Citizen Ship 2013. Belfast. Nos 12.
Words from the Narrow Road.
The Flag Issue continues to squeeze out its bitter juice of protest.
While much of the street protests have disappeared back through the front doors, into the houses and communities of East Belfast, the opposition to change, around symbols, still remains. This opposition sulks and chews on old bones like an ageing White Bull Dog, growling when approached, scarred with old wounds, won for, and on behalf of, its master.
But this old brutalized dog rarely sees its master any more or hears its master’s voice. It couldn’t tell you the name of its master, for its master rarely visits to shake a paw and say well done. So the old dog, shrugs and dreams by the fire, of times long gone, when it was young and vibrant and proud. Loyal to its master, like all good dogs should be. Prepared to lay down its life, its very being, for its master’s cause.
What is that cause today, in 2013 ?
In order to understand this old, sometimes aggressive dog we need to understand its existence from the beginning . . . What gave birth to such raw emotions, and to such violent (non peaceful) street “protest” at the end of 2012, especially in East Belfast?
As Belfast grew in the early industrial age, people flooded into, what was then, a town, busy with activity. They were looking for jobs, something to sustain themselves and their families.
Many of these people, came to Belfast, like refugees from the country (and some were refugees from other countries too). The changes in the countryside, including farming methods and the falling away of slower working practices, left many unskilled farm labourers out of a job. This coincided with the growth of industry in the city, a common experience in major cities like Belfast, Glasgow, Dublin and Manchester.
The first thing these migrants found were difficult and squalid living conditions. The people who employed them (including their children), did so to benefit from their labour, and it is from that profit that large elegant houses began to be built in the areas we now associate with accumulated wealth not far from the streets of East Belfast itself in County Down and beyond.
(County Down has always been an ancient seat of power, as far back as the Normans, back further to the monk, Columbanus, Bangor and back further still, to the times of Saint Patrick.)
It is money, combined with industrial innovation that created wealth, that created change, that created economic growth of astounding levels, in Belfast, for the factory owners and businessmen in the second half of the 19th century. It is also the major factor that created a sense of loyalty to the British Empire among many in the Protestant work force, as everything material, in Belfast, seemed to be on the rise, even the perceived sense of improvement, for most Protestant workers.
Was this perception accurate, relative to how they once had lived in the country?
As the industrialists created employment and personal wealth at a scale, never before achieved, the worker’s living conditions and their material prospects bore little resemblance to that of their employer’s accumulated wealth.
One small problem.
How were the industrialists, the factory owners and the wealthy to keep their workers focused on the job in hand, keep their heads down, and their minds trained on something that would keep them continually distracted over the next century? By being divisive, while rewarding loyalty with large crumbs for the industrial Protestants, while other Catholic members of the population just received crumbs this collective workforce was kept divided..
What’s the difference between “large crumbs” and just “crumbs”? Probably, very little.
Belfast just happened to be in the right place geographically, to take advantage of the water power cascading down from the upper slopes of Divis, Black Mountain, the Cavehill and all the other hills that create the rim edge of the Belfast Basin and Lough Lea (Belfast Lough). Combined with other natural resources, expanding docks and space for ship building, metal fabrication and agricultural export. Belfast’s growth could not be stopped.
As a city it rapidly eclipsed Dublin as an industrial force. A northern hammer to Dublin’s cultured, but overpopulated, streets. Yet the two cities had much in common. Both were centres of British administration, exhibiting the pomp and circumstance of empire through their many fine buildings. Both displayed elements of soft Irishness, through symbols within their architecture, while both did little to eleviate the poverty, disease, and unhealthy, cramped living conditions of their workers.
It was within these narrow streets of Belfast, amongst the homes of relatively poor Protestant and Catholic workers, that the seeds of old agrarian hatreds were to be planted.
These seeds were to flourish and grow in the hot damp mills, the shop floor of the textile factories, the ship building yards and even the Civil Service,banks, churches and schools which were all to be so easily infected by the disease of the mind known as sectarianism.
Who planted these seeds in the first place? Individuals? Groups? Organisations? Local government, administration? Did we all take part in the great planting? If we feel we didn’t take part, have we all been affected?
I think that to feel set apart from the sectarianism of the Troubles is to deny the reality that it was, and still is, a social, religious, financial and educational plague that has affected us all.
The need therefore, for a symbol we can all relate to in Belfast, seems like a very, late in the day “No Brainer”.