Category: Archive

A Sunday stroll through

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Belfast Sundays aren’t what they used to be. On a recent Sunday morning in July, I left the Europa Hotel to take a stroll over the Boyne Bridge and into Sandy Row, the city’s oldest loyalist district. I hadn’t very far to go, since the back of hotel looks out over the little narrow streets that for a century and a half have been known for their identification with Ulster’s loyalist faith.

It was about 9:30 — not exactly the crack of dawn. But there was not a sinner about, apart from myself. The road was deserted. It looked like the entire population had fled. No church bells were ringing, calling the faithful to fill their pews and attend to the Lord’s word. Indeed, the doors of the only church I past were locked. Where were the droves of women in their Sunday hats, walking with their men folk in their Sunday suits? All still abed, I presumed.

Instead of the sight of people going to church I was greeted with a huge mural on the right hand side of the road which proclaimed: "You Are Now Entering Loyalist Sandy Row Heartland of South Belfast Ulster Freedom Fighters. Quis Separabit." Even more alarming, on the other side of the street was a poster adorned with the bald, menacing pate of Johnny Adair, the infamous leader of the UDA’s "C" company (their motto "Simply The Best"). It proclaimed "Victimization," demanding the imprisoned UDA gang leader be freed because, according to the poster, "His only crime is loyalty."

Adair, who in 1994 was the first person convicted under a law making it a crime to "direct" terrorist acts, was released under the auspices of the Good Friday agreement only to be rearrested last September after he was connected to a series of feud killings and a sectarian campaign against Catholics.

Adair is also widely known as a major drug dealer. His group has been linked to the importation of cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin into the North. So I was more than amused as I walked past his poster to come across another one a few streets along the road. This was put up by the local UDA to deny allegations that the organization was selling heroin on the streets of Sandy Row. (The allegations had just appeared in The Sunday World newspaper.) The South Belfast UDA poster asked that anyone engaged in such activity should be reported to — the UDA, of course. This would be a bit like going to your local Mafioso to complain that organized crime was plaguing your neighborhood.

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It was, in truth, a depressing scene, and one that is repeated throughout the working-class areas of Protestant Belfast. A culture of thuggish violence, augmented by drug-running criminal gangs, has driven out the old pieties. It must not be forgotten that Sandy Row was once a place where Brendan Behan could feel comfortable singing a rebel song in one of the local pubs (I think it was the Blue Bell he used to visit; in the early 1970s it was bombed by the Provisional IRA).

Of course, to say this leaves one open to being accused of romanticizing the past. Belfast working-class culture, both in its Protestant and Catholic varieties, was always tough, fairly joyless, and often drink sodden. But it had a certain moral coherency, governed by the ethics of work and worship. A sort of confused hedonism has taken its place, one fueled by drugs. One of the reasons that this change has met with less resistance in the loyalist areas is that the Protestant churches have lost the Protestant working class.

I had one indication of this transformation about seven years ago, when I was working on a TV documentary for Channel Four in Britain about the victims of the Troubles. We needed contacts in the Shankill Road who could direct us to families who had lost loved ones over the years and who would be willing to speak to us. Specifically, we were searching for the families of Protestants who had been victims of sectarian killings. So we did what we were doing in Catholic districts: we went to see the local reverend. This time, it was the pastor of a Church of Ireland parish on the Shankill. We spoke with him. He agreed to help. Two weeks later when we called to see what names he had come up with, he apologized to us that he had not come up with one. That was not because there were no such families to be found — we contacted quite a few thanks to other sources. It was simply that he did not know any, though he had been on the Shankill for many years. His church had lost contact with its community.

All of Ireland has been transformed morally, partly thanks to the economic changes which have swept the country in the last 20 years. The Catholic church is loosing its grip on its flock as well, north and south of the border. But the impact of the "new" Ireland on Protestant working-class life seems more detrimental than productive. Protestant workers were the chief benefactors from the Victorian industrial revolution in Ireland, of which Belfast was the epicenter. That revolution has long gone into decline, and the factories and workshops that it created, along with their wealth, have all but vanished. Just like the coal miners of Northern England, Wales and Scotland, the working-class Protestants of Belfast have been deprived not only of jobs but of a way of life, a culture, that those jobs helped create and sustain.

Not only that, members of the Protestant working class have had to confront the political decline of Unionism. Their traditional pieties rested on political and economic certainties which have vanished. All that remains (and indeed flourishes) is the sectarianism which animated sections of the loyalist community, and the violence which that sectarianism produced.

The Catholic working class has faced great moral changes also, but has been able to assimilate them better, being more confidant of its identity, and eager to assert its new-found political strength.

In a way, the Adair poster, which proclaims "His only crime is loyalty," is accurate. It is a crime to be loyal to outmoded political and social norms when the world is changing around you. But it is, essentially, a crime of stupidity.

Jack Holland’s website is www.jackholland.com.

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