Class, Flags and Identity.

Welcome to new contributors Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty.  Both are well known community activists based in inner city Dublin but with many years experience working with various Loyalist working class communities in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland.

Class, Flags and Identity


Ever since  Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union Jack on only designated days there has been turmoil in the city. This vote was itself a compromise proposed by those in the middle ground, the Alliance Party. The Nationalists wanted no flags flown at all and the Unionists wanted no change. This conformed to the historic Northern pattern that you don’t cast your vote, you vote for your caste. The compromise has brought Loyalist rage onto the middle ground andAlliancepoliticians have been threatened for apparently taking the nationalist side. This of course was a democratic decision. The issue of the flag was raised first at the Council’s strategic policy and resource committee on which the Nationalists have a majority. The result was 11 voted for a complete removal of the flag and 9 against a complete removal. This then went to a Council meeting on the December 3rd with the compromise proposal of the flag flying on 15 designated days being carried by 29 to 21.


The Unionist lost control of Belfast City Council for the first time in 1997 and since then the balance of power has been held by the Alliance. Their handling of the mayoralty issue has meant that since 1997 all parties have alternately held the position with Alex Masky of Sinn Fein getting elected in 2002. This on the surface seems like power sharing and mutual fairness. The eruption of loyalist rage since the 3rd December has demonstrated that while this arrangement might work within the hallowed chambers of City Hall, it is irrelevant to the lives of people living in working class loyalist areas. The main stream unionist politicians are out of touch with the new realities faced by this class. These unionists may be their representatives but they do not represent them. A woman from the Wood Vale area ofNorth Belfast who was involved in the loyalist marching incident on Carlyle Circus in August put this contradiction quite well. She said ‘As far as those politicians are concerned when they want our vote we are Unionists but if we raise our voices and protest about our identity we become loyalists.’ At the heart of the present disturbances is what loyalists see as the persistent surrender of what represents their identity to the demands of Nationalists. As long ago as 1996 David Trimble, then Official Unionist leader, complained of the `litany of retreats, surrender and concessions,’ made to the minority.


In reality the vast bulk of these concessions were the granting of civil rights to the minority. Issues such as discrimination in employment and housing, gerrymandering of voting and fairness in educational provision were the norm for the minority. These were all civil rights that were denied the minority by the Unionist monolith and the fact that they are seen as concessions is still part of the Unionist mindset. Of course the other concession they see themselves as making are those around celebrating their identity such as restrictions on marching in places such asGarvaghy Roadin Portadown or theAntrim RoadinBelfaston which Orangemen walked the Queen’s highway for nearly 200 years. In terms of these concessions the restriction of flying the Union Jack on theBelfastCity Hallis the last straw. The problem for leadership in circumstances like this is that you cannot go too far ahead in accommodating change or the activist on the ground will desert you and if you try to explain the nature of the grievance you will be seeing as pandering to the mob.


Some would argue that the problem with the loyalist working class is that they have lost their privileged position in terms of access to employment and housing and this is partially true. According to the recently published All Island Deprivation Index based on the census figures of 2011 (Trutz Hasse, Jonathan Protschke and Justin Gleeson) the most disadvantaged areas in Belfast are the Wood Vale area of North Belfast and the Mount Vernon area on the Shore Road. Both these areas demonstrate the unfinished aspects of the peace process. Wood Vale is on an interface with the Ardoyne where the infamous Holy Cross school incidents occurred and where there is constant tension every summer around the rights of loyalist bands to march.Mount Vernononce contained the largest numbers of UVF activists living in the one area inNorthern Ireland. It was poor in those days and it is poorer now.  It lies besideFortWilliam, which according to the figures is one of the most affluent areas inNorthern Ireland. Herein lie the real contradictions within the Unionist/loyalist community. The class issue. In reality there has been no social dividend for the loyalist working class in the peace process.

Of course there has been little social dividend for the nationalist working class either and we take that as given in this article. Apart from the cessation of murderous violence, a huge dividend in itself, there has been little improvement in the lives of the working class, loyalist or nationalist . Even less so now with the Tories in government. Unity across class lines has always been frustrated in the North by sectarianism. On the few occasions when it did happen spontaneously, the green n and orange cards were played by politicians to stymie it. Nevertheless, there is a strong labour and trade union tradition in Belfast .There is a story about the Outdoor Relief Strike in the 1930s when the Falls and the Shankill met up to march to City Hall to demand better conditions. The ubiquitous band  were instructed not to play anything sectarian. That left little that they knew so they ended up playing “Yes, we have no bananas” repeatedly!

There is a story about Gusty Spence returning fromCyprusin the fifties where he served as a member of the military police in the British army. He was walking up theShankill Roadwhen he was spotted by a group of men standing outside a bookies shop. One of them shouted at him and said ‘Gusty would you help us with a discussion we having?’ ‘What is it?’ Gusty asked and the man said ‘Don’t we ownAustralia.’


That’s the contradiction within the loyalist working class. Unemployed, barely an arse in their trousers and they are not talking about their social situation but the extent of the Empire to which they are loyal.


Spence himself would later join the UVF and in 1996 he would be sentenced to life for the shooting to death of an 18 year old catholic, Peter Ward in the Malvern Arms Bar. He would serve 18 years and would radically change his mind about the nature of the loyalist struggle. He would become the camp commander and would mentor young members of the UVF like David Ervine and Billy Hutchison. When they arrived in the prison he would ask them “what are you in for” and they would invariably tell him the crime they were convicted  of and he would probe them again on what are you in for, why did you do what you did. He renounced violence and explored his identity as an Irish Ulsterman who was also British. This was the beginning of the politicisation of loyalism that would lead to the formation of the Progressive Unionist Party in 1979. He was also the one who was picked by the United Loyalist Command to announce the loyalist ceasefire in 1994.


If the issue of the restrictions on the flying of the Union Jack is one of an erosion of identity then the loyalist leaders should revisit the path of their mentor. Like the poet John Hewitt,Gusty Spence sought to forge the culture of the Gael and the Planter into some new identify. This exploration cannot be achieved in a blind rage on the street but with dialogue, respect and a positive articulation of who you are through culture and the arts. This task is not just confined to the loyalists but has to be carried out in the context of an unequal society North and South. This is not an easy task. The choice on this island is either the old ruinous politics of majority rule or a move toward a genuine pluralism, warts and all. The emerging new majority in the North must not repeat the mistakes of the past. The attitude cannot be that the boot is on the other foot now.


And in particular if there are those in the Nationalist community who  see the restrictions on the flying of the Union Jack as a victory, let them remember James Connolly words about dis-unity amongst the Irish people leading to carnival of reaction and his refection on the issue of flags.


‘If you remove the English flag and hoist the green flag overDublinCastleunless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic your efforts will be in vain’




Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty.


Both are voluntary community activists and have been working with distressed Loyalists communities in Belfast for the past number of years.



2 Responses to Class, Flags and Identity.

  1. SF call the flag vote democracy and yet 5 miles away at the very heart of government you cannot have a majority vote due to appeasement politics and power sharing , that’s not democracy but an appeasement for keeping guns silent and bombs unexploded. Lets be very clear about this , Belfast is our capital city , the majority of those who live in Belfast are Unionist , Castlereagh is also in Belfast city although not part of the council , to suggest that this city is Nationalist is like saying Dublin is Unionist ..The numbers don’t stack up . I would be for the UJ flying all year over city hall and the UJ flying on government and council buildings throughout the north on designated days only . Those designated days must coincide with each other and not like the shambles we had regarding Kates birthday a few weeks back . Back to Stormont , when is this charade going to stop regarding a shared future ? Why can’t we develop a for/against government like any other democratic society ? Will the power sharing apply if we ventured into a UI ? Serious questions need answered yet no-one seems willing to answer them ..

  2. South Belfast

    The idea mentioned in the article that ‘Gusty’ created his own identity, being ‘an Irish Ulsterman who is also British’ is a bit long winded. My thoughts around identity and flags are quite simple. Using my country of birth I believe that I am Northern Irish and my flag is the flag of Northern Ireland (some may call it an Ulster Flag). This flag should be flown at Stormont and all City Halls every day of the year. The Union Flag should be flown on nominated days. As Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom then I accept the fact that I am a British subject. People from Scotland are Scottish – then British as is English and Welsh folk so why dream up a new identity – we really are Northern Irish. The article is a very interesting piece however, identifying what the dogs on the street already knew, ‘that PUL communities have had no social dividends from being an integral part of the peace process’, is not a remarkable achievement.
    I agree with “themadmonk” when he states the shared future idea is a charade. Since the GFA peace walls have been added to, killings continue, communities become more segregated and socially divided, lesser equality and role reversal is prominent and our politicians continue to tell us they have control. Do I have an answer? No However, a first step could be finding a political party that can unite PUL communities and take us forward together.