Belfast Telegraph

Protestants are not the only ones to suffer deprivation

In the second in our series on the Protestant working class, Robin Wilson argues that they've not been disadvantaged more than Catholics

It's often said that talk is cheap. But careless talk can be very costly. Over recent years, some very careless talking has allowed the conventional, normal social category of the 'working class' to morph into something altogether different.

In Britain, that came about by adding the adjective 'white'. The 'white working class' - socially marginalised and implicitly racist - became the stereotypical 'chavs'.

In Northern Ireland, the insidious qualifier was 'Protestant'. The 'Protestant working class' became labelled as those left behind by the 'peace process'. Their Catholic counterparts had supposedly shared in a generalised communal uplift but they inhabited benighted neighbourhoods characterised by what became known in the jargon as 'weak community infrastructure'.

Like any stereotype, this does not correspond with the evidence.

First, it is simply wrong-headed for loyalist paramilitaries and 'community workers' to claim that Catholics have benefited from public expenditure largesse at their expense.

The same - disproportionately Catholic - neighbourhoods in north and west Belfast and Derry top the league of social disadvantage as when the 'troubles' began.

As the anti-poverty strategy launched under direct rule in 2005, Lifetime Opportunities, put it, 'the geography of deprivation has persisted stubbornly over the past 30 years'.

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Secondly, in 2005 the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action secured via a Freedom of Information request the results of research commissioned by government which had not, as officially anticipated, supported claims as to 'weak Protestant communities'.

A paper drawing on survey data published in 2002 had already shown that Protestants were just as likely as Catholics to join voluntary organisations - about one in five are members. Its author said at the time that this challenged 'simplistic notions about the relative strengths of Catholic community infrastructure and capacity for self-organisation compared with Protestants'.

We know from the statistics on inequality that the gap between social classes yawned during the 1980s, in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK.

We also know from analysis of the effects of anti-poverty programmes that neighbourhood-based solutions are misconceived. Poor households are sorted into poor neighbourhoods by the housing market, but their problems do not originate there: they stem primarily from their relationship with the labour market.

Northern Ireland suffers from a very low employment rate: only about two thirds of working-age adults are in work. And the inertia of the Stormont administration in the face of the global recession has seen unemployment nearly double since devolution was renewed.

The riots in east Belfast led to renewed hand-wringing about the 'Protestant working class'. Yet in recent years the politician who has really captured the concerns of working people in the constituency, regardless of religion, has not been from the UVF's political wing: it has been Naomi Long.

Contesting the 2010 Westminster election, Long with her working-class accent was the Alliance figure who could address the old east Belfast Labour (and at one time Communist) tradition, inherited from households of shipyard and aircraft-factory workers.

She could secure the votes of those fearful for their jobs and livelihoods.

That is what any discussion of class should be about. For the whole idea behind it is that we can show solidarity towards others, regardless of colour or creed, who face the same daily struggles as ourselves-that we can unite in support of collective political solutions to our individual problems.

It's an old lesson, but in a European crisis like nothing since the 1930s, it's one we need to relearn.

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