Unheard Voices: East Belfast’s ‘Undesirable’ Working Class

Sophie Long attended an East Belfast conference which she reports on in Long Kesh Inside Out. Sophie Long is a PhD candidate at the school of politics in Queens University Belfast, where she is reading International Studies and Philosophy. As part of her research in 2014 she submitted a paper - An Investigation into Ulster Loyalism and the politics of Misrecognition.

Unheard Voices: East Belfast’s ‘Undesirable’ Working Class
Sophie Long.

On 27th April, at the Strand Arts Centre, the local people of East Belfast gathered to discuss local politics, community needs and the necessary steps to improve the area, and the lives of its inhabitants. There was a  panel, composed of representatives from the business community, education sector, local politics, labour and community activism, who gave their perspectives on what East Belfast, and its working class, needed, in order to prosper.

The impetus for organising the event was that, 2 weeks prior, the East Belfast Hustings, run by political bloggers Slugger O’Toole, had sold out quickly, leaving many local people disappointed, and unable to attend. Having attended the Hustings, I was surprised to see that the composition of the audience was markedly different from the general demographics of East Belfast, with 37.5% Unionists, 10% Nationalist and 52.5% Alliance/Green/Other.  For an area which voted in a DUP candidate for some 30 years, before ousting them in favour of Alliance in 2011, this audience was fairly unrepresentative.

There was speculation across some social media pages that the hustings was in fact a ‘secret debate’, carefully co-ordinated to keep disgruntled loyalists out of the audience, but for the most part, people accepted that the event was open to all, and simply very popular. The 27th, then,was a grassroots response to the official hustings, with a serious, engaged discussion amongst the audience and panellists, and I feel that what was said deserves to be acknowledged.

Firstly, both Gavin Robinson and Naomi Long had been invited to attend the event. Both declined. The participants saw this as further proof that the ‘Protestant vote’ is taken for granted, and that the working classes had been cast aside, as political representatives assumed their tacit support. The discussions throughout the evening showed that such assumptions are out-of-date,and that the working class in East Belfast are critically examining how to advance the interests of their community, and re-orienting their allegiances accordingly.

One of the main issues highlighted by the audience was the much-discussed Unionist pact. For many, who had been canvassed by the UUP last year, and who had subsequently voted for Sonia Copeland in the local elections of 2014, the pact was undemocratic, with the two unionist parties agreeing a deal over the heads of their voter base. Many people wanted the option to vote UUP, and to be deprived of this signalled the lack of respect which they felt politicians held for East Belfast and its people.  Indeed, these attitudes should be lauded. A desire for choice is perfectly reasonable, and a dissatisfaction with the DUP as the default unionist choice, reveals the growing chasm between the Party and the unionist working class.

Secondly, the non-attendance of Long or Robinson was met with critique. One panel member pointed out that both candidates enjoy generous salaries, and live comfortably in the suburbs, having been granted their mandates by the electorate. Contrastingly, the working classes of East Belfast, it was said, who were living in houses which were badly affected by damp, in an area with high unemployment, which would soon be subject to Welfare Reform. The audience were aware that they lived very different lives to those politicians who expected their votes.

These votes, it seems, won’t be willingly given to the DUP. Several participants noted that loyalists were often “told who to vote for”, and subject to the fear-mongering of the DUP, which provoked a tactical vote, “to keep someone else out”. One member pointed out that the DUP had traded constituencies with the UUP, with the former winning East Belfast, and the latter putting Tom Elliott forward in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. This casual trade-off suited the Parties, who adopted a pragmatic approach to the Westminster elections. But what it also did was further alienate an already disenchanted working class electorate, who felt they deserved a choice between Unionist candidates.

This is an important point, and one should be emphasised. The audience present on the 27th were not apathetic. Nor were they pledging uncritical allegiance to Unionism itself. In fact, the Union, or the constitutional position, was not mentioned once. What was mentioned was can be grouped into two categories; material, and non-material resources. Firstly, the material: education, in terms of pre-school places, local primary schools,  and the problems of academic selection. Many parents were worried about their children being placed in nursery schools outside of the local area. In addition, the desire for more social housing, instead of ‘pocket parks’,was raised. It was clear that these residents were ‘experts’ in what their communities needed, and wanted someone to listen to those needs.

Representatives from East Belfast Football Club pointed out the benefits of sport for young people, and stated that funding was often difficult to come by. A young person in the audience said that he played football, but would like “something to do” the other 5 nights of the week. A local trading chairman explained that the unused commercial properties on the Newtownards Road could be run as a pilot scheme, where young people could set up their own small enterprises, and enjoy zero rates, and reduced rents, for a year, in order to regenerate the area. He added that the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment had thus far refused to implement such a project. His analysis was that the visible degeneration of the Newtownards Road area was a symbol of the low regard in which East Belfast was held.

In terms of non-material resources, the discussion turned to issues of community solidarity, respect, and political accountability. The recent attacks on a local Polish resident’s nail salon were raised. Members of the panel and audience pointed out the strong community response to the attack, with one adding, “rightly so, everyone should be able to live in peace”. What was then highlighted, and which I believe is something we all need to consider, were the vastly different responses which follow the regular sectarian incidents in Cluan Place, a small, loyalist enclave beside Short Strand. A local resident stated that hate crimes were wrong, whether racially motivated, or sectarian in their intent. Where, she asked,were the vigils, rallied and protests, for residents of Cluan Place? None of these conversations were remotely racist, as discussions over resources are often framed as being, but instead were the articulations of a people who feel utterly left behind. There were no ‘zero-sum’ attitudes on display, instead a desire for the ‘unheard’ to be acknowledged.

This leads me to my main point, which is that, loyalists, or the Protestant working class, have become the ‘undesirable’ component of the new Northern Ireland. The word ‘undesirable’ was chosen by a panel member, and echoed by the audience. This, to me, shows an awareness, within loyalism, that their community is seen as backward, sectarian and unthinking. Not just that, but the assumption, I would argue, from Northern Ireland’s ‘liberal class’ is that loyalists will give unquestioning support to political unionism, such is their distaste for Irish nationalism. Not only is this disrespectful, it is simply untrue.

Loyalism, as represented by the audience on the 27th April, and by parties such as the PUP, is a form of critical unionism. They want politicians who will listen to their needs. They want a school system which will allow their children to flourish. They want to live in an area with real shops, not ghostly, insulting facades of the shops which once were. They want to be consulted on those political agreements which affect their democratic choices. These things, are not backward. They are not sectarian. They are not unthinking. Neither is loyalism, and it is time the ‘liberal classes’ and political left, examined their own prejudices and began to engage with the grievances of the Protestant working class.


  1. An interesting insight. The 'Ulster' working class have historically been manipulated via the Orange Order. It is interesting that the organisation doesn't feature here. Nationalists like myself have little insight into unionist-loyalist thinking and communities. There would be a difference to me in unionist and loyalist. Loyalism to me is sectarian in nature. Unionism not so having many RC advocates within it. However loyalism should not be stereotyped as 'fikos'. The contributors on here have been a revelation. Partly due it must be admitted to my own prejudices. They are extremely articulate and they were victorious in the conflict. If they are 'fik' where does that leave us? Up the swaney with our over inflated alter egos.

    Almost 20 years after a ceasefire it is surely time for someone to hoist aloft the Christmas tree so we fools can finally emerge from the trenches for the soccer match. Maybe get rid of those jobs for life career politicians too?

    Enjoyable read.

  2. Sophie,

    thank you for allowing this to feature here. We will feature your follow on piece shortly. This sort of commentary is so valuable.

  3. AM
    I met Sophie last year at Queen's, the more content you can get from her the better. In my humble opinion these types of articles help inform working class debate for both communities.

    Working class loyalism has never been allowed to have its own voice. The threat of a catholic republic, real or perceived, has trumped social issues. The OO and republicanism have found it easy to play on those fears over the years, most recently with the 'fleg' protest. If only the PUP could make some sort of breakthrough but alas lack the charismatic leader or profile to do so.

  4. Anthony,

    you are very welcome. I am grateful to you for sharing it, as I am interested in getting an alternative perspective on some of the issues I have raised. So thanks.


    there is a lot to be addressed in what you have said. Firstly, if you are keen to understand Loyalist thought, you could do a lot worse than start here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Northern-Irelands-Lost-Opportunity-Frustrated/dp/0745333095. Interestingly, Mitchel McLaughlin reviewed the book (quite favourably) on An Phoblact.

    The distinction which you make between Loyalism and Unionism is not one which I agree with, but I accept your comments. If we remove the "Catholic Unionist", who is often an "economic Unionist", we can then properly analyse the differences between Unionism and Loyalism.

    This is complex, but in a crude sense, in my opinion, it is about class. Loyalism is primarily a working class identity, and has a troubled relationship with middle-class Unionism.

    As a final note, the point about sectarianism- my response would be that, ascending or belonging to the middle classes does not eradicate sectarian tendencies. What it does do is help one frame them differently, or conceal them altogether.


    many thanks indeed for the comments.

    All the best,


  5. "They (civic demands) are not sectarian. They are not unthinking. Neither is loyalism."

    I agree that those needs and demands that you describe are legitimate, not unthinking nor sectarian. They aren't intrinsically loyalist either. I think a wider and deeper reflection is required on what Loyalism as an ideology itself actually is and what it demands before it can be judged as positive or negative.

  6. Tomas,

    Fair point. These are self-identifying Loyalists, though what this might mean is a re-assessment of what Loyalism, or to be more specific, this particular variant of Loyalism, is.

  7. I'm sorry but as the grandson of a working class member of the east Belfast Orange Order I simply cannot agree agree that loyalism is not unthinking.
    'Loyalist' quite simply means loyal to the monarchy, the crown, British imperialism, class division, etc.
    Everything about being loyal to the crown is in direct conflict with the interests of the working class. If these people want to improve their lot the first thing they need to do is to see this contradiction.


  8. Mike,

    thanks for your comments. I accept that you have a particular experience, and subsequent understanding, of Loyalism. I also accept that some "Loyalisms" follow this model. However, the one which I wrote about is possibly better defined as "progressive Loyalism", ie. class-conscious, critical of mainstream Unionism and its failure to adequately represent working class constituents,and more concerned with the local area than the British Empire. Again, it is a complex topic,and one which should be granted more careful consideration, in my view.

  9. Sophie, you pointed out that the people at the April meeting were vocal about not being able to choose between the UUP and the DUP and that the electoral pact was taking their vote for granted. let's not forget that although the UUP may appear to be less sectarian than its counterpart, this was the same party which ruled alone for 50 years in a fashion which would have been the envy of many a South American dictatorship. In 1948 this was the party which tried to opt out of the NHS and the welfare state. The point is that these people only want a choice between various shades of unionist parties, because that's their first priority above food, housing and services.
    Many years ago David Irvine appeared on a 'Talk-back election special' on Radio Ulster. He had recently declared the PUP as a socialist party (with a small s) so I decided to phone into the show and challenge him on the Monarchy - socialism contradiction. His answer was ' I have to gave the people what they want'.
    I did not, and still do not see how this is progressive. Unionism has only one function, to keep power and wealth in the hands of an elite at the expense of the rest of us.
    As a member of 'the political left' I have examined my own prejudices. I don't believe I am guilty of anything other than pointing out the contradictions that exist when working class unionists (or nationalists) put national identity before their own actual ability to eat and shelter.

  10. Michael,

    thanks for the comments. All, in my opinion, reasonable assertions. Firstly, the desire for a UUP candidate to run in east Belfast might run counter to the "50 years of misrule" Official Unionist history, which I fully accept. The sectarian actions of the Unionist state during that period is inexcusable. However- on the east Belfast UUP today, both Michael and Sonia Copeland are well-respected for looking after working class constituents, and being embedded in the community who were speaking that night.

    On the national identity/socialism paradox, this is something I wholly acknowledge, and am still examining.

    One comment, for your consideration, which has always troubled me on how the "left" view Loyalism: material needs ought to be prioritised above the non-material, i.e. issues of identity,yes? That is rational,but as common sense (and behavioural economics) shows, we are not rational creatures. Telling someone to stop caring about a flag, or a parade, and instead focus on "what's really important", is perhaps a little patronising. Instead, we should be asking why the flag matters, why the parade is worth protesting for. The reasons which emerge might not satisfy us, but it is more respectful to at least credit Loyalism with agency, rather than perceive it as 'deluded'in some way.

    In short,if we wish to emancipate the Protestant working class, we should meet them where they are, instead of where we feel they should be.

    Thanks again Michael, these are very interesting points, and I enjoy discussing them.

  11. Sophie,

    are we really not rational creatures or do we just rationalise in different ways? I am not persuaded by the general left critique of loyalism because I find it premised on the dubious notion of false consciousness. I think we are cultural creatures and rationalise to a large extent through culturally shaped brains that interpret situational logic for us.

  12. Anthony,

    that is an interesting way of looking at it. I wholly agree on the inadequacy of the "false consciousness" hypothesis- problematic at best. The culturally-conditioned rationalisation line might work- my position is that when we demand that the working classes focus only on their socio-economic conditions, we deny the cultural/spiritual elements of individual and social life which provide meaning to us all.

  13. Sophie, which helps explain the severe limitations of class reductionist arguments not to mention the paucity of predictive Marxist thought. Class interests are not something that the "class conscious" or vanguard parties can slap on a social group's back like a number plate of a car and then point in the direction and think that is enough for the destination to be reached.

    Julie Ann Corr had a piece that featured here once about David Cameron. My memory of it is that it could almost have come from the pen of any republican socialist. I think it is a fallacy to view the sole determinant of progressive politics as the constitutional question, divisive as that is.

  14. Anthony,

    absolutely. Thought Julie Anne's piece was excellent- and ought to have garnered a reply from one of the Stormont House brigade. I remember well the trips to the Game of Thrones set and Cathedral Quarter- neatly missing the Shankill, Falls, inner East Belfast, Turf Lodge, etc.

    Your last sentence sums up the question which "the left" might consider: does being a Unionist prevent you from being a socialist?

  15. Sophie,

    which might give us a theme around which to organise a discussion on the blog inviting a series of republican/loyalist/left writers.

  16. Anthony,

    the discussion needs to be had. Good space to have it- the home of dissent!

  17. Sophie I agree with your take on this; loyalists must be met where they're at rather than where we wish them at. David Irvine to his credit recognised that too. Its unfortunate for loyalism that he passed on so soon. The bridge to change that any leader brings his people across could only and can only be that of rapport. Irvinge had that capacity for rapport building within his constituency.

    That's the challenge that has befallen political and community leaders within loyalistm, maintaining rapport whilst giving a lead. I wish them success in that and all it entails; no easy task.

  18. Henry,

    Ervine was a great loss to Loyalism and Northern Ireland. No one can replace him,but what we should note is that under Hutchinson's leadership, the PUP have become the only pro-choice, pro-equal marriage Unionist party in Northern Ireland. There is progressive thought within the party, and space for it to be heard.

    You are right, it is a real challenge. Similar to the disruptions in West Belfast following Gerry Carroll's excellent work- the working classes are no longer buying the old rhetoric from their "betters".

  19. Hello Sophie,

    Given that you are a politics / history student I assume that you are familiar with the ideas of, say, James Connolly and Jim Larkin? Mr Connolly lived in Belfast and worked hard to bring the working class out of their blighted allegiance to religious and national prejudices. As a native of Belfast I would love to see the working class of the city united.

    Are the people in Dee Street and surrounds much advanced in that endeavour?

    Are they still in thrall to the outdated idea of monarchy (one which is not even British)?

    Are they still in thrall to religious prejudice which was forged in the 15th century and sadly is not much changed?

    I detest the Catholic Church and its malign influence on 'nationalist / catholic' Ireland. However, I feel that there is progress there although not fast enough.

    I do not get that impression about the impoverished though stalwart people you speak for and of.

    Please advise me that I am wrong.

  20. Dear Michael (Craig),

    I wholly agree with your comments and believe that they have not been addressed either by David Irvine on Talk Back or by Sophie.

    Dear Sophie,

    Your reply to Michael has all the appearances of sophistry.

    Not a good thing at all.

    Best wishes,

  21. 137,

    cheers for comments.

    Familiar with Connolly and Larkin.

    The people I wrote about were not particularly interested in the monarchy. There was no mention of religion either. Nor did they say much about wishing to unite the working classes. What they were most interested was how to develop relationships with political representatives, and to improve their material conditions. Not revolutionaries, just citizens who feel under-valued.

    What is your own reading of the Protestant working class, as they currently exist? If they are not royalists, or religious devotees, what is your prescription for them?

    Apologies for the sophistry- comes with the name,


  22. Hello Sophie,

    1. The people I wrote about were not particularly interested in the monarchy. There was no mention of religion either.

    I believe that; however, there are many issues that are not openly mentioned precisely because they are so generally accepted by the group or audience concerned that it is inconceivable that they might be questioned at all. Hopefully, that is not the case.

    I believe the monarchy is completely incompatible with the practice of equality and justice.
    I believe that an individual’s religion (unfortunate for them!!) is a private matter for his or her conscience.

    2. Nor did they say much about wishing to unite the working classes.

    While the term ‘working class’ is useful in many ways, particularly for writing theses, we need to use more current and accurate terminology. Consult any works by Sachs, Kruger or Stiglitz, for example.

    3. What they were most interested was how to develop relationships with political representatives, and to improve their material conditions. Not revolutionaries, just citizens who feel under-valued.

    I hope that you agree that the onus for developing relationships should be on the politicians. That is implicit in the origin of democracy; see Solon, Cleisthenes, Rousseau, Paine and many others. Also, see the origin of the Althing.

    We need more revolutionaries. Sadly, the status quo has imbued a whole generation with the idea that change (especially towards a more equitable and just society) is dangerous and should be suppressed. We live in societies that are hostile to education and to scientific, critical and radical thought in particular.

    Of course they feel under valued; they are and always have been. Time to spring clean their minds.

    4. What is your own reading of the Protestant working class, as they currently exist? If they are not royalists, or religious devotees, what is your prescription for them?

    My views are very singular, Sophie. A brief outline.
    They are, as best I can ascertain, royalists / loyalists and religious devotees, Sophie. As a republican and atheist I think that these are deeply mistaken convictions.
    I assume that you know the history, Laudabiliter, Adrian IV, Act of Supremacy 1534, 1798, 1926, 1971 et cetera?
    You understand also that the Protestants in the six counties had (and have) little in common with those Protestants in the Church of England. They were essentially used as convenient pawns by successive governments in London. The Catholic Church of course used the catholic people in Ireland for its own narrow purposes. The puppet masters had different agendas but they agreed upon at least one item; the suppression of radical, revolutionary ideas which espoused equality and freedom.

    Any attempts to challenge the received ideas were denounced as subversive of state, churches or both.

    Life in the slums of Belfast was cheap. You should know this. The loyalists celebrated (and still do) a family coup in 1690 as an affirmation of their ‘religious freedom’. Why they do this is very difficult to credit but the facts are there.
    However, the price of protestant / loyalist ascendancy was the subjugation of the Catholics. The British and Irish elite conspired in this murderous regime as for example in The Curragh Mutiny and The Ulster Covenant.

    So, while, great social, scientific and political changes occurred across Europe, the loyalist people in the Ireland lived on in their isolated cocoon of supremacy immune to all suggestions of change or modernization. The Catholics were not much advanced due to the malign influence of the Catholic Church.

    Terrible years later, many deaths later, I think that not much has changed.

    As you pursue your studies have a look at some science. It always helps.

    5. Apologies for the sophistry- comes with the name,

    Not at all, Sophie. The term and name mean ‘wisdom’, as you know.
    The phrase ‘progressive unionist’ is an oxymoron I believe at this point in time. I am happy to change my mind if presented with compelling evidence.

  23. 137,

    thanks for the many literary, terminological and thematic recommendations.

    Stiglitz' critique of Piketty is useful- Standing's "precariat" also relevant- but "working class" is still the most accurate as the people I am describing are, for the most part, in waged work.

    Do you think that people living on the lower Newtownards Road have much of a connection to the theological/political theoretical works which you mention? That's not to say they haven't read, or wouldn't enjoy them, but when speaking to someone about their lived experience, an experience which is one of frustration and marginalisation, explaining that it is a logical continuation of broader social, religious, and political change will likely bring little comfort.

    "I believe that; however, there are many issues that are not openly mentioned precisely because they are so generally accepted by the group or audience concerned that it is inconceivable that they might be questioned at all. Hopefully, that is not the case."- you believe this based on what evidence? The recent visit of Prince Charles to East Belfast drew very small crowds, indeed, some were disappointed at the disinterest now expressed in the monarchy.

    "Of course they feel under valued; they are and always have been. Time to spring clean their minds.". I will politely respond - because you might not mean to be patronising- but why is it 'their' minds which need spring cleaning? The people whom I wrote about asked for some basic standard of living, and a degree of involvement in how the community is organised. As far as I can see, their minds are just fine, and it is the rest of us who could do with making some adjustments.

  24. * above comment was from me, was signed into the Group page*

  25. Sophie,

    you more or less made it clear in the comment it was you. I doubt anybody would have an issue with it. We do ask in order to prevent sockpuppeting that people use the same handle for their comments. But there was no attempt to abuse that convention here. Thanks

  26. Thankyou 137 for being my lone supporter. It would appear that Sophie isn't the only wise one in this debate, I'm in awe of your historical knowledge.

    Yes 'precariat' is a word I've also come to use more in recent times, because even though the majority of those whom Sophie wrote about are in 'waged work' the nature of this work (zero hour contracts, part-time etc) does not afford the basic security that was the norm for those in work in the past. A high percentage of those in low paid jobs need tax credits and housing benefit in order to maintain subsistence.

    In your conversation with A.M. you asked, 'does being a Unionist prevent you from being a socialist?
    Well I think it depends on the reason why you believe in the Union. If a working class person here wishes to be part of Britain because they believe it to be more democratic in terms of left /right politics, and because of its welfare state and the NHS, as opposed to the south of Ireland which had none of this, then this would not be totally at odds with being a pinkish socialist.

    Looking at your NI UCG blog there are some very worthwhile essays, e.g. 'Why have loyalists come to perceive the PSNI as their enemy?'

    There isn't much that I would disagree with in this analysis because it concludes that there is a class antagonism at the core of the issue.

    I could go on, but I am currently indisposed, so back to you 137.


  27. currently indisposed sounds like an euphemism for being an Aston Villa supporter!

  28. We love it here. I grew up with it, being taken to Glentoran matches at the Oval (in the heart of East Belfast, the very place under the microscope here) from a very young age. No where near as passionate as I once was and more enjoy my son's interest in and knowledge of it. I love watching the games with him.

  29. Running, cycling and motorbike racing were the things I was interested in, the latter became an interest if my Son and then my Grandson.
    My young brother took me to Windsor Park once, back in the 70's, the spectators spent the whole 90 mins threatening each other. this behaviour and the commercialisation of the sport put me off forever.