Middle-class sectarianism claims are a terrible cliché

Violence of UDA and UVF still being traced to North’s drawing rooms

David Ervine at Stormont in 2006: the former PUP leader  spun a story of working-class roots straight out of a Ken Loach movie. Photograph: Reuters

David Ervine at Stormont in 2006: the former PUP leader spun a story of working-class roots straight out of a Ken Loach movie. Photograph: Reuters

 

Sectarianism is a bigger problem among Northern Ireland’s middle class than its working class, according to UUP former deputy leader Danny Kennedy.

“It seems to me that a considerable amount of work has been done and progress made on what is traditionally termed the working-class divide,” he said.

“But more problematic is reconciliation between those who are better off and might consider themselves middle class, with sectarianism alive and well in the drawing rooms and parlours of our middle classes.”

Kennedy is now deputy chair of Stormont’s executive office committee, which scrutinises the work of First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

He made his comments after a hearing on the executive’s anti-sectarianism strategy, known as Together: Building a United Community, so these were no throwaway remarks.

They are a terrible cliché, however, which raises problems of its own.

Assumptions of bourgeois bigotry are fashionable, safe and hence a little too convenient as an anti-sectarian displacement activity. If we are going to equate the parlour with the peace line, that comparison would need to be made with a bit more evidential rigour.

For a start, what is actually meant by middle and working class in Northern Ireland? Membership of either group often seems to be entirely self-defined, irrespective of income, education and occupation.

Even these self-definitions are inconsistent. I am from an identical background to Kennedy, yet find his reference to drawing rooms and parlours hilariously common.

From an outsider’s perspective, the North scarcely has the social and economic diversity to sustain a British class system, which is what references to ‘working’ and ‘middle’ must be taken to mean. An English person might note the lack of a single branch of Waitrose or John Lewis and conclude we had no middle class at all.

It would be more accurate to say that Northern Ireland has one default class plus an underclass – or standard and economy. Even if these terms have any meaningful definition, and even if middle-class sectarianism is every bit as nasty and prevalent as its working-class counterpart, we have the demonstrable fact that only working-class sectarianism tends to manifest itself as violence.

From adolescent rioting through to active paramilitary membership, everything generally considered ‘most problematic’ about sectarianism is correlated directly with deprivation, and hence at least with perceptions of class.

This has led, understandably, to a strong official focus on tackling poverty. But how can that be squared with believing sectarianism is just as bad in the suburbs and golf clubs of twee middle Ulster?

Lurking behind that belief is the assumption that middle-class bigotry causes working-class bigotry. Frankly, this is also sometimes the hope. It would suit everyone from the political centre to the far left to identify a mechanism whereby sectarianism was conveyed from parlour to peace line, making blameless victims of its most awkwardly obvious protagonists.

That makes the failure to find such a mechanism all the more glaring. How does a hostile remark at the golf club become a brick through someone’s window in the less salubrious end of town? It is not good enough to say it sets the tone. How does the thrower of the brick detect the tone?

The only visible mechanism seems to be acting in the opposite direction. People retreat to middle-class enclaves and lifestyles in Northern Ireland precisely to have no communication with the front line of sectarianism.

You could say this is abrogating their social responsibility to others but it does not make them more responsible for the thoughts and actions of others.

The utter desperation to find this kind of linkage was brilliantly exploited by the late David Ervine, former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wing of the UVF.

Ervine spun a story of working-class roots straight out of a Ken Loach movie – it is a wonder he never claimed to have owned a kestrel.

Yet somehow his classic tale of respect for hard work, education and class solidarity ended up with him driving a car bomb towards a Catholic-owned pub. He was stopped by the RUC and handcuffed to the engine, famously causing him to soil himself.

To explain this odd turn in his life, Ervine said that as a young loyalist he knew the “colour of the wallpaper” in unionist politicians’ houses. He never said what colour it was, let alone named or quoted those present, but republicans and nationalists seized on this as proof of the parlour-prejudice transmission mechanism. Ervine’s self-serving exculpations are cited endlessly to this day.

Class theories of loyalist paramilitarism are fashionable again in Belfast, thanks to a new generation of academics and PUP representatives. If the continued violence of the UDA and UVF is going to be traced to Northern Ireland’s drawing rooms, is it too much to ask for a pattern on the wallpaper?

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