“The working class can kiss my ass”

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(You can follow Alex. Kane on Twitter by clicking here)

All that can be said with any degree of certainty is that the ongoing protests (supposedly about restrictions on the flying of the Union Flag at Belfast’s City Hall) are being carefully orchestrated. What isn’t so certain is—by whom: and for what specific purpose?

No amount of bricks thrown or roads blocked is going to change the flags policy; and no level of intimidation or arson is going to force Alliance to rethink their position, re-table the motion and reverse their decision of December 3.

Since it strikes me as unlikely that the organisers are not aware of these realities, I’m forced to conclude that there is something else at the heart of this dispute.


I suspect that the authors and distributors of the now infamous joint attack-dog leaflet against Alliance assumed that the protest would be a one day wonder.

The leaflet would give them a chance—so they thought— to do a bit of political/electoral point-scoring in the run-up to the debate and vote (which they always knew they were going to lose) and allow a few hundred Belfast unionists/loyalists to jeer Alliance councillors and dump the blame squarely and noisily on their doorsteps.

But it didn’t work out like that. The protests snowballed and turned ugly: and what had been an issue about the Union Flag became a much bigger issue about violence, bullying, death threats, attacks on the police and millions of pounds worth of lost trade in the countdown to Christmas.

It became an issue about unexpected divisions within the DUP, with MLAs, MPs and councillors openly defying the advice of Peter Robinson.

It became an issue about Mike Nesbitt’s almost total loss of control of his party: Belfast councillors choosing not to consult him, MLAs turning up at protests (against his initial instructions), the withdrawal of the whip from Basil McCrea and the further isolation of John McCallister.

Indeed, a few days ago a very senior member of the UUP—and important Nesbitt supporter during the leadership election—asked me ‘can he survive until next year’s AGM’?

A number of MLAs, councillors and influential constituency activists are ‘very concerned’ about how close the UUP has now become to the DUP.

Belfast’s Sandy Row


It became an issue for the PUP and an array of self-styled ‘community workers’ from within the loyalist community, who were forced to admit that they weren’t in control of events on the ground.

It became an issue about the nature of the relationship between mainstream unionism and working class loyalists, many of whom believe that they have been abandoned and sidelined since 1998.

The truth, however, is that working class unionists/loyalists have almost always been sidelined by mainstream unionism. Yes, they were dragged out as voting fodder or muscle-on-the-street as and when required, and there was the occasional token working class ‘Prod’ elected to the back benches, but generally speaking they were never an influential voice at the heart of mainstream unionism.

When they rowed in behind the Belfast Agreement it was–I think–because they believed (or were encouraged to believe) that they would finally achieve political parity.

For years they looked on with envy as Sinn Fein delivered on the ground for their working class base, as well as reaching out more widely to a middle class vote and getting their platform included in the Programme for Government.

The loyalist/unionist working classes remain disconnected from the political process and disconnected from the peace process: believing that neither process (and yes, they are different processes) has delivered dividends for them.

They feel disconnected, too, from mainstream unionism, claiming that neither the DUP nor the UUP, let alone the TUV, UKIP or the local Conservatives speak for them, or even understands them.

When it was founded in 1971 the DUP tapped into the anti ‘big house’ unionism of working class loyalist/unionists who were hostile to the reforms of O’Neill, Chichester-Clark and then Faulkner.

William Craig’s (a stereotypical example of the unionist middle class) Vanguard Party also tapped into that working class discontent and fear. Many of the young men who were the target audience for Vanguard and the DUP in the early 1970s ended up in the UDA, while others drifted into the UVF.

Interestingly, the unionist/loyalist vote has not rallied around either the PUP or Gary McMichael’s Ulster Democratic Party (which has now disappeared). Does that suggest that they are reluctant to vote for parties which are linked to loyalist paramilitarism?

Does it further suggest that their reluctance to vote for them may be linked to a perception that these paramilitaries are too busy lining their pockets from criminal activity or too likely to have been double agents for various security forces?

Or maybe they won’t vote for them because, unlike Sinn Fein, they don’t seem to deliver for them.

What has been apparent over the last few weeks is that there is no central, coordinated message from the protesters. While there is clear evidence of disconnect and disengagement, there is very little evidence of a ‘we-must-tick-the-following-boxes agenda.’

And no new spokesmen to put their case articulately and non-threateningly to the media and wider public. Put bluntly, you can’t easily communicate behind a mask and nor can you advocate democracy while holding a brick.

Yet it needs to be remembered that the unionist/loyalist working classes represent a significant demograph—with probably enough votes to add a few seats to the unionist tally on Belfast City Council and maybe even an extra 1 or 2 MLAs.

But mobilisation is something they need to do for themselves. Being patted on the head by the DUP or UUP—with vague promises to ‘listen to your concerns’ is not the answer.

The answer lies in creating a brand new left-of-centre working class vehicle which isn’t linked to loyalist paramilitaries. There is a legacy to be dealt with, but it’s a legacy of isolation stretching back to 1921 which kept working class issues well away from the agenda of successive unionist governments.

Judging from tweets I have received over the past three weeks there are a number of people who seem able to make a case and who appear capable of genuine political thinking.

Leading loyalist Jackie McDonald pictured on Belfast’s Sandy Row before the removal of the famous mural.


They need to organise. They need to construct a socio-economic platform. They need to create an agenda. They need to engage and enthuse potential voters. They need to field their own candidates with their own manifesto. They need to stop self-appointed, self-interested spokesmen from speaking for them.

The Union is safe. There is not going to be a united Ireland anytime soon: so they must not let themselves be distracted by people in the DUP and UUP who will try and tell them that a new party will just split the vote and play into Sinn Fein’s hands.

That’s the argument they have heard for almost a century: an argument that confines them to their own areas and kept in their place.

Mainstream unionism quite likes the idea of the loyalist/unionist working classes being hyped up by flags and symbols. It doesn’t want them properly organised and mobilised as a separate political party. And that’s because mainstream unionism doesn’t have a socialist bone in its body.

Michael McGimpsey claiming to understand the needs and concerns of Sandy Row and Donegal Pass unionism is a bit like the Pope saying he understands the needs and concerns of a Marie Stopes clinic.

So when you hear Peter Robinson and the increasingly hapless Mike Nesbitt talking about using a Unionist Forum to find a solution to the flags issue, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will have very little to do with a long term thought-through socio economic agenda built on better education and engagement with the political process.

Rather, it will consist of throwing a few million pounds into an array of initiatives and promising to fly the flag a few extra days.

I have argued many times in favour of the emergence of a new generation of post-conflict parties in Northern Ireland: parties which have a real chance of attracting back those who have stopped voting and those who have never acquired the habit in the first place.

There is room for a party which is prepared to engage unionist/loyalist working classes. So instead of being manipulated by mainstream unionism or whipped up by loyalist paramilitaries the new voices of the unionist/loyalist working classes need to be focussed on earning influence and respect where it matters and then winning seats at council and Assembly level.

(You can follow Alex. Kane on Twitter by clicking here)


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About Author

Alex Kane is a columnist for both the News Letter and the Irish News and a regular contributor to the Belfast Telegraph. He is also a frequent guest across a range of BBC, UTV and RTE programmes--specialising in political commentary.


  1. Clearly expressed and incisive analysis of the ‘flags protest’. Unfortunate for the Protestant working class that Alex’s comments on education and developing left of centre political expression will probably go unheard within the traditional Unionist community.

  2. Central to this argument continues to be the debate over identity. A real examination of what being British means to the working class Protestant community is needed, because it certainly does not resemble what a modern Britain represents. Being British in Belfast used to mean being employed in one of the large industrial companies that recruited not necessarily on sectarian lines, but with nepotism certainly central to the pre-employment law society. These companies were owned and run by the middle class Unionists who were elected by their workers, who could genuinely feel that they knew their representatives as they met them at work regularly.
    The Orange card was always played by the management classes, often to create an environment where trade unionism never took hold with the same cohesion as in the rest of the industrial areas of Britain.
    Across the world change is challenging those that prefer society as it was, not as it is going to be. The Republican Party in the US recently realised that there ain’t no going back. The growth of UKIP is driven by people hankering for a pre-immigration UK, and who reject the reality of multi-culturalism.
    Change is difficult for many people, particularly those that feel they are being left behind. The solution is a mixture of economic and identity, and help with understanding how the working class fits into a world where their traditional areas of employment have disappeared and are not coming back.

  3. Alex, loyalism had the beginnings of a political project in the period 94-98 with Ervine, Hutchinson, ‘Plum’ Smith, Gusty Spence, McMichael and Davy Adams. It attracted people such as John Kyle and Dawn Purvis, who entered politics to address and try to help those disconnected communities. It was loyalists who destroyed the project in feuds, by marching McMichael and Adams off the stage and promoting clowns such as John White as spokesmen. Coinciding with this flag row we hear the arguments within loyalism that people need to get registered to vote. But, I’ve argued that a credible political project can’t and won’t be built on flags, drums and bands. In those communities there are other things that are much more important – jobs and education. The paramilitaries haven’t gone away in any convincing way, and too often show us that they are still there. While this is the case, their political representatives will be forever shackled. I agree with you that there is room for another voice, but it will only be heard if it is there to genuinely help those people who feel abandoned and voiceless. Is the flag really the biggest issue in homes struggling to pay bills and provide food?

  4. Great article. This has been a problem for the church as well. It is very difficult to have cross-cultural denominations. The Presbyterian church, with its rightful emphasis on the preaching of the Word has marginalised those of a less intellectual persuasion and the Belfast City Mission has de facto become our proletariat wing. Now it’s probably not as bad as I make out, but people are probably put off the idea of church as a sermonising machine as much as they might be put off by any theological concerns. i.e. they see church as sitting in a pew for an hour each week instead of seeing the risen Jesus.

    I would posit that the union is safe because Ireland is broke (and the Euro is in crisis). There is no economic advantage from unifying the island (particularly from the average Northerner’s standpoint now that fuel prices have equalised. I also posit that Westminster is keeping corporation tax (and maybe air passenger duty) high to allow the Irish government to keep bringing in corporate tax so it can one day pay back its debts). I don’t see the loyalist position as being deeply rooted enough, or having enough connection with Great Britain to last if the Irish economy were to be resurgent compared to GB and/or Sinn Fein reaches out to the protestant working class with promises of a communist utopia. As I noted above, loyalism is losing its ties with protestant/reformed Christianity and I don’t see it having as strong an intellectual/idelogical base as Sinn Fein brings. Plus, I would be intrigued to see opinion polls from the rest of the UK on how important people there rank keeping possession of Northern Ireland compared to Gibraltar or the Falklands. Northern Ireland could be conceivably less popular in the UK than in Ireland (which voted to remove the claim over the 6 counties, probably because they disliked Sinn Fein as much as the loyalists).

    However, I would also contend that to be working class does not mean you have to be socialist.

  5. superb analysis……. the current parties appear to have abandoned their less-well off supporters and fellow-countrymen, especially the middle class Alliance party in Belfast. Which is why so few attend the polls….Just a thought, would such a flag resolution be possible in Canada, the USA, or Argentina for that matter?

  6. The extension of your analysis leads me to the conclusion that the Loyalist Identity must be challenged and curtailed, not least for the benefit of its supporters. There is a distinct sense that those on the march are willing cannon fodder who continue to value flags and tattoos more than education and jobs. They appear constant as the flag they hold, but they sway happily between one lost cause and the next, badly led by men with their own purposes.

    We can argue all we like about the niceties of who should lead these people, but the truth is that they need to look to each other (and to reach out) for help. If they truly envy those nationalists who have achieved a better way of life through an understanding of grant applications and job applications then they should be looking to those leaders for advice on how to do it. If they find a willing ear in those ‘foreign’ camps, then politics as we know it will be hugely altered. Meantime, however, they continue to complain that ‘our own’ politicians do nothing to help them.

    The loss of identity Loyalism is feeling is the loss of their right to dominate others. That loss exists as much in working class England where black men and Poles have achieved rights and respect, earned over decades as politicians gradually did ‘the right thing’.

    It is time this generation learned to think for itself, without rallying round anybody’s flag.

  7. Interesting article with more than a grain of truth. Unionist parties tend to be right of centre. The much hailed Basil McCrea is being courted by the Tories as is John McCallister. Is there room for a left of centre overtly unionist party.

    • There has to be, this status quo cannot be allowed to perpetuate for another generation, it needs to be, in fact it must be stopped in its tracks now. Unionism needs a centre left party and there are politicians in the unionist parties today who would be more at home in that type of party as opposed to their current political stables. Left of centre unionists who will be unionists with a lower case ‘u’ who will be and are more concerned with real life issues as opposed to flags and parades but who still see themselves as and in fact are still unionists. As Alex states in this piece; the Union isn’t going anywhere foe the foreseeable future, so unionists need politicians who will show clear and effective leadership in todays situations and who will work towards solutions to todays problems fro e.g. jobs, money, housing, education, health, the list is endless and as unionists if we ask ourselves do any of the unionist parties deliver this to unionist people and id we answer honestly then we have to say NO. There are however individuals in unionism who could, who are trying to and who would deliver on this, given the political freedom from thier current political over lords. There are also numerous men and women in all our communities who could and would rise to this challenge as well but who will never, ever be seen as possible candidates for council or assembly elections, just because they don’t speak with the ‘right accent’, not a problem with Sinn Fein when you listen to their MLA’s and Councillors (and for that they {SF} are to be applauded. This is what unionism needs. We have more than enough eloquent, well spoken councillors and mla’s out there who are all talk and no action. If there was a party in NI who could deliver this to unionist communities then this WOULD be the party that Catholics who see NI’s future as part of the UK would flock to as opposed to the DUP, despite what Peter Robinson might say.

  8. Good article but it’s all just talk, talk, talk on top of more talk. The same things were being said 5, 10, 15 years ago and they will be said again in another 5, 10, 15 years. Same story line, same arguments, same words, same phrases, same jumble of letters, just conjured up in a slightly different way. If NI was a soap opera, then the script writer would have been sacked a long time ago.

  9. Reading through the comments below it is encouraging to see so many voicing the same comments, perhaps some good could come about as a result of this current flag protest and a new unionist party may well be in its incubation stage. Unionists deserve everything that nationalists and republicans now benefit from as a result of their politicians being in touch with the grass roots electorate. Unionists need community advice centres staffed with people who actually know what they are talking about and who are passionate about helping people, who know how to fill in forms for benefits, for jobs, for grants and who know how to ‘WORK THE SYSTEM’. None of the current unionists parties are meeting this need and none are delivering to their electorate. Unionists need to have a reason to turn out on election days and the current stable of unionism isn’t doing anything to encourage disillusioned and disenfranchised unionists/loyalists to get of their backsides and to go and vote. The disillusioned and disenfranchised unionist/loyalist have had enough of NEVER, NEVER empty promises and want NOW, NOW, NOW delivery from their elected representatives, which isn’t forthcoming from the current incumbents in unionist seats in councils or in Stormont. There are individuals in parties who have the desire and ability to deliver but they are stopped from doing so by party leaders. There also individual unionists in politics and those who are unwilling to fall into line with traditional unionism but who are busting to get out there and to start changing their communities and to deliver the same quality of services and quality of life enjoyed by nationalist and republican voters which has been delivered by their politicians. Should we all be lucky enough to survive tomorrow (21/12/2012) and we are still on this tiny piece of rock then we may well just be lucky enough to see a new unionist era born in 2013. Let’s hope!!

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