” (29).  Thanks to their strong advocacy of the fair employment and human rights legislation included within the Belfast Agreement, the Provisionals succeeded in creating ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘equality’ for nationalists in the six counties.  If the material conditions of nationalists have improved, it has nevertheless been an uneven process.

Some of the people most affected by the conflict are actually reaping the least from the benefits of peace.(30)  For example, a survey of the Whiterock area of west Belfast carried out by Dr David Connolly of the University of York, an academic specialising in international post-conflict issues, found that many residents felt that life had got worse since the 1998 Belfast Agreement.  Half of the households questioned felt community bonds were now weaker. Two-thirds felt stress because of where they live, although many did acknowledge the peace process had brought benefits.  The survey found long-term deprivation and the legacy of the Troubles were two root causes of trauma in the area.(31)  Speaking of areas such as Ardoyne, The Economist noted in 2010 that “many problems remain, including poverty, unemployment and alienation of various sorts.  Though the peace process has virtually eliminated the killings, it has brought little in the way of economic improvement. Some years ago a wave of youthful suicides was a telling sign of the level of family and social breakdown.”(32)

In contrast to the confidence and dynamism of the nationalist people, “the Protestant working class, and its young people in particular, have been the main losers from change in Northern Ireland. . .  They feel – and it’s a feeling they know is endorsed and welcomed by many nationalists – that Catholics are on the way up, Protestants on the way down.”(33)  This can be illustrated by the fact that whereas the majority of students in higher education are Catholics, 13 of the 15 worst areas for educational under-achievement in the north are in Loyalist wards.

Ten years ago the Northern Ireland Secretary of State warned about Protestant ‘alienation’ and the danger that Northern Ireland could “become a cold place for Protestants” (34).  “The sight of Catholics in jobs, and in government and in the reformed police service, merely seems to confirm the truth of the disgruntled loyalist ghetto cliché that ‘Catholics get everything, we get nothing’. . .  A Church of Ireland bishop said flatly: ‘People in working-class Protestant, unionist and loyalist areas feel seriously disadvantaged, alienated and isolated from the political process’.”(35)

The feeling of decline and deprivation is very pervasive in Loyalist areas.  For example: “Sandy Row has had it hard over the past 40 years. . .  But while some Belfast communities, especially nationalist ones, are experiencing a cultural and commercial revival, this loyalist enclave is facing further decline.  Forty years ago it was home to 15,000 people.  Today it has just 700 houses or flats, and about 2000 people.  Where there were once 108 shops and businesses, there are now about 40.”(36)  Along with the Whiterock area of Belfast, the Shankill is now the most deprived area in the six counties.(37)  If it is not Catholics, it will be immigrants who will be blamed by Loyalists for this situation – statistics show that more than 90 per cent of racist attacks occur in loyalist areas.(38)

The Unionist middle classes are apathetic and have mostly withdrawn out of the public sphere.(39)  Unionist and Loyal institutions also look to be in irreversible decline.  Membership of the Orange Order peaked at 93,477 in 1968, whereas in 2006, the latest year for which the figures are available, the total was 35,758.  According to the Order’s Grand Secretary one reason people are reluctant to join in is that they fear it will be a disadvantage in such jobs as the police and the civil service: “There is a feeling that it will go against you in promotion.  For the police, the Orange institution is now a ‘notifiable organisation’ and you have to declare membership.  It sounds like a notifiable disease.  On the other hand the GAA is positively feted.  There are PSNI GAA teams and senior officers attend the matches.”(40)

Protestants are now under-represented in some public sector departments such as the Housing Executive (41).  Unionist political parties are also in crisis.  In 1973, 447,085 voters supported unionist political parties, in 2010 this had dropped to 340,890, which was seen as ‘a disaster’ by commentators (42).  If things look bad for loyalists and unionists, this can only encourage nationalists into thinking that they are winning.  But as Liam Clarke notes, “political unionism is in disarray but the Union itself is stronger than any time in the history of Northern Ireland.  It is not in danger and can be taken as given for the foreseeable future.”  A crisis for unionist politics or loyal institutions doesn’t not imply a crisis for the Union.(43)

As Arthur Aughey points out no serious constituency in Ireland or Britain is advocating Irish unity: “It was once said that ‘We are all Marxists now’.  When speaking of the Union I think we can say: ‘We are all Northern Ireland now’.”(44)  The paradox is thus that there is a “sense of a Catholic victory” despite the fact nationalists and republicans have lost on the constitutional question, while those who won on the issue of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland feel “being on the losing side” (45).  This accounts for the fact that polls have shown consistently more support for the Belfast Agreement amongst nationalists than Unionists.

If Republicanism has been defeated, the situation described above has been used by the Provisionals to present the IRA campaign as having achieved victory.  This rests upon a revisionist view that the IRA campaign was the logical extension of the civil rights struggle and that the armed struggle was successful because it led to equality for nationalists within the north of Ireland – ‘parity of esteem’ and an ‘Ireland of Equals’.

This is a re-writing of the past to legitimise the present.  Although revisionist in nature, this argument has a rational kernel: “Volunteers in the IRA of the 1960s were fighting much more of a national liberation war while those today are fighting in a civil rights war expressed in national liberation terms.  Support in the north did not originally emanate from the desires of national aspiration but from the drive for civil equality.  Without the civil rights consciousness there would be little support for the IRA’s traditional goal of a united Ireland to be obtained by force; with civil equality there would be nothing like the allegiance to a united Ireland that there is in the Catholic communities.  The irony in the unionist jibe that CRA (Civil Rights Association) was just another way of writing IRA was not that it was true, because the IRA never totally dominated the movement, but that civil rights were later to become expressed in terms of republicanism.”(46)

This is why Gerry Adams can claim that “this is the only IRA campaign that has succeeded”(47).  It was successful because it brought down the Orange state and brought equality for nationalists.  For Adams, nationalists would still be ‘on their knees’ and ‘second class citizens’ had it not been for the IRA (48).  Gerry Adams has stated that “the Orange State as we knew it is gone” (49), something also acknowledged by some of his republican opponents (50).  Martin McGuinness also emphasizes that “the Orange state has gone and the Orange state is never, ever coming back” (51).  This has been the achievement of the republican struggle according to them.  But as Henry McDonald points out: “The idea that thousands would have to die and thousands more go to jail or themselves lose their lives so we could have an Irish Language Act or the control of policing and justice powers WITHIN the Northern Ireland state is a gross, deliberate distortion of history” (52).

Other Republicans critical of the Provisionals such as Brendan Hughes “do not feel any satisfaction whatsoever.  All the questions raised in the course of this struggle have not been answered and the republican struggle has not been concluded” (53).  Tommy Gorman has questioned whether the struggle was all worth it (54) and Provisional IRA founder John Kelly asked “if MI5 rules, what was the 30-year war all about?”(55)

While the British and Irish governments are trying to encourage the “gradual normalisation” (56) of the north of Ireland, the process is increasingly under strain.  The economic basis of the peace process is facing growing difficulties as the prospects for the northern economy are bleak.(57)  Sectarianism and divisions have increased since the peace process with so-called ‘peace walls’ trebling since the ceasefires, which indicates that this is much more a case of “reconciliation under duress”, to use Adorno’s expression, than a lasting peace (58).

Armed actions by Republicans hostile to the current status quo are also setting limits upon the British government’s ability to normalise the six counties.  But whether this is sufficient to undermine the pacification process remains unclear.  The social and economic changes experienced by the nationalist community have probably succeeded in undermining the idea that it is impossible for Catholics to ever get a square deal within the northern state.

Notes
(1) Colin Coulter and Michael Murray (eds) , Northern Ireland After the Troubles: A Society in Transition, Manchester University Press, 2008
(2) Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker, The Propaganda of Peace: The Role of Media and Culture in the Northern Ireland Peace Process, Bristol: Intellect, 2010, 87ff
(3) Editorial, Northern Ireland is a Better Place, Irish Times, 14 July 2008
(4) Editorial, North’s progress, Irish Times, 6 November 2010
(5) Kevin Bean, The New Politics of Sinn Fein, Liverpool University Press, 2007, 2
(6) Editorial, Moving Forward from a Troubled Past, Belfast Telegraph, 23 June 2007
(7) Bean, op.cit., 261
(8) Brian Feeney, Claims nothing new but add detail and credibility, Irish News, 29 March 2010
(9) Jim Collins & Adrian Kerr (eds), Free Derry Wall, Derry: Guildhall Press, 2009, 42
(10) C.Desmond Greaves, The Irish Crisis, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1972, 12
(11) ‘I have never distanced myself from the IRA’, Gerry Adams talks to Stephen Moss, The G2 Interview, The Guardian, 24 January 2011
(12) NI is not a hybrid state – Patterson, The Newsletter, 17 November 2010
(13) Republicans at Easter commemoration told – ‘North is more British than Finchley’, Derry Journal, 24 March 2008
(14) Tom McGurk, Why truth in the North is still an impossible target, Sunday Business Post, 1 February 2009
(15) Suzanne Breen, ‘I’ll jail McGuinness any day soon’, jokes Paisley, Sunday Tribune, 6 May 2007
(16) Research shows Catholics gained more from NI peace process than Protestants, Belfast Telegraph, 31 March 2008
(17) The fun isn’t over, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 6 August 1998
(18) Brian Campbell, Time for change, An Phoblacht-Republican News, 2 July 1998
(19) Bob Collins, How vigilance keeps bias out of workplace, Belfast Telegraph, 8 December 2010
(20) Gráinne Faller and Seán Flynn, Report: Irish speakers a social and educational elite, Irish Times, 9 January 2010
(21) Minister urged to help counter the ‘brain drain’, The Newsletter, 6 October 2009
(22) Jim Cusack, Who’s got the bling here – Catholics or Protestants?, Belfast Telegraph, 18 June 2008
(23) Henry McDonald, Student drunkenness in Holylands shows how tribalism has grown during peace process, The Guardian, 20 March 2009
(24) Concern over contentious flags, The Newsletter, 22 July 2009
(25) Paul Bew, The Making and Remaking of the Good Friday Agreement, Dublin: The Liffey Press, 2007, 71
(26) Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, New York : Norton, 1979
(27) Tony Catney, Sinn Fein’s Electoral Growth, Fourthwrite, Issue 2, Summer 2000
(28) Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA, London: HarperCollins, fifth revised and updated edition, 2000, 715
(29) Martyn Frampton, The Long March: The Political Strategy of Sinn Fein 1981-2007, Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 126ff. See also Kevin Bean and Mark Hayes, Sinn Fein and the New Republicanism in Ireland: Electoral Progress, Political Stasis, and Ideological Failure, Radical History Review, Spring 2009, 126-142
(30) Hardest hit in the conflict reaping least from peace, North Belfast News, 19 June 2009
(31) Life since Troubles ‘got worse’, BBC website, 5 September 2007, and also David Sharrock, Ulster peace brings in a new set of Troubles, The Times, 6 September 2007
(32) Marching as to war, The Economist, 15 July 2010. See also: Mary O’Hara, Poverty is the backdrop to the riots in Northern Ireland, The Guardian, 14 July 2010
(33) Eamonn McCann, Northern Ireland’s identity crisis, The Guardian, 18 June 2009
(34) Reid warning over alienation, BBC website, 21 November 2001
(35) David McKittrick: Belfast: a city of alienated youth, The Independent, 20 June 2009
(36) Dan Keenan, Children’s Centre in beleaguered Sandy Row many close, Irish Times, 23 February 2008
(37) Patrice Dougan, Shankill ‘most deprived area in Northern Ireland, The Newsletter, 3 March 2008
(38) David Sharrock, Northern Ireland has ‘culture of intolerance’, The Times, 18 June 2009
(39) Colin Coulter, The Culture of Contentment: The Political Beliefs and Practice of the Unionist Middle Classes in Peter Shirlow and Mark McGovern (eds), Who are ‘the People’ ? Unionism, Protestantism and Loyalism in Northern Ireland, London : Pluto Press, 1997, 114-139
(40) Liam Clarke, Time to march to a different tune, Sunday Times, 28 June 2009
(41) Protestant recruitment ‘falling’, Belfast Telegraph, 11 October 2010
(42) Nicholas Whyte, United Ireland a long way down the line, The Newsletter, 15 October 2010
(43) Liam Clarke, Why a crisis for unionist politics doesn’t mean a crisis for the Union, The Newsletter, 11 May 2010
(44) Arthur Aughey, Unionists can add to vision of UK, The Newsletter, 7 July 2010
(45) The hand of history, revisited, The Economist, 3 April 2008
(46) Frank Burton, The Politics of Legitimacy: Struggles in a Belfast Community, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, 121
(47) Johann Hari, Gerry Adams: Unrepentant Irishman, Belfast Telegraph, 9 September 2009
(48) Dan Keenan, Adams says IRA won rights for nationalists, Irish Times, 5 April 2010
(49) Barry McCaffrey, Adams: Dissidents must not hijack republicanism, Irish News, 13 April 2009
(50) According to Fourthwrite the Belfast Agreement “signalled an end to the Orange State” (Editorial, There is another way, Fourthwrite, Issue 35, Spring 2009)
(51) ‘The Orange state is gone forever’: McGuinness, Derry Journal, 23 February 2010
(52) Henry McDonald, How the Provos ‘sold out’, Belfast Telegraph, 19 November 2008
(53) Interview with Brendan Hughes, Fourthwrite, Issue 1, Spring 2000
(54) Tommy Gorman, Was it all for nothing? Andersonstown News, 11 September 1999
(55) John Kelly, If MI5 rules, what was the 30-year war all about?, Irish News, 5 February 2007
(56) Editorial, The start of normalisation, Irish Times, 6 July 2010
(57) Province no longer ‘a special case’ for cuts, Belfast Telegraph, 13 January 2011
(58) Henry McDonald, Belfast’s ‘peace walls’ treble after ceasefires, The Guardian, 28 July 2009, Leading article, The lingering sectarian troubles of Northern Ireland, The Independent, 14 September 2009
(59) Theodor W. Adorno, Erpresste Versohnung: Zu Georg Lukacs’s Wider den missverstandenen Realismus, in Gesammelte Schriften II: Noten zur Literatur, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974, 251-280

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Posted on April 13, 2012, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, Civil rights movement, General revolutionary history, Irish politics today, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, six counties, Social conditions. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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