Beyond the zero-sum game: Getting out of Protestant alienation roundabout

Beyond the zero-sum game: Getting out of Protestant alienation roundabout
by Stevie DOWNES for Shared Future News
20 March 2013

I have reason to be grateful to the Ashton Community Trust for a number of reasons. The main reason is for organising the North Belfast Respect Programme that ran during the month of March. The other reason is that I got to attend a discussion on social deprivation in working-class communities in North Belfast. Held in Belfast Castle looking down on the Titanic Quarter, we listened to Tim Cunningham, Professor Peter Shirlow, Mark Langhammer and Goretti Horgan give their interpretations on the topic, “Beyond the Zero-Sum Game: The Truth about Deprivation in Working Class Communities”.

To get to Belfast Castle, I took the Divis exit instead of the Clifton Exit on the Westlink. On this mistaken route, I drove through the working class communities of West Belfast and passed the high peace-line fences. These fences stare down at the terraced houses dwarfing them like a warning. From there it was a hop over to North Belfast. This had been a useful overview for me on the housing stock and class divisions. Public money had been used in the 1940s and 50s to reduce underlying sectarian tensions by new housing schemes in, for example, Rathcoole.

By the time I arrived at the Castle, Tim Cunningham, a PhD student from the Transitional Justice Unit at the University of Ulster was concluding. I saw him point to the Titanic Quarter and refer to the economic development of the City (Belfast). He argued that the economic focus had been the Titanic Quarter, thus shifting the locus of the city’s development in that direction. North Belfast and its communities had essentially been bypassed. There were no parallel social engineering plans, such as those from the 1940s or 50s. Therefore, the truth of deprivation, being a more intractable truth, is not commanding much attention in the current political climate.

Professor Peter Shirlow of Queens University, in his presentation, revealed alarming recent socio-economic statistics. His starting point was that inequality patterns in Belfast are similar to those appearing throughout the developed world. In this respect Belfast is no different; the share of wealth is becoming increasingly unequal. The top 1% are becoming very much richer, while the bottom 40% are becoming significantly poorer. He referred to the spending review for 2010, which showed that 80% of the income increases had gone to those on above average incomes. This means that all social mobility existing in the 1960s and 70s is being reversed. This current generation will be the first that will be worse off than their parents.

Statistics for Belfast show that on all social indicators — long term unemployment, mental health and feelings of alienation — the situation for working class communities is deteriorating. The situation for the Protestant working class areas is still slightly better than for the Catholic communities, but it is getting worse for both. The alienation within the Protestant communities is maybe felt more acutely recently, because they are coming to terms with the shrinkage of the skilled working class that is going on in all developed economies.

However, Prof. Shirlow added, this overall picture of inequality is obscured within working class communities because of the realities of the zero sum game. The communities measure their standing in relation to one another, and not in relation to the wider social divisions that are emerging. This reflects his earlier comment about Northern Ireland when he wrote that ‘rather than being at a cross roads, it was stuck on a roundabout’.(Guardian 11 Dec 2012)

Mark Langhammer (Association of Teachers and Lecturers) took this up by observing that the UK is the most socially divisive of all the OECD countries. He believed that one of the most significant elements in improving social inequality is education, and particularly the degree to which it fosters social mixing. Social class is deemed to be one of the most significant elements in determining educational attainment. What works to advance educational attainment is mixing social classes. Where this occurs performance is better all round.

The Strategic Education Forum looked at the strategies of targeting need and compared it to social mixing. Instead, Mr Langhammer referred to the degree of inequality within societies as measured across every socio-economic category — health, education, housing, mental health, quality of life. To substantiate this, he pointed to Pickett and Wilkinson’s book, The Spirit Level. The authors argue that there are ‘pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption’. An answer is for societies to concentrate on equality instead of economic growth. Fundamentally this is a matter of political will.

Mr Langhammer went on to make observations on the nature of working class communities in Northern Ireland. This was reflected in their organisation. For example, because more Catholics attended church and the Troubles had pushed them into self-reliance, this acted to consolidate a sense of community. Protestantism tends towards individualism. When he was a local councillor during the floods, he recalled how the two communities used him to assist. From his Protestant constituents, he received many single phone calls asking what he could do; from the catholic community, he got one call saying the community had tried several attempts and asked him what further he could do.

Gorretti Horgan (Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Ulster) took up the issue of increasing poverty. Benefits used to be 30% of the median wage; by 2009 they were 11%. Statistics confirm that the worst poverty is still west of the Bann. Mental health cases are amongst the highest in Ireland and there are direct links between poverty and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr Horgan raised a controversial point, in arguing that local communities had been disempowered because community development bodies had been taken over by political parties. In so doing, they had taken away the ability for local communities to organise themselves. She further argued that with political parties stepping in to take on the running of community development associations, sectarianism had been institutionalized. This was hotly debated afterwards.

In relation to the welfare reforms, Dr Horgan had been called up to Stormont to talk about the issues it raised. However, she noted that the impact of the flags protest had been to completely eclipse the topic. Stormont had retreated from the issue. In the absence of serious political debate, what is left are the clichés about welfare claimants and communities. She mentioned the presumption that there were communities where there was second and third generations who had never worked. An examination of those working class communities shows that they get by, by taking low paid and part-time work. The inheritance of unemployment can be seen to be a myth if the media have the inclination to examine it.

Discussion followed from the floor on the extent to which sectarianism might be subsumed by the increasing inequalities within working class communities. There was regret that the statistics on inequality were grossly underreported. This was put down to the dominance of the neo-liberal economic agenda. During the course of the afternoon, the truth of the deprivation within working class communities had been raised and aired. Whether there might be any move beyond the Zero Sum Game, there was more hope than expectation.

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