Anti-EU feeling widespread in loyalist areas of Belfast
Few who support the idea of staying in European Union can be found on the streets
A loyalist mural in the Tiger’s Bay area of Belfast calling for Britain to vote to leave the European Union in the June 23rd referendum. Photograph: Stephen Davison
A very early memory of a Coronation Street episode comes to mind. The street is gussied up, bedecked with bunting and Union Jack flags for a special Royal event, maybe for the Queen’s birthday or Jubilee celebration. For once Bet Lynch in her leopard spots looks understated in her environment.
Walk into any loyalist area in the Northern Ireland and every day is a jubilee. No kerbstone or lamp post or gable wall or shop window remains untouched by the red, blue and white colours of the Union Jack, or by the Red Hand.
As you walk along the Sandy Row in south Belfast or the Shankill Road the displays give a big bursts of colour on a rain-sodden day. For anybody from the other side, that kaleidoscope of colour makes it a mildly intimidating stroll, even almost 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement.
A full day spent among working-class communities in Belfast and Co Armagh leaves you in no doubt whatsoever of what they do not want: the European Union.
Overwhelmingly so. In the course of a day when almost 100 people from that community were interviewed, only about five were undecided , perhaps veering towards a Yes vote.
What is far more difficult to ascertain is what they actually do want. You sense they hanker for a Britain that might not exist any more, of a Bulldog spirit that belongs to a different era, when Murray’s Tobacco and the mills were the big employers on the Sandy Row, when 13,000 men from the Shankill Road worked in Mackey’s Engineering, when the linen industry was still in its prime around Lurgan.
You find similar utopian visions preserved in the same aspic in Belfast’s working-class republican areas. It’s all a bit like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, jilted at the altar decades before, still dressed in her wedding dress with the clocks stopped at twenty past nine, still hoping the nuptials will take place.
Sandy Row is a small loyalist enclave of 2,500 people close to Belfast city centre. Once upon a time the population was 15,000 but once the industries died it fell precipitously as families moved out. Dr Garnet Busby is a former loyalist prisoner and operations manager of Belfast South Community Resources, which provides education and training for residents.
“Sandy Row falls within the top 10 most deprived areas of Northern Ireland in terms of unemployment, health and education,” says Busby.
He cites a recent survey which showed that 33 of the 70 retail units along the street are empty and derelict.
Like elsewhere in loyalist communities, paramilitarism has a residual influence. “People have moved on but there is still a legacy. Some [paramilitary groups] have redefined themselves into community organisations (as the IRA has done elsewhere in Belfast),” says Busby.
In Sandy Row, the former senior UDA commander Jackie McDonald is possibly the most prominent community figure. On Brexit, Busby is one of the few who is ambivalent on how he will vote, but says the vast majority will vote No. Of the issues, he says that immigration would be the biggest among locals.
“South Belfast is absorbing most immigration. People in this area would see the pressure that schools are under, and in waiting lists for hospitals and housing.”
Jim Watt, another former UVF prisoner, based at the centre, will vote to leave. He has no doubts. He says Brexit will save money as it is a net contributor to the EU. He criticises “unaccountable and unelected” European courts determining laws. He is also concerned at the EU becoming a wholly political entity.
Watt also says that immigration is a big issue, and argues there should be an onus on people arriving into a country like Britain to integrate fully. “[When they don’t] it gouges away at British sovereignty. People will say it is diluting our sense of Britishness. It’s something that is innate in yourself.”
Watt rejects the notion that the ‘invisible’ border between North and South will be no more. “Before we even went into Europe we used to travel freely down to Dublin and back. It’s ridiculous to argue suddenly there will be long tail-backs at the Border.”
Watt’s take on the Republic is interesting. The most prominent flag everywhere in loyalist areas is for the Northern Ireland soccer team, which is in the European Championship finals. He and others refers to the mutual support from both communities for the two Irish teams there. On the scale of things, it’s clear loyalists have a far greater affinity to the Republic than to Europe. In other words, the EU is more alien to their Britishness than the Irish Republic is.
Out on the street, Watt’s views are widely shared.
“There’s people dying in our streets because they are not housed. But yet migrants can come in and they are rehoused with furniture. People born and reared in this district are not getting anything, you know what I mean,” says Mary, a women in her 60s.
Down the road, a younger women, Miriam, complains she can no longer go into the doctors because of the “quest of migrants”.
“Look at this street. Half the shops are not there,” she said sweeping her hand down Sandy Row. “The government should be thinking British first. It’s all foreigners coming in. They are getting houses and getting housed ahead of us.”
Later in Shankill Road, a man will claim free cars are being handed out to migrants.
It’s a perception that is not borne out by evidence. People here have fastened on it though. Once that perception takes hold, it’s impossible to reverse it.
The reasons given are often visceral, based on a hunch more than anything else. It’s almost like the European and British identity are mutually exclusive. “We want out, it’s as simple as that. We are sick of them,” says a man passing on a bike, wearing a Rangers shirt.
“I’m British, I don’t feel European,” says another woman sitting on a bench.
The confusion is a theme taken up by Ian McLaughlin of the Lower Shankill Community Association in Belfast. “I pride myself on being educated but I’m as confused as anybody else by some of the arguments.”
He says people are not really engaged and thinks that turnout in his community will be low.
McLaughlin is one of the few who strongly acknowledges EU interventions have made a difference. “In Northern Ireland today we have a relative peace. That has been shored up by the EU. Anyone who claims differently is in denial. Without the EU, those communities would be worse off.”
What McLaughlin and his colleagues struggle with is the “shameful” situation of young people in loyalist areas trapped in a negative frame of mind, who think there’s no point in pursuing goals because they don’t have qualifications or education.
Groups like his have worked to improve such outcomes, focusing on educational attainment. “Fifteen years ago this area was subject to internal loyalist feuding. It is what it is and it happened. This was a hard-to-reach loyalist community.
“We now have proud open communities. The PSNI has been pivotal as have the Departments of Justice, and Social Development. We are proud of the journey that we have taken.”
Out on the street, a solitary poster urging Leave hangs outside the Spectrum Centre. That’s the extent of the presence of the impending referendum on Shankill Road.
Many are unaware of what “Brexit” means and it has to be explained to them. When they learn they say they don’t know anything about it. Then by instinct, they say they will vote No. Invariably.
Sipping a coffee in a local cafe, a young man, Kyle, says the Leave arguments are good and worth a try.
“We are a superpower, aren’t we? If it doesn’t work out, we can always re-apply.”
June, who works in a charity shop, says she is going to vote No. “What has the EU ever done for us?” she asks before adding. “It does not matter to me. I am a born-again Christian.”
Anthony moved to the Shankill Road from England as a young man in 1971. “I want us to get out. It’s like the EU is taking half of your wages every week. What would anyone want to do that?”
Bill, in his early 20s, is wearing a Liverpool shirt and has his three-year old son Blake in tow. He says he isn’t sure first and then pauses.
“You know, I think I will vote to leave. It’s a step into the unknown but it could not be worse than things are at the moment.”
That sense of resignation chimes with what McLaughlin has said. Echo too the words contained in an extraordinary mural on the Shankill Road commemorating late unionist councillor Hugh Smyth. It contains a knockout quote from him where he said unionists fed their voters the myth they were first-class citizens and nationalists fed their voters the myth they were second-class citizens.
“In reality, the truth of the matter was that we all, Protestant and Catholic, were third-class citizen, and none of us realised it!”
It should be a potent message but it’s not. Identity still outranks economics in Northern politics and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. That is why those loyalists who do vote will overwhelmingly vote for Brexit.