Failure lies in wait for young working-class Protestant males.
That is the stark warning in a recent Community Relations Council report presented to the North's Assembly members on the prospects for young men in Belfast's loyalist areas.
The report cites the shocking levels of educational under- achievement among young Protestant boys in the lowest social groups.
Significant numbers leave school at 16 with no formal qualifications. Just 19.7 per cent of socially-disadvantaged Protestant boys attain five passes in GCSE (equivalent to Junior Cert in Republic) at age 16 – a full 57 percentage points behind the top-scoring groups, namely the Chinese and Catholic girls. Only Irish Travellers and Roma perform worse.
These young Protestants do not recall the 1994 ceasefires, let alone the Troubles, and they seem ill-prepared for the new political dispensation, greater equality with their Catholic equivalents, and a more open and competitive labour market.
One academic has suggested that while some in the loyalist community have moved on from paramilitarism, they have yet to “make peace with peace”.
Dr Paul Nolan’s report, given to Assembly members two months ago, indicates the stark nature of a problem to which few claim to have the solution.
At community level, Stormont debates and official research compiled by academics seem distant and irrelevant. But the facts of the situation among thousands of urban Protestant males are alarming.
They are the "forgotten generation", says Gerald Solinas, a community worker, who highlights how the young people he works with are being failed by "the system".
Reliance on bias
While he readily admits there was anti-Catholic discrimination in the past, this led to an unhealthy reliance on a bias that favoured Protestants.
“These boys were told: ‘Don’t worry about school son, you’ll get an apprenticeship. Prods are good with their hands, you’ll not need an education.’
“The Catholic community had much more of an emphasis on education and what you find now is they are running most of the government agencies and the Civil Service.”
Dr Nolan has spoken of the danger of young Protestants viewing a new Northern Ireland as a zero-sum equation in which they are doing worse because Catholics are doing better. This "has unsettled unionism" at community level.
Many young Belfast Protestants in working class areas suffer from a sense of victimhood, exacerbated by the recession and loss of traditional industries, a growing sense of “I’m no good” and being portrayed negatively in the media.
Solinas trod this route himself, doing poorly at school.
“It was the [British] army that educated me,” he says, detailing his wish to become a “career soldier” before he retired on health grounds. “It took me until I was 30 to get to Queen’s University and I was one of the first people to go there from the Shankill.”
Changing mindsets, especially at community level, is a huge task and he spends his working day on personal development programmes in north and west Belfast, “which are among the most deprived areas in the UK in terms of education, health and employment”.
With tension palpable in the days leading up to the annual July 12th demonstrations, especially at the Ardoyne interface, he warns of the political price to be paid for social failure.
“Conflict thrives when there is a fixed idea that there are no prospects out there.”
Order chaplain, dismisses talk that Protestants suffer a “siege mentality”.
“They are not under siege – but they are under stress,” he says, citing in particular a failure of the British government to stand by the pro-British section of the local population. The recent union flag controversy is perhaps the most obvious example of blows suffered by loyalists in general.
William Kitchen, like Solinas, is an Orangeman and young professional, and he is adamant the Orange Order can fill the vacuum that societies and individuals abhor and help provide a well-directed sense of belonging and role within society.
However, there is a problem. In today’s secular age, an ostensibly religious body such as the Orange Order is having to dilute its core message – devotion to church and Bible – to maintain its appeal.
“There’s a major recruitment drive at the moment,” he says. “We’re trying to think ahead, but that requires major effort.” Added to that is the conviction that republicans in general and Sinn Féin in particular are using “culture” as a weapon to defeat unionism.
In the peculiar circumstances of Belfast, with its clearly defined areas identified as “theirs” or “ours”, he says pessimistically: “I doubt whether it could ever be a truly shared space. I would have few hopes of that.”
He is convinced unionists have taken a cultural battering.
“It’s a deliberate attack on British things and on symbols which unionists and loyalists hold dear.”