It’s hard to love a loyalist. When the television screens are full of red, bawling faces, aggressively brandished flags and police officers under attack with stones, bottles and ceremonial swords, the impulse is to turn away with a shudder of disgust.
Loyalism appears to be a community in meltdown, engaged in a ritualised orgy of self-destruction. They are mocked and despised, and they know it: there is a prevailing sense that the entire world is against them and that there is nothing left to lose. Listen to the voices and you hear one long howl of rage, pain, bewilderment and frustration. In essence, loyalists believe that they are the true victims of the peace process, radically disenfranchised and abandoned to the slums by the indifferent leaders of mainstream unionism. Meanwhile, smooth, cocky republicans – the perceived winners of the peace game, rewarded for their murderous campaign by cushy jobs in the Stormont Assembly, and with a compliant police service in their pocket – now wage a (not so) covert cultural war on them by ripping down the union flag and other emblems of their beloved "Britishness".
Oh yes, and the media is out to get the loyalists too, ever keen to lampoon them as stumbling, tattooed bigots who refuse to get with the happy, glossy post-conflict programme. They just can't win.
This is the loyalist world view, and there’s no budging them from it. Yet now the claim that they are uniquely deprived – which mainstream unionists in the DUP and UUP have been markedly reluctant to counter, and often seem to encourage – is beginning to gain some traction outside the PUL (Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist) community in the North. An idea is emerging, in the wider public sphere, that loyalists may indeed be justified in their sense of grievance and social alienation, and that this may offer some explanation, if not an excuse, for the recent scenes of violent disorder. So to what extent is this narrative true? Inconveniently, the facts do not appear to bear the story out. No one doubts the serious difficulties encountered by many loyalist communities, but it is not the case that they have a monopoly on socio-economic deprivation. Indeed, if we must go down the (distasteful) route of a sectarian head count of disadvantage, it is working-class Catholic neighbourhoods who are losing out the most.
According to the Multiple Deprivation Measure 2010 – which collates data on categories such as health, income, employment and education across 582 wards in the North – 14 of the 20 most deprived wards overall are predominantly Catholic. Sixteen of the 20 most deprived wards assessed on household income and employment are also mostly Catholic. A similar picture emerges from the Peace Monitoring Report 2012, which found "the proportion of people who are in low-income households is much higher among Catholics (26 per cent) than among Protestants (16 per cent)."
It is only in the area of education where working-class Protestants are seen to be doing even worse than their Catholic counterparts: the 2010 deprivation measure found that 12 of the 20 most deprived wards assessed on education, skills and training are predominantly Protestant, as are 26 of the worst 30 wards for school pupil absenteeism. In 2011, a report aimed at improving educational standards among young working-class Protestants explored several community and cultural reasons for this, particularly deindustrialisation and the loss of traditional labour markets and skills. Plentiful trades and apprenticeships in the past meant there was less emphasis on the need for qualifications; when the jobs evaporated, the pattern of educational disengagement endured, and has now become augmented by a kind of listless fatalism. As east Belfast Progressive Unionist Party councillor John Kyle puts it: "There is a culture of worklessness, which perpetuates the expectation that there will be no work in the future."
Yet even here, where there appears to be a marked disparity between the two communities, the loyalist grievance narrative cannot be sustained. For example, the fact remains that it is working-class Catholics who make up the majority of boys failing to gain at least five GCSE qualifications.
Poverty and deprivation
All of which goes to show – unsurprisingly enough – that the ugly, life-diminishing manifestations of poverty and deprivation are a shared phenomenon, not the sole fate of one community or the other. And that loyalism's sense of itself as a goaded, beaten dog is far more complex and intractable an issue than a simplistic inventory of material disadvantage can ever hope to explain.
That’s not to say loyalists’ complaints don’t deserve a fair hearing, especially those concerning the smiling machinations of republicans. But paranoia, thwarted entitlement and internalised hatred has rendered many of them immune to constructive dialogue. Even if you reach out a hand in sympathy, they growl and recoil, crouching for the expected blow.