The new ‘Us and Them’ in Unionism

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When one hears a single drumbeat during the marching season in Northern Ireland one ought to recognise the hand behind that thump on the drum senses ‘the hand of history.’

Professor John Brewer in a very fine exposition of Protestantism and the Planter on elucidated this sense of being ‘a chosen people’ who like Moses led his people into the Promised Land in settling here.

Brewer further argues that during the last century and contemporaneously we are witnessing an ongoing erosion of that innate intuitive sense of superiority so quintessentially part of the DNA of the Planter.

Left to right. Unionist leaders Mike Nesbitt, Jim Allister, Peter Robinson


Professor Brewer’s analysis helps us to understand where Loyalism is today. To progress this thesis we have to draw a line of distinction between Loyalism as articulated by Billy Hutchinson and the DUP and Ulster Unionism.

Flags emblems, parades, street names, loss of UDR, RUC, elevation of the Irish language, more GAA coverage on BBC, closure of local Protestant schools are all perceived by Loyalism as part of a ‘Republican Cultural War’ being waged against them today.

The lowering of the Union flag on Belfast City Hall to designated days crystallised a further sense of loss and diminution.

This touched a raw nerve which privately one senior DUP member told me “caught us by surprise.”

Those taking part in the ‘flag row’ have no real empathy or sympathy with the ‘higher politics’ as paraded by Peter Robinson and the DUP claiming ‘the Union is secure’ etc.

These protesters still live in sub standard homes, are probably unemployed, highly unlikely to gain access to much loved Grammar schools espoused by mainstream Unionism.

These street protesters who live in Sandy Row, The Village and the Lower Shankill are only too aware that their offspring is shunned by grammar schools even though these children live within a stone’s throw of these seats of privilege which are highly resourced.

A Protestant mother of two boys from a working class estate said to me “all that matters to our fifteen year olds in our areas is ‘the Organisation.’ They see the bling and the big cars and they want to identify with those.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt, he who wants more Campbell Colleges, spoke of ‘a disconnect’ recently in working class Protestant areas. Hello Mike… Where have you been living?

The penny has dropped… You have discovered there is a disconnect.

Ministers scooting in and out of these rundown areas in high end four wheel drives cut no ice with poor Protestants.

They want to know what are they getting from Northern Ireland’s new ‘political dispensation.’

Large private houses on the top of hillsides, large salaries and rubbing shoulders with the ‘big boys’ on a world stage are fine but moving away from people at the bottom of the pile is dangerous.

The Democratic Unionist Party 2012 conference at La Mon House hotel outside Belfast


One can argue the DUP is the majority in Carrickfergus Town Hall but the angry protesters didn’t spare their bile on DUP councillors either when they stormed the Council Chamber.

What we are now witnessing is the emergence of a new ‘us and them’ in Loyalist Unionism.

This is a dangerous development.

It is not an accident that the Douglases, McCreas, Kingstons, etc are hanging onto the coattails of the street protesters in defiance of party leader Peter Robinson calling on the protesters to go home.

Hundreds of votes in these areas can decide electoral success or political wilderness.

All politics is local. It is better to be with “them” just in case.

Who could possibly call the outcome in a constituency like east Belfast in the next election.

If the PUP vote was loaned to Naomi Long of the Alliance Party in protest against Peter Robinson does it automatically mean it will return to the DUP next time?

‘Us and Them’ in Unionism could be a bigger factor than we think.

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About Author

Eamonn Mallie

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. I think there’s great analysis in the early part of that article Eamonn. However it is my experience that the issue of grammar schooling as such is not as big a factor in the loyalist community disconnect that you speak of. Moreover many DUP figures did not go to grammar school nor are advocates of the status quo (eg Mervyn Storey).

    The issue is the nature in which the great political leap from opposition to government was made. It was too ambiguous for the average Ulster loyalist – who to all intent still thinks his / her local DUP cllr / MLA still opposes the republican movement at every turn.

  2. John Lord Alderdice on

    Eamonn, It is no accident that the response of Alliance Education Minister, Stephen Farry MLA, to the violence was to announce a major £9m initiative for disadvantaged young people. Some of us have been talking about (and working at) the problem of educationally disadvantaged young men (in particular) in protestant working class areas for a long time but it has been hard to get people to address it. The unionist parties (including the loyalist parties) have never really paid attention to it, nor have they responded positively and energetically when it has been raised. Unionist politicians, whether or not they had this portfolio, did very little. I appreciate that you have an antipathy to the grammar school system but the problem is not resources or access to ‘good’ schools. The fundamental problem is the anti-educational culture in protestant working-class areas. Middle-class protestants and catholics of all classes have long appreciated the value of education, but loyalists were actually antagonistic to education. I well recall one guy in the UVF describing to me how “any wee lad down here with specs and a library ticket gets beat up.” Others have observed how republicans came out of Long Kesh with Open University degrees and loyalists came out with muscles and tattoos. There are many reasons for this cultural difference – some of it to do with identification with use of physical force to bring about Northern Ireland and maintain protestant power – an approach repeated throughout the years – and there are other reasons too. What cannot be doubted is that this ‘identity’ issue is the root of the educational under-achievement of protestant boys, not the issue of resources. Recognizing and changing this is difficult and painful because it actually attacks an element of loyalist identity. The notion that culture and identity should be respected and left alone simply because it is identity or culture is mistaken. Some cultures need to change and that element of Ulster Protestant culture which is centred around power, control and domination must give way to sharing the common space if there is not going to be a self-destructive fight to the last.

  3. John, is there a danger that the Unionist Forum will not prove corrective and potentially could end up very divisive? Why have we not seen the CSI report which was supposed to address all these issues including flags/emblems, education poverty etc? Are we now seeing the emergence of an administration within an administration?

  4. The demise of industry which largely employed working class Loyalism combined with a lack of investment or job skills training as that industry went is, primarily, the reason why a disadvantaged class of young protestant boys now exists. There are other contributory factors to do with cultural attitude, para-militarism, social attitudes to ‘doing well’ and the lack of role models.

    When the textile, ship building, aircraft building, engineering and manufacturing in general industries disappeared no member of the Unionist Political establishment thought “Oh no we need to invest and train our people from tradesman and laboring skills to……. ”

    Tribalism to the mantra of “We Are The People” blinkered the social reality that education, training & employment are the only real tools that save communities from deprivation.

    Today, in Loyalist working class areas there are sometimes 2 or 3 generations in families lacking a basic GCE O’Level / GCSE educational standard let alone A’ Level or 3rd level qualifications. I don’t believe there is this overwhelming demand for Grammar education because the generations mentioned cannot rationalize how it can change matters.

    Given the generational loss of successful role models there are no ‘positives’ in the community or from the community to aspire to. Individuals who have been successful are often shunned for stepping outside the box of community / culture / fear or the individuals simply don’t wish to be brought back to mindsets who still think ‘in the box of we are the people’

    Add to all this the fiction and the smoke screen by Political Unionism who talk ‘war-war’ when in actual fact GFA and the mandatory government is totally about ‘jaw-jaw’ and the process of governance in a shared, equal society which was never explained to working classes.

    There is totally an ‘us & them’ in Unionism.

    • Glenn, I agree with much of what you say, especially the need for positive (male) role models. I pause however and question the degree to which economic change is a driver in terms of loyalist ‘disconnect’.

      In the loyalist area in which I live and work, of the young men who have protested either in recent or near recent times, a number are well capable of academic study. A number are also more than capable of manual / skilled labour. Indeed I can think of one who has a legitimate small business concern during his school holidays! Maybe I’m wrong and the statistics may show that. But I’m just not sure the link is as probative. Moreover, when the Shipyard was at mass employment levels, sectarian aggression prior to our ‘troubles’ was an issue, was it not?

      However, be that as it may, your last paragraph is an excellent sum of the problem.

      • Martin, our experience is different ’tis all.

        West Belfast and the Greater Shankill experiences the highest levels of
        unemployment, poverty and other forms of disadvantage in Northern
        Ireland. It is a reality that seven of the ten most deprived locations in Northern Ireland
        are situated in the West Belfast and Greater Shankill area.

        Poor social
        and environmental living conditions have a major impact on health and
        people living in the West Belfast and Greater Shankill areas are five times as likely as those in employment to report their health as
        not good.

        These realities where created with the loss of industry in the area that had provided mass employment and which was never replaced. Those who lost their jobs where never provided with skill sets to evolve to other employment so beginning the first generation of those out of work long term which has now evolved through other generations creating a social benefits class.

        Add to that the reality that 468 of those killed in troubles where in this small space of a few square miles along with a sitting MP who did absolutely nothing for 22 years and yep it is a primary cause to ‘them & us’.

        Of course there was sectarianism pre the loss of industry – I’d go as far as to suggest that sectarian attitudes where nurtured in work places where ‘Unionist Lords’ employed the ‘fodder’.

        I also don’t doubt that some of the cyber-warriors, today, are employed or have business concerns but the vast majority are disenfranchised because they have no academic or professional opportunity and have lost hope with nothing to cling to but ‘culture’.

        • PS.
          I must add that when I state ‘West Belfast’ I include all of West Belfast. It doesn’t matter what side of the peace line people are born on: the unemployment & social deprivation is the same on the Falls as it is on the Woodvale.

          The difference is that Sinn Fein work for their working class electoral base and provide a community service whereas on the other side of the peace wall there has been no such ground truth engagement …. as I’ve stated a sitting MP for almost 22 years who did ‘zilch’

          • Thanks Glen. As I reflected I did think there is a great degree of difference between say Ballymena, Coleraine estates, maybe even N’Ards and the (unique?) context of W Belfast.

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