Who Will Defend the Underclass?

Ciarán Cunningham looks at the state of poverty in the North through the prism of the Welfare Reform Bill. Ciarán Cunningham lives in the Clonard area of West Belfast. Since coming to Belfast as a student in the mid 90s he has campaigned on political issues relating to the Social and National question here. After his release from Maghaberry Prison in 2006 he has worked as a benefits adviser and Tribunal Representative on a Voluntary and full time basis. He is currently involved in campaigning against Tory/Stormont cutbacks, and benefits cuts in particular.

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Who will defend the Underclass?

It isn’t a nice term, but it’s a recognised one. Call them what you will, the poor, the unemployed, the ‘benefits reliant’; every Capitalist Society creates an underclass which is on the face of it ‘economically inactive’ and with compulsory disdain, ends up as scapegoats for the actions of the rich.

From the outset, our economic system chose to reject the concept of ‘full employment’ and instead over worked only a section of the potential workforce, simultaneously creating an underclass generally known since as the poor. Their seemingly pitiful position would act as an incentive for those - with jobs - to work for much less than what their labour was worth. Capitalism in a nutshell.

It would probably be a generalisation to claim that today’s ‘underclass’ are descendent to that period in history, but by and large the dynamic remains the same, bringing with it a range of further negative factors; mental ill health, collective marginalisation and a denial of social capital that ensures whole generations spend their life oblivious to the forces which disempower them. 

In the Six Counties, these are the people who endured most during the recent conflict and still do as a result. And the link between conflict related depression and high rates of DLA claims in areas like West & North Belfast is evident to anybody who bothers to open their eyes. After 30+ years of undiluted negativity and immeasurable suffering it isn’t hard to see why that would be the case, speak to the people there and it’s obvious.

I am now part of this class; I live amongst it in West Belfast and spend every day with its members, as a Benefits Advisor in North Belfast where I am privileged to hear their life stories. I watch sectarian, racial and national differences evaporate to reveal the same narrative of historical economic marginalisation and personal damage passed down through the generations, creating perpetual disadvantage. And currently these people are under further attack via the Welfare Reform Bill.

Last week, the Andersonstown News reported on a local GP who was concerned that his patients were becoming suicidal due to a fear of impending benefit cuts. He was right to be concerned. In England, the same cuts - as well as pressures emanating from an increasingly draconian benefits system - have driven a growing list of people to take their own lives. Just enter the words ‘welfare reform’ and ‘suicide’ into any search engine to gauge the extent of the problem. The excellent campaigning website ‘blacktrianglecampaign.org’ keeps an updated list of those who take their own lives as a result of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Unfortunately, the Andersonstown News decided to use this immensely important and tragic revelation to print a ‘Sun’ style Tory banner headline ‘1 in 5 in West Belfast on DLA’, suggesting a less than wholesome reason for running the story in the first place.

All of the political parties represented in Stormont are under pressure to implement ‘Welfare Reform’, a move which will recreate the Tory dream of Dickensian standards for the poorest. The political party closest to the Andersonstown News is no different. And their desperate attempts to convince their voters of the ideological predicament they are currently in is directly related to the right-wing nature of the ‘1 in 5’ Andytown News headline.

Across town, the Belfast Telegraph were preparing a similar shock horror headline but with much greater ferocity, aimed at degrading the position of benefit reliant families and smoothing the way for those determined to bring in cuts. 

Out of approximately 200, 000 people who (according to DSDNI) are in receipt of Disability Living Allowance here, they managed to zoom in on ten particular families. who (according to them) receive annual benefits of around £56,000 per annum.

The figure was secured by David McNarry of the Neo-Blackshirt organisation ‘UKIP’ who had specifically questioned the Social Development Minister on the HIGHEST benefits claimants in the North. That is those with the highest possible entitlements.

Having received his written answer, McNarry chose not to investigate the actual circumstances of the families concerned, but instead cried foul, alongside and within the pages of the Telegraph, in which an insinuation was clearly made that this figure represented a normal average income for benefits reliant families.

Their motivation was clear; to demonise a marginalised minority in order to create discontent amongst the wider population, using misinformation and insinuation, in an attempt to pull Sinn Féin over the line and secure a right wing political settlement.

As a benefits advisor – who helps others negotiate an increasingly stubborn and deliberately inaccessible benefits system - I immediately recoiled from the intended shock affect of the article's claims and encouraged friends and family to consider the following. Firstly the figure itself was highly unusual; it reflects the presence of at least two family members with an entitlement to both High Rate Care and High Rate Mobility DLA. This means that in the households mentioned, at least two people are considered ‘virtually unable to walk’, furthermore they require ‘frequent or prolonged supervision day and night in order to prevent harm’ for example through lack of awareness to hazards. 

The families mentioned may very well be caring for two people with severe physical and mental disabilities. Cystic Fibrosis perhaps or a debilitating paraplegic condition with related life threatening seizures? If so, then there would be an immense cost involved in caring for two such people at home; specialist transport, 24 hour supervision, securing therapies and keeping multiple specialist appointments alone would easily consume the figures mentioned in a year, that is before we get around to considering the amount of money being saved by the state through such people being cared for at home.

The figure is also misleading, as much of the expenditure (£120 per week) actually went on Housing Benefit, suggesting that a sizable chunk of the benefits received was in fact going into a landlord’s pocket.

Of course we don’t know what the exact individual circumstances of these ten families were, David McNarry and the Belfast Telegraph had no interest in such trivial clarifications. Instead they appeared determined to operate along the level of standards set by trash TV productions such as ‘Benefits Street’ which set out to demonise and berate benefit reliant families in the name of a potentially unpopular political agenda. 

Back in the real world, the poverty levels experienced by families reliant on benefits is all too obvious. Even the Belfast Telegraph article itself states that only 12’000 benefits reliant households were living on more than a modest £23’000 a year, again let us not forget that this includes massive amounts handed out to private landlords and Housing Associations. 

Consider what this means, a massive section of benefits expenditure is never actually seen by the claimants themselves, but instead goes to the legions of private Landlords or Housing Associations who have sprung up since the Thatcherite ‘own your own home’ initiatives were rolled out in the early 80s.

If the aim of the British/Stormont governments is to cut benefits expenditure, then why not start by forcing landlords to lower rents, or better still bringing rented houses back into public ownership?, thus saving on the Millions handed to private landlords each year.

Of course the capitalist mindset makes such a move inconceivable; here in the North it would open a can of worms, given the outside interests of many politicians. For the foreseeable future landlords will count amongst the biggest benefit recipients here.

Having worked as a benefits advisor for around seven years, my overall impression of the system is one which sets out daily to frustrate vulnerable, elderly and ill claimants at every turn. One which makes sick people fill in large daunting forms full of trick questions, questions which get increasingly complex while the space for answering them gets deliberately smaller. 

A system that finds people with life threatening conditions ‘fit for work’ and whose telephone system puts frightened mothers with hungry children on hold for half an hour or more (while advising them of the cost of their call). Whose ‘client advisors’ are told not to give advice and instead are directed to appear so vague and belligerent as to make the claimant give up. I have seen disabled clients (reliant on zimmer frames) put off their benefits for attending a funeral, elderly and impoverished clients denied housing benefit because they are too frail to visit their bank to secure printed statements to satisfy the latest demands of belligerent decision makers.

This is the deadly daily reality for benefits claimants; I could go on forever about the injustice inherent in the system. And it is about to get much worse for the underclass.

The range of forces lined up to hammer the underclass is immense. The right wing press alone have set the agenda without a challenge. Alongside the Belfast Telegraph article, appeared an opinion piece for right wing commentator David Vance. A thoroughly nasty man, Vance is known (amongst other things) for publically approving of the murder of Rachel Corrie, crushed while trying to protect a Palestinian home from destruction by an Israeli bulldozer.

For this and other wild outbursts – such as defending the use of torture on prisoners – Vance’s credibility has diminished considerably, but for the purpose of attacking the poor he is still wheeled out in articles such as that in the Belfast Telegraph. He used it to suggest that the underclass ‘don’t have children’. A despicable comment, it is likely to go unchallenged, as the underclass have little or no representation. 

The fact that this and other gross attacks on the unemployed - such as the trash TV episodes and misleading banner headlines – go completely unchallenged raises the question of who (if anybody) is willing to defend the ‘underclass’, after all, even a basic grasp of history, economics and ‘social capital theory’ will lead you to the understanding that these people are if anything victims of the society into which they were born. 

Up until now Sinn Féin has on the face of it, frustrated Stormont attempts to bring in the ‘welfare reform bill’, although possibly by accident rather than design. Pledging to defend the ‘most vulnerable’; they fail to say how they will stand by the quite vulnerable or indeed the mere vulnerable. 

They could have sunk the Welfare Reform Bill some years ago simply by supporting an SDLP proposed petition of concern, yet they refused to do so. Following the Stormont House Agreement, they made a bizarre claim to have secured enough funds to offset the impact of benefit cuts. Yet a basic working knowledge of the ‘Welfare Reform Bill’ and what it entailed would have immediately exposed their boasts as inaccurate. The IRSP pointed to this anomaly at the time, it seems Sinn Féin now concur. What they agree to next remains to be seen.

On the left, the emergence of ‘People Before Profit’ and their elected representative Gerry Carroll was a breath of fresh air for West Belfast. Strongly defensive of Workers Rights & Community facilities and firmly behind Trade Union initiatives, PBP (coming as they do from the Trotskyist SWP tradition) fall down when it comes to mentioning the plight of those not in the ranks of ‘organised Labour’.

In a recent anti-cuts Newsletter which their activists delivered to houses in Clonard (an area with a 60.3%, benefits reliance) no emphasis whatsoever was put on benefits cuts. While excelling in defence of the working class, we can only view the SWPs oversight as another failure of political parties to engage with those out of work. 

Likewise the recent mobilisation of the Trade Union movement against the Stormont House Agreement has to date made little or no reference to benefits cuts from the many platforms which it has been offered, understandable perhaps in view of the urgency to react against Job Losses, but a missed opportunity to rally the most historically radical section of the working class.

Meanwhile, increasing comment is made on the ongoing breakdown in the social fabric of working class districts. Political leaders are increasingly absent and detached from the feelings of their own grass roots, a not insignificant reason for the recent Sinn Féin U-Turn. And where once we were extolled the virtues of ‘people power’ and ‘grass roots action’, we are now told to ‘call the Police’ in relation to crime, violence and drug dealing. An immense sense of apathy is setting in as a result of the bland outcomes of such an option, which can be sensed at a street level, an apathy particularly suited to marginalised people, but lethal in its consequences, leading as it does to people simply going back indoors and pulling away from community solidarity.

Some will likely view the oncoming wave of anger and despair (which will immerse the underclass following the plundering of their already paltry incomes) as an opportunity to promote an upsurge in armed actions. 

The fact is likely to be increasingly raised that Stormont and the ‘peace process’ has done nothing for marginalised unemployed youth in the North. However any consequential presumption that the correct reaction to this failure is the pursuance of sporadic armed actions will be flawed in the extreme.

As a very wise old Belfast Marxist and former Republican prisoner persistently states to me in the course of a twice yearly argument, ‘Campaigns end in negotiation, Revolution ends in annihilation’. The currently active armed groups offer young people (at most) only another campaign, and at a time when the British state – determined to implement cuts capable of reversing all social progress made since world war two – would gladly appreciate any news that would take the public focus off the savagery which they are implementing as policy. 

The left in its various forms must recognise the presence of what is loosely described as the underclass, the modern embodiment of Tones’ ‘people of no Property’. It has a historical and deliberate origin and in our society represents the most hard done by victims of the class system, it also contains those who when pushed will most likely contribute most to actual radical change in Ireland.

Such recognition requires a further acceptance that compromise with capitalism is never a permanent solution to the problems of the wider working class. The tendency to sell reform instead of revolution is what gave rise to the feeble minded policies of the ‘centre-left’, the toothless tigers of the modern trade union movement and New Labour itself. 

Unapologetic commitment to a revolutionary left analysis and the eventual creation of a classless society is the only logical response to the current Tory revolution, which - it seems - will only end with the complete destruction of all post-war social progress. 

Takers for a genuinely revolutionary political program have been thin on the ground, but until the left begin to recognise and engage with what can only be described as the underclass, their program will have no backbone whatsoever.


  1. Ciarán,

    'Who will defend the Underclass?'

    Better that you stocked your office with Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' than Das Kapital.

  2. Thanks Ciaran (I think),
    I have many issues with the article, but ill focus on the main theme:
    ”From the outset, our economic system chose to reject the concept of ‘full employment’ and instead over worked only a section of the potential workforce, simultaneously creating an underclass generally known since as the poor. Their seemingly pitiful position would act as an incentive for those - with jobs - to work for much less than what their labour was worth. Capitalism in a nutshell.”
    Why do you weight unemployment as more beneficial to a capitalist society, than mass consumerism? Even if (as you claim) wages are lower, this means people have less disposable income to buy the products, that generates revenue streams, growth in revenue streams, which have a tangible effect on asset prices. Given even rich people don’t perpetually buy the same products (like iPhones), don’t you think capitalists want to create more opportunities for people to buy their products?
    You yourself have outlined the concentration of unemployed in West Belfast, there are other areas (normally called ghettos by the Left) with similar concentrations, wouldn’t your (or Marx’s) unemployment theory need these people to be equally spread throughout the country to have the effect you claim? E.g. What good is 20% unemployment in West Belfast, to someone hiring in North Antrim? What effect does the mimimum wage have on Marx’s analysis given wages cannot fall lower than a given amount?
    “…this includes massive amounts handed out to private landlords and Housing Associations. “
    Isn’t there a contradiction in bemoaning cuts to benefits who effect is to actually lock in these high rents?
    Ive tried to present this as questions, because when you can answer these truthfully, you will also reveal another contributing factor in the rise of those seeking suicide,its scaremongering articles like this.

  3. Thanks for the reply DaithiD. In answer to your first question, i didnt necessarily state that unemployment was more beneficial to the capitalist 'society'. The economy that those in political power choose to tolerate is a capitalist one, it is the 'Economics of the Madhouse' as Chris Harman rightly referred to it. Within this system individual capitalists concern themselves primarily with the survival of their own patch above all others. This means working fewer people harder and for longer hours to produce more goods and generate maximum profit in the immediate term. Concerns about long term consumer spending power is of secondary importance, but the added incentive of probable poverty undoubtedly helps keep wages down, and this is figured into the equation. Does capitalist 'society' enjoy a steady rate of planned tranquillity or a perpetual state of crisis? If capitalists put real efforts into socio-economic planning (either ensuring long term spending power, or regional equality) the latter would not be so frequently the case, yet it remains so. As for the effect on 'Marx's analysis'? I didnt once mention it. As regards to the landlord system; true a cut to housing benefit may have the affect of lowering overall rents (Housing Benefit varies from area, set at a rate proportionately below the average rent expected there) yet there is no guarantee of this, far from it. Landlords acting on capitalist logic raise their rents in impoverished areas where the housing shortage is greatest. They are fully aware that sky high high rents (particularly in these areas) will necessitate tenants dipping into their living benefits like Job seekers Allowance, ESA etc, in order to make up for the shortfall. And they can live with the negative impact of such a practice. In my time protesting against landlord-ism and property agent practices in Belfast, I consistently emphasised the need for Housing Benefit to be set at a level equal to rents themselves, and in turn for rents to be lowered. This would end the appalling reality of low income families 'dipping into' food budgets, and creating appalling legacies such as West Belfast's 43% child poverty rate. A real commitment to building social housing would both loosen the grip of the landlords and create employment which would go some way to achieving the economic stability you seek in your question.

  4. Ciaran,

    thanks for putting this substantial piece our way. Hopefully, we will see more. Given the number of page views, there is a lot of interest in the topic.

  5. Thanks Ciaran, you didnt mention Marx explicitly, but this article draws on his 'Reserve Army of Labour" concept surely? (I presume Robert also noted this)

  6. I'm very pleased to read Ciaran's analysis on TPQ.

    Ciaran has done sterling work on behalf of working-class families in North and West Belfast for years now. Therefore, he has his finger on the pulse and has the ability to not only articulate their economic situation. He can also help them direct the correct social and political route we all need to achieve a better society.

    Thanks Ciaran and thanks to TPQ, Adh Mhor.

  7. Good to see ardoyne republician back online! Most people know you were hard done to by a bunch of @@@@@ well call them what you will! Adh mór!
    Brilliant piece cirian again thanks to am for publishing it!

    This is a great piece and as am
    Says hope there is more