Whatever happened to Northern working class Protestant radicalism?

There is an interesting conference taking place in Dublin this weekend (Saturday 6th May, 11 am-5.15 pm) entitled ‘The radical working class Protestant tradition in Northern Ireland’, which I am involved in organising, along with veteran inner-city Dublin community workers Mick Rafferty and Patricia McCarthy, who have been partnering working class loyalist communities in Belfast for many decades. It is sponsored by the trade union UNITE (in whose Middle Abbey Street premises it is taking place), the Glencree Peace and Reconciliation Centre and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I have written in this column before about the radical Presbyterian tradition of people like the United Irishmen Henry Joy McCracken, William Drennan and Jemmy Hope; the Tenant Right activists of the mid-19th century; Presbyterian Parnellite MPs like Isaac Nelson and John Ferguson; and 20th century socialists, trade unionists and feminists like Jack Beattie, Billy McMullen, Harry Midgley and Isabella Tod. This conference attempts to bring the story up to the present day and to ask the difficult question about whether this historic strain of Protestant freethinking continues to exist in the fearful, defensive and deeply conservative society that is unionist Northern Ireland today.

The conference will also see the launch of a new study of this largely ignored phenomenon – An Oral History of the Protestant Working Class – based on a series of interviews conducted in Belfast and Derry by Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty. A strong message coming through these interviews is that many working class Protestants feel that the trade union movement –  for years the most important bulwark against sectarianism both inside and outside the workplace – is no longer for them. Unfortunately they now feel this about many institutions in the North which their religious brand once dominated.

There was a time up to 40-50 years ago when the trade union movement, centred on the industrial powerhouse that was Belfast, was made up largely of Protestants, and the leadership of left-wing Protestants. This was reflected in politics. In 1945 Betty Sinclair of the Communist Party (and later the first chair of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association)  just failed to get elected to the Stormont parliament for East Belfast. In 1962 the Northern Ireland Labour Party won four seats at Stormont. As the poet John Hewitt later pointed out, they were prepared to act as a “constructive opposition” to the all-powerful Unionist Party, but “Terence O’Neill set out to smash them. Inevitably the Socialists were driven out of Northern politics. Good men driven away, I think, by despair. We, who tried so hard, live with despair.”

Today there is a different problem. It is summed up by trade union leader Peter Bunting, a valiant fighter for working class solidarity (while himself coming from a strong republican labour background), who says (in his interview with McCarthy and Rafferty) that “the Protestant working class has suffered a loss of identity and a loss of purpose which has percolated into the trade union movement.”  He believes that movement is not reaching out enough to Protestant workers with their pro-Union beliefs: “It is not sectarian to be a loyalist. But it seems it is not allowed to be a loyalist in the trade union movement although you can be a republican or a trotskyist.  This nonsense goes against the trade union ethos of freedom of expression, freedom to belong to any group you like as long as you are not engaged in violence or sectarianism. What’s wrong with having an aspiration to belong to the UK? It is no different from being a united Irelander. We must respect – not just tolerate – other people’s positions with dignity. We must get on with dealing with the issues that unite us as working people.”

Bunting goes on to describe how republicans took down Union jacks and put up Iraqi flags at a trade union conference during the war in Iraq, and how Protestant union members who had sons in the British army serving in that war resigned in protest. And how he got the leading band on a Belfast May Day march to play Killaloo, the anthem of the Royal Irish Regiment, leading to the first confused, then amused loyalist spectators taunting a banner-carrying republican contingent at the back of the march.”We were sending a message to every loyalist: this May Day march is not a Catholic thing. This is a cross-community parade.”

The left-wing historian and playwright Philip Orr, who is from a Presbyterian family, understands trade union leaders’ dilemma: “I suppose you can’t ask people from a republican background not to put up banners.  Loyalists have to carve out a left-wing perspective for themselves despite such risks, even though union militancy without betraying identity is difficult for them. And of course Protestants don’t want to be known as a ‘Lundy’ because in pressurised, uncertain situations like Northern Ireland the betrayer is always the ultimate enemy. As a community which has been living for centuries with this psychology, fear of the enemy within still goes very deep.”

He would like to see a play celebrating the experience of a Northern Protestant being in a trade union. “We are in a good space here, if we but knew it. We possess the English language, a free education system, a whole bunch of positive things people in other countries would die for. Loyalism should feel better about itself. Reclaiming the workplace history of being a ‘Prod’, both in its pain and its triumphs – that is an important part of it.”

Bobby Cosgrove, another lifelong trade unionist (and also an Orangeman), recalls how he first started to feel like a socialist as a 19 year old. “I was working in a Protestant area and this family came up the road from the 12th parade with four children. He was carrying bags of drink and she was carrying bags of bunting and flags. No sign of groceries or anything to eat and two of the children had no shoes on their feet. I said to myself, there is something radically wrong here. They were prioritising the 12th over their children’s welfare.”

Then there are the twin issues of the rapidly declining Protestant industrial workforce and the festering sore of sectarianism. Cosgrove remembers the building trade in the 1950s and 1960s, when the great majority of the foremen and tradesmen were Protestants and all the labouring was done by Catholics. Different Belfast docks had different sectarian workforces. In Harland and Wolff shipyard you got work if your (Protestant) father had a certain number of ‘buttons’. In Shorts aircraft factory and Mackies textile machinery factory there used to be an informal ‘Catholic Protection Society’ – “almost like an underground union” – for the small number of Catholic workers. Protestant workers would parade through these plants around 12th July with smuggled in flags and drums. As recently as the 1980s there were industrial disputes over tiny Union jack logos on boiler suits and trainers. And all this was against the background of the vertiginous decline of Belfast as a major industrial city with, for example, the numbers employed in the shipyard falling from 35,000 during the Second World War to 200 today.

Is it any wonder that the trade union movement in the North did not flourish in these circumstances?  During the three decades of the ‘troubles’, unions had a proud record of working for peace and against violence and sectarianism in extremely difficult and intimidating circumstances. Throughout the civil disturbances, terrorist attacks and sectarian assassinations of the 1970s and 1980s the unions played a crucial role as one of the elements in Northern Irish society that prevented it slipping into outright civil war. Despite some of the silly incidents mentioned above, workplaces were largely free from  sectarian strife even in the worst of these years. As late as autumn 1993 a leading trade unionist, Joe Bowers, led a protest march by shipyard workers following the IRA’s Shankill Road fish shop bombing which served to defuse a very dangerous situation, and the Irish Congress of Trades Union’s NI Committee brought together 10,000 people in a peace demonstration in the centre of Belfast.

If anybody would like to hear more about this largely forgotten tradition of working class solidarity and Protestant radicalism in the North, come along to 55 Middle Abbey Street this Saturday. Among the speakers will be Peter Bunting, Philip Orr and the writer and People Before Profit activist Eamonn McCann. Admission is free.



This entry was posted in General, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism. Bookmark the permalink.

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