It is not quite what Jonathan Powell said, nor what he meant, but there is an on-going development of a nonsensical narrative that in the decade and a half since the Agreement working-class Protestants, often referred to simply as Loyalists, have been “neglected”. This is not only untrue, it is fundamentally part of the very system of political self-empowerment of the few at the expense of the many which has resulted in many inner-city majority-Protestant areas becoming increasingly isolated. As ever, leftie voluntary sector types should know better than to buy into this false narrative!
On the contrary, inner-city areas of NI have received more spending per head than any other part of the UK; masses of extra funding came through EU Regional Aid, other European programmes, US and international funds, and from elsewhere. As a result, new community centres, IT suites, sports facilities and so on have sprung up; and many activities have been provided by taxpayers’ money (and not always even UK taxpayers at that), typically free of charge in majority Protestant areas (in fact, these usually attract a charge in majority Catholic areas). This is a serious peace dividend – the fact it hasn’t really turned around any communities is because, by and large, it was misdirected and wasted. It is not because it didn’t exist!
Inner-city majority-Protestant areas suffer much the same type of social isolation as any other across the British Isles, particularly in post-industrial cities. Family and community breakdown, lack of education, worklessness, indebtedness and addiction play out in much the same way in the estates of Greater Belfast as they do in Liverpool or Glasgow or Newcastle upon Tyne. One fundamental barrier to the problem is gangsterism (what we call “paramilitarism”); another barrier is well-meaning people diverting heaps of resources in a sporadic, untargeted way; and a third barrier is less well-meaning people (typically seeking votes or funding) deliberately creating “client communities” of people by promising them the world, citing a “bogey man” (all too easy in NI), but never actually doing anything to reverse the community’s decline.
Note that none of this constitutes “neglect”. In all post-industrial cities, the first barrier is the elephant in the room – by buying into the gangs rather than seeking to break them up, funders (most obviously the government) ended up feeding part of the problem. The second barrier is the way funding is distributed – in an essentially completely haphazard and short-termist way in which even the best third sector organisations end up spending half their time filling in funding applications (or subsequent audits) rather than actually doing the work; and the third of course is the deliberate way in which people who benefit from having poor communities in their midst (not least politicians) have sought to create “issues” (such as flags) while ignoring the real fundamental challenges – such as an ill-fitting education system, absence of skills, inability to budget effectively, and rising levels of addiction.
How will we turn this around? As I have written elsewhere, we probably won’t bother. Most of those who are genuine about turning it around get alienated by people (often politicians) whose position would be endangered if people worked out how truly ineffective they are.
How should we turn this around? Firstly, we need to identify that gangs are fundamental to the problem, not the solution; community representatives must be elected or appointed on merit. This isn’t likely – it is too sensitive. Secondly, we need to change (and de-bureaucratise) our funding system completely, so that organisations are assessed on merit but allowed to operate in the long term (and so that all an organisation’s funding streams are audited together, once). This isn’t likely either – it would cost a few administrative posts. Thirdly, we need to elect politicians with a comprehensive grasp of the problems (and how they are interlinked), throw out all those who talk in simplistic terms of how it’s all the fault of ‘themmuns’, and actually bring some intellectual rigour (rather than sectarian hearsay) to how we tackle social isolation. You can guess how likely that is!
The narrative that Loyalists have been “neglected” is an enticing one for the very politicians and civic leaders who have failed to deliver. But it isn’t actually true – and people who really care should realise they are doing immense harm by buying into such a falsehood.