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Working class Protestant areas in Belfast seem very low on confidence, the glue that holds them together comes from the churches or the paramilitaries... the only chance ordinary people get to punish paramilitaries is in the privacy of the ballot box... and that's what they usually do

Mark Langhammer, Crusaders official and former councillor on the moves under way to help inspire North Belfast youths to overcome disadvantage

By Lindy McDowell

His father and grandfather were refugees from fascism - socialists who were forced to flee their native Czechoslovakia by the Nazis in 1938. And Mark Langhammer, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, has followed in the family tradition. A dedicated trade unionist, the former Newtownabbey councillor has bravely taken on the paramilitary bully boys.

In 2002, after he provoked the ire of notorious loyalist boss John "Grugg" Gregg (later murdered in a feud), a bomb was placed under his car. Langhammer was prominent in the Campaign for Labour Representation which lobbied for the British Labour Party to organise here, joined the Irish Labour Party and was chair of the Northern Ireland Labour Forum. The father-of-two has also served as chair of the local Citizens' Advice Bureau and chair of Playboard NI.

Here, he argues that loyalist working class areas suffer from a lack of self-confidence, and that for many working class Protestant boys their role model is the local drug dealer. And he also highlights an innovative and imaginative scheme he's helped spearhead as director of Crusaders Football Club which aims to inspire young people into education. In sport, he maintains, "aspiration is not a foreign country".

Q. Where do the Langhammers come from originally?

A. My father came from Czechoslovakia. He and my grandfather came here in 1938 as a result of the Hitler- Chamberlain agreement, "Peace in our Time" as it was called. My grandfather was a Social Democrat and along with the Jews they had to get out. Basically they were refugees from fascism. They came to this country because they were linen printers and they could find work in the linen trade here. They ended up working in a place in the Clonard. My father was called Fred but here, he got Fritz. He died in 1962 when I was very young, just two years old.

My mother, Margaret Gregg, was a music teacher. Her parents came from the Shankill. She used to tell a story about how, when my father came here, he eventually got enrolled at Queen's University. On the form he was asked for his religion - the purpose was pastoral so that you were allocated a minister, a priest or whatever. My father knew enough about Northern Ireland by that stage that he didn't really want to be allocated anyone so he just wrote, "Czech". A few weeks later the door got a rap. It was a clergyman who explained he'd been allocated him. He was, he explained, from the Moravians ...

Q. You grew up in Rathcoole?

A. No. I grew up in Whitehouse which is on the edge of Rathcoole. I think I'm associated more with Rathcoole because I was a councillor there and I worked there and later lived there for a period. I went to Whitehouse Primary School and then on to Methodist College. I've got a grown-up daughter and son. Rosa (26) works in Dublin for CoderDojo, a coding company for kids, and Ruari (25), who works for a Cork company, is based in Athlone. He's an engineer. They're both doing very well.

Q. For quite a number of years you were very prominent in the Campaign for Labour Representation. Do you still believe that the Labour Party should organise here?

A. I would still espouse the same view that what's abnormal about Northern Ireland is that it's the only part of Western Europe that can't elect its government and more importantly can't chuck it out. I think that's hugely important but most people here don't.

Q. Yet with the DUP now in bed with Theresa May you could argue that they do now have the ability to bring down her government... ?

A. That's a luck thing. If you recall the tail end of the 1979 Labour government, the unionists were in a similar balance of power situation then. I think at that time Harold McCusker was trying to get an oil pipeline between Scotland and Northern Ireland. So the current situation is unusual although it's not unprecedented. But the basic thing holds that no-one from a Northern Ireland constituency can become Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary or whatever. And that's a form of political quarantine really.

Q. Back when the Agreement was being signed you opposed it because you saw it as institutionalised sectarianism. Do you still feel that way?

A. That was the reason Eamonn McCann and myself voted against the Agreement. I saw it as bolstering sectarian politics. Certainly in the post-Agreement period within my own constituency (Rathcoole) at that time, it became basically Northern Ireland's killing field. Almost immediately you had marking-out activity. You had flagstones being painted, flags flown. And you had a hardening of the sectarian geography with the activities of John Gregg (the notorious UDA brigadier who was murdered in 2003). You had a spike in killing.

Q. You stood up against Gregg by inviting the police into the Rathcoole area. How did he respond?

A. What I did was I worked with the local police. The Superintendent in Newtownabbey at the time was a guy called Brendan McGuigan. I had a chat with Brendan and said: "Look, we've got to try and normalise policing here." Up until that point in Rathcoole there wasn't any sort of local, informal policing. It was just parachute policing. The police recruited informants, informants told what was going on or what they thought was going on and the informants were then allowed to have, effectively, a quid pro quo. They were allowed to engage in all sorts of criminal activity and a blind eye was turned. That's the way I saw it. I was putting it to Brendan that we needed - I don't want to be simplistic about it - but, bobbies on the beat. Having a normal, low-key, everyday type of relationship with the local community.

We agreed that the police would host a weekly clinic or surgery or whatever you want to call it, a drop-in facility in a local centre. Then the centre was daubed with graffiti, 'Touts Beware', that sort of thing. I had a pipe bomb put underneath my car. I took it more as a warning than an attempt to kill. But nonetheless it was not pleasant. My kids were young at the time, so not good for them.

Q. Do you feel angry about the way decent people in loyalist communities get stereotyped? That they have no voice really?

A. I think that's still the case. Working class loyalist areas in Belfast or Greater Belfast, they seem to be very low on confidence. If you look at the glue that holds them together it comes from two sources. One source is the churches. The Boys' and Girls' Brigades, the Scouts, pensioners' tea clubs and what have you. Boys' football teams, et cetera. The other source is paramilitaries. They run social clubs and darts teams and pool teams and football teams also. And really, outside of the state - libraries and schools and that type of provision - that's about it. It's a choice between churches and paramilitaries.

Previously some of what I call the social glue or social cement used to be trade union related. Trade unions were very strong in places like Rathcoole where you had manufacturing industry and every street had a shop steward or convenor. So you used to have at least some organising skills. But that's gone now. That went a generation ago. So the only opportunity ordinary people in these areas get to punish paramilitaries is in the privacy of the ballot box. And they usually do that.

Q. Do you feel that working class unionists have been let down by the people they do elect?

A. It's hard to say that because, you know, the elected representatives take their cue from somebody. The elected representatives are sometimes fearful to move on to different, more positive territory because it's not something that seems to win votes. There are some positive voices in the Protestant community. Doug Beattie in the [Ulster] Unionist Party is doing his best. And for a time David Ervine had a constituency that was "glass half full" rather than "glass half empty". But there aren't many, I have to agree. I just see loyalist communities being very low on self-confidence, very low on self-esteem. And this reflects in the educational figures - very low on aspiration. It's almost like a collective "We're bate. We're on the slide". And that tends to trigger a kind of gloves-up, a defensive response rather than sanity. You'll find loyalist communities shrinking in population size and shrinking generally.

Q. The impasse at Stormont has delayed public sector pay increases and funding for schools among other things. What do you feel is the biggest problem facing the people you work with and represent?

A. Within education, funding is always a problem. But it's not just funding. To be balanced about it, our education system is not the best. But nor is it the worst. In international comparison it's about average, but there are parts of the system that are excellent. For example, in terms of our primary schools, there's a couple of benchmarking surveys which have rated Northern Ireland as globally leading in reading and in mathematics. I'm talking about as good as Finland and up close to the Pacific Rim countries like Singapore and Hong Kong which are always at the top of the educational league tables. So there are parts of the system that do work.

I would argue that the primary schools work because they're socially inclusive. They have mixed intakes. All research tells us that if you have socially mixed intakes the wealthier kids do a bit better but the poor kids do an awful lot better. The primary system is still quite nurturing. It's still quite comprehensive. And, by and large, it works.

In the secondary system there is what they call a long tail of underachievement. And that really is because we socially segregate at 10 or 11. The other thing about the education system that costs a lot of money and doesn't work is that it's over-accountable. The levels of scrutiny, the levels of micro management - stupid accountability I would call it - are very costly and make the job of a teacher a lot harder because they have to stick rigidly to the curriculum. We agree with the CBI [Confederation of British Industry] on this point - the CBI believe that schools are far too much like exam factories nowadays. They're not producing the sort of rounded individuals with 21st century skills, not just in technology but skills of communication and persuasion and teamwork and so on. That gets lost in schools because of the narrowness of the curriculum and the pressure to get results, get results, get results. You have what I would describe as an obsessive scrutiny, so teachers spend a lot of their time watching their backs, a lot of time doing mind-numbing reports that have very little to do with education processes. The money's not there to fund that sort of system. We need to move to a more professional light-touch, reflective system where teachers are trusted a good bit more than they are at the minute.

Q. There has been much discussion about the low educational achievement of Protestant boys. You served on the Purvis working group which looked at the issue. What were your conclusions?

A. Dawn Purvis, Professor Peter Shirlow and myself worked on it. We thought we should shine a light on this. What we produced wasn't an academic report. We described it as a call for action. We did look at why, and there are multiple reasons, working class Protestant boys in particular did worse at school. I think the biggest reason is because children from the Protestant community are much more likely than Catholics to go to severely socially segregated schools. At the high end, 97% of prep schools are Protestant; that doesn't exist in Catholic education. At the working class end, the predominantly Protestant secondary schools are shorn of any sort of social balance so you've got, almost inevitably, more free school meals, more special needs, more disadvantage and it just creates too many problems for schools to succeed. The other side of it is that, in terms of the role models that working class Protestant boys tend to see, particularly in Belfast, it's those people who are driving the 4x4s and going on nice holidays and wearing the designer gear, yet who don't work. They're drug dealers, typically. Those are the role models in working class Protestant areas. Educational academics will tell you that one of the biggest influences on a young person is somebody who looks the same as them, plays about on the same social media sites, maybe supports the same football teams, likes the same music but has a radically different attitude to education. That rubs off. That is why socially mixed schools work better. And most of the kids from working class Protestant backgrounds don't go to socially mixed schools. Most of the schools they go to are working very hard but working against all the odds. The barriers are just too high.

Q. What can be done?

A. If you ask me I would heavily incentivise social balance in schools. That's the one measure that would have an immediate effect. The reason why Finland, Sweden, Denmark, places like that top the European leagues is that their societies are more socially mixed and there isn't a huge income difference between rich and poor. The kids all go to their local school and mix with each other.

Q. Crusaders Football Club, of which you're a director, has been involved in impressive cross-community work for some time. You're currently working on an innovative scheme with Crusaders that aims to steer children towards education. Tell us about it.

A. The club is working with a community group, the Hubb Resource Centre. We've handed over part of our old social club building to develop it into a community enterprise centre. The reason we are doing this as a football club is that among the kids who come to us at under-six, under-seven and under-eight level at the club, there will be children who have a poor attitude to education. We have about 300 young people in our junior sections. We've over 20 boys' teams and we have 11 girls' teams. Those same youngsters have a very positive outlook and aspiration. Aspiration is not a foreign country in sport. They want to be the best. When we started working with our young teams generally we would provide some educational content to their training. So they were learning about the body, about physiology, and that grows into things like drug awareness, suicide awareness, things like that. And before you know it you've got quite switched-on young people who are reaching sport leader level one and they feel they've achieved something for the first time in their lives.

And they're switched on into education. The education centre is going to house a university programme based on the report Taking Boys Seriously. That's aimed at two groups - those who could perhaps reach higher education, a hot-housing programme if you like, and also those whose chances of further education are distant. It's about getting them on to the ladder. We're also planning a computer coding club where kids from the age of seven, eight, can learn the rudiments of computer coding. We'll have courses in essential skills, reading, writing and some provision for digital media. We'll have childcare provision and childcare courses, a whole range of courses, local history and so on. We're also planning bite size courses so that when the kids are out on the pitch for an hour their parents partake in a half hour bite. It could be anything from a yoga class to first steps in computers. We're calling it the McDonald Centre after our former goalkeeper Roy McDonald. It's due to open next January. I'm really excited about it.

Mark Langhammer is the author of We're Red, We're Black - A Season Behind the Scenes in the Irish League. Published by Belfast Historical and Educational Society, £12.50

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