This week’s riots in east Belfast have been blamed by some in the loyalist community on a lack of political leadership and a subsequent alienation from the peace process. That argument doesn’t stand much scrutiny. In the year since the resignation of Progressive Unionist party leader Dawn Purvis, it has become depressingly clear among acute observers of Belfast’s loyalist communities that the loyalist paramilitary UVF has been purposefully ratcheting up tensions among its youthful foot soldiers to show some muscle.
Lack of jobs and social opportunities were excuses that once held weight for sympathetic observers of the Protestant working class. It is now abundantly clear that those issues are being manipulated by darker forces intent on agitation. Once again, the loyalist paramilitaries are damaging their own communities.
If we are looking for social context to the recent riots, we have to dig deeper. The loss of industry is one key reason for the current dystopia in Protestant working-class areas. Some observers have maintained that the decline of the shipyards is punishment for a hubristic sense of primacy among the Protestant working class. There can be little doubt that in the years between the formation of the Northern Ireland state and the beginning of the Troubles in the 1960s, Protestant workers did enjoy an unbalanced presence in Belfast’s traditional industries. Socially, however, working-class Protestants in east Belfast would have had many of the same gripes as their Catholic neighbours.
Protestant workers would also have seen their counterparts in industrial outfits in Clydeside, Merseyside and Tyneside – components of the wider British community that the Protestant working class in Northern Ireland saw themselves as part of – and wondered how exactly they as British citizens were in any way privileged. While the work provided by the “yard” may have been allocated to a majority of Protestants, the erratic market in which they operated meant that employment security was not always guaranteed. In contrast, by the late 1960s many of their Catholic counterparts had begun to see the progression of the first generation to benefit from the Education Act of 1947.
The decline of industry also affected the influence of Protestant trade unionists within communities: skilled and semi-skilled workers saw their ability to act as civilising influences in their areas wane as the vigilantes formed into paramilitaries in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
During the 1960s, there had been many progressive educators in Protestant schools. One of these was John Malone, head teacher of Orangefield Boys’ Secondary School in east Belfast. Malone was renowned for marshalling his underachieving charges to believe that they were the best schoolchildren around. The alumni of Orangefield at this time suggests that industry was perhaps not the catch-all occupation that history would have us believe. Van Morrison was one pupil who passed through Orangefield’s gates during Malone’s tenure. Even that most reasonable of loyalist voices, David Ervine, had fond memories of being taught by the well-respected educationalist from Downpatrick.
Malone and men like him saw their best efforts dashed when the Troubles started, as children often became dangerously enchanted by the subcultures being thrown up by the violence around them and were increasingly corralled into participating in riots and attending mass political rallies – some of which coincided with school hours.
Population movements due to violence and intimidation in the early 1970s also affected the vitality of Protestant church congregations. One church in particular, Macrory Memorial, has lain derelict for nearly 40 years on the New Lodge/Tiger’s Bay interface of north Belfast since subscribers to the church’s weekly offerings dwindled to zero in 1973. In the early years of the conflict, many Protestant working-class communities were decimated as people fled the threat of the Provisional IRA and the dreadnoughts of their local loyalist paramilitaries.
The 1960s may have borne witness to a hardening of Protestant working-class attitudes, but this bitterness became further calcified when the Troubles erupted and school attendances declined, church congregations disappeared and inner-city communities became “sink estates” controlled by the new loyalist paramilitaries of the UVF and UDA.
To put it bluntly, the community spirit of the Protestant working class was consigned to the dustbin of history. This civic-mindedness has never been allowed to recover, due in large part to the loyalist paramilitaries who demonstrated the other night in east Belfast that they are not yet ready to allow their communities the emancipation they truly deserve.
Gareth Mulvenna, a part-time writer and academic researcher living in Northern Ireland. He graduated from Queen’s University Belfast in 2009 with a PhD in contemporary Protestant working class politics and culture.