Protest over the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 in Larne, County Antrim; loyalist power workers at Ballylumford Power Station had helped bring down the political power-sharing experiment in 1974, so their banner was no idle threat to the government.
THERE is security in certainty.
Equally, there is insecurity where uncertainty exists or is perceived.
When I was at university I studied the impact of modernisation on societies in different parts of the world. Modernisation inevitably brought uncertainty and with it insecurity.
Northern Ireland was a clear example of how a process of modernisation impacted on society. The Northern Ireland of the late 1960s was inevitably changing and for some that was deeply unsettling. That uncertainty led some within the unionist community to respond to events through violence. An earlier campaign in the late 1950s by the militant Irish Republican Army had fizzled out due to lack of support by the early 1960s.
But unionists remained afraid and the rise of an articulate and demanding Roman Catholic middle class, benefiting through the university education promoted by the British state, led to a growing sense of unease. In 1966 Peter Ward, a Catholic barman, was murdered by the loyalist terrorist group the UVF, an indication that this perceived threat was being taken deadly seriously and that the response would develop on predictably sectarian lines.
As events progressed, unionists banded together in opposition to external and internal pressures. But it was a complicated situation and there was no agreement on where the future lay or what it might be. This was a trend which continued. Unionists have argued the case for full integration with the rest of the United Kingdom, for devolved government (which they now have in a power-sharing arrangement) and even for independence from the United Kingdom.
In the past public banding was a common security for the Protestant community. David Miller in his excellent study “Queen’s Rebels”, in 1978, traced this back to the Plantation years of the 17th century, when the newly arrived Protestant settlers had to combine to ensure their survival. In 1641 rebellion broke out which sought to expunge them from the landscape, either by expulsion or, as more often happened, by murder.
The 1641 Rebellion was writ large on the psyche of Irish Protestants, who believed it showed that Catholics could not be trusted as they had attacked and sought to destroy the Plantation settlements of the early 1600s
This public banding took the form of militia, and the muster rolls from the 1630s still survive in the public record. It was a military tradition which could also be seen in other areas where Protestant emigrants settled. In America, for example, militia mustered a number of times each year to ensure they were in practice and had weaponry to defend themselves, principally against Native American tribes which might choose to attack. Indian massacres were common as the frontier tussles began and the militia were stubborn, determined and usually effective.
In the Northern Ireland context Miller said “The community’s essence was that its members could trust one another, and no one else. It stood uneasily between those who could never be trusted (the Catholics) and a sovereign power which might be trusted only within limits.”
This sense of Protestant togetherness was not entirely true, as at certain points the Scottish and English elements of the settlement did not agree and were antagonistical to each other. Although there was unity during the Williamite and Jacobite wars, for example, in the aftermath of the Williamite victory, Presbyterians were impacted by the Penal Laws as much as Catholics and the Presbyterian aldermen of Londonderry were thrown out of office, something which led to bitter and deep-seated resentment.
But at times of what were seen as great common crisis, the public banding could be seen again; in the 20th century the issue of Home Rule was a major unifying force for most Ulster Protestants, although some remained radical enough not to entirely thrown their lot in with the more conservative elements of the Unionist camp. This banding resulted in the formation of a unionist army of around 80,000 – the original Ulster Volunteer Force of Sir Edward Carson, founded in 1913. The unionist leadership was successful in preventing governance by a Home Rule parliament in Dublin and for fifty years it had guaranteed stability.
However, the arrival of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, a sharp response from the state to demonstrations against it, instability and violence, the rise of the IRA, and direct intervention by the London authorities led to years of political uncertainty in Northern Ireland.
The Belfast Agreement of 1998 and subsequent agreements might be expected to have resolved the issue of uncertainty; it has been said that ‘republicans were too clever to admit they’d lost and the loyalists were too stupid to realise they’d won’ in the aftermath of the Agreement.
However this may be, the truth is that in loyalist working-class areas there is a sneaking suspicion that those communities are ultimate losers. In his recent book “Very British Rebels? The Culture and Politics of Ulster Loyalism”, James W. McAuley notes the realities on the ground in Protestant East Belfast, where pupils living in the predominantly Protestant inner city working-class areas of Mount, Ballymacarrett and Woodstock failed to match the overall average of GCSE and A Level qualifications in 2006. There would have had to be between a 9% and 23% increase in grades for this to have happened.
Protestant underachievement in working-class communities is a well-known and difficult problem. McAuley says “…lack of educational success in Protestant working-class areas is a core social problem. Educationally four out of the five lowest achieving Wards in Northern Ireland are mainly Protestant, as are six out of the worst ten and twelve of the top twenty.”
This is in a society which continues to make proud boosts about having the best education system in the United Kingdom. Efforts have been ongoing to try and address it, including from the grassroots a position paper entitled ‘Firm Foundations’ from the working-class Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) which laid out a number of practical suggestions.
One of these was the ending of academic selection, which is not something that would win particular favour with parties which draw on a more middle-class Protestant electoral support.
The crux of that situation perhaps sheds some interesting light on the Protestant community in modern times. The present educational system includes a Grammar School system which the Protestant middle-class in particular is deeply committed to maintaining. The middle-class or aspiring middle class sees the Grammar system as a step up the ladder to achievement in later life, on the back of a better education.
But in Protestant working-class areas there is not the same consensus over education nor, one senses, is there any evidence of lasting thought being given to those areas, where underachievement is in danger of creating an educational underclass which, in an economic downturn, had little hope left.
This is where the issue of the Protestant ‘banding’ tradition is now of considerable interest. There are developments within society which suggest it has now less relevance. There is a perception that the middle-class Protestant community has less in common with working-class Protestants in urban areas and there is no longer the type of patronage which once existed in the heyday of the shipyard and heavy engineering era, when apprenticeships could be found for young working-class loyalists. Equally there is not the same appetite among unionists for street protests, as was shown during the Belfast City Hall flag protests and also protests over the Orange parade stalemate in North Belfast. It is also now questionable whether the Orange Order, which was a cement for the unionist establishment in the past, has the same political relevance. The days of a shared analysis of political danger, leading to the 1974 UWC strike, the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement protests and major disruption over parade issues appear to have gone.
This may well be because there is no unanimity over perceived threats anymore and, given different political interpretations as to the best way forward, no prospect of such unanimity.
A few years ago the main unionist political parties and Loyal Orders came together to oppose the Parades Commission and demand parades issues (particularly in North Belfast) be resolved. This Unionist Coalition was to pursue what was called ‘a graduated response’ over the issue of parades. The graduated response did not, in the final analysis, happen, leading to much criticism within working-class loyalism and grassroots Orangeism.
But perhaps the truth was, as it had been over the Unionist Forum which had preceded it, that there is no common narrative or objective within political Protestantism and Unionism any more. Public banding may have become more difficult in any meaningful way for unionists because the future is no longer as clear cut as it may once have seemed.
That scenario is a dangerous one, for insecurity still exists and if it is not being addressed then a disruptive undercurrent within loyalist working-class urban communities will remain. It is in everyone’s interest to resolve the unresolved and to heal past divisions if we want a better future for everyone.