Representing the Working Class in Northern Ireland

By Ciara McAllister

In April this year, as tensions rose in unionist communities over Brexit and policing, images of violence in Belfast flooded our newsfeeds. I was struck by a number of views and responses that I saw repeated by various political, academic and community commentators. On Twitter, the unrest was presented in three ways:

  1. Some criticised the media’s simplistic narrative (most pronounced in Britain and the Republic of Ireland, but here to an extent in Northern Ireland), that explained the violence simply as a causal effect of Brexit and the NI Protocol.
  2. Some voiced outrage about the young ages of those who were involved and arrested, and questioned the legitimacy of the protestors’ dissatisfaction, characterising them as gullible pawns for the interests of politicians and paramilitaries.
  3. There was an overwhelming condemnation of this violence and the politics alleged to have contributed to it, with blame put on Boris Johnson, Arlene Foster, the PSNI, or Sinn Féin, depending on the commenter’s position.

For anyone accustomed to the peaks and troughs of Northern Ireland politics and violence, this triad of discourses is routine and regularly coupled with the familiar recitation of “both sides are as bad as each other”. These responses however, while most often emerging from good intentions and reflecting a desire to condemn violence or predatory journalism, tend to obscure and dilute the complex difficulties that working-class communities face, doing little to combat the root causes of conflict.

Yet alongside these familiar positions, others online were seeking to understand and explain the underlying conditions that brought about the latest episodes of violence. Many frontline youth workers and bloggers sought to explain the views of unionist and loyalist communities and represent the increasing tensions of recent years; the feelings of failure, hopelessness and alienation that characterise the post-Agreement generations. A notable mention here is the Left Side Up blog that opted to spotlight the opinions and expertise of youth workers and educators in its April post, drawing attention to the issues of education, unemployment and deprivation that have contributed to unrest.[1] These testimonies provide a vital intervention into narratives surrounding Northern Ireland and it is crucial that these voices are heard, understood and responded to if we are to understand our past, improve our present and build our future. At the crux of the issue here is the representation of working-class communities, both politically and culturally. In this blog, I will focus on the issue of cultural representation.

Looking at the literature of the ‘Troubles,’ the same issues of working-class representation can be identified in how the conflict has been translated onto the page or the stage for public consumption. For a starting point, take John Wilson Foster’s suggestion that “The working class dominates too much of our literature and drama and by so doing impedes ideas in favour of verbally and physically violent action.”[2] He explains: “A survey of Troubles movies and novels by authors and directors both inside and outside Northern Ireland would lead the reader and cinemagoer to conclude that not only is Northern Ireland an overwhelmingly working-class society (it is certainly disproportionally so) but that the working class is the key to the problem even as it is (by reflex) to be celebrated.”[3] Here, Foster hints at the extent to which the working class have been manipulated and scapegoated in representations of the ‘Troubles’, appearing as the principle actors in violence and conflict. It is important that we identify how working-class life is appropriated (and often distorted) to fit with ideas across the broad spectrum of ‘Troubles’ narratives, but also work to locate moments of working-class resistance to this representation.

As in media coverage of the conflict, novelists and dramatists of the ‘Troubles’ have often encouraged the reader to either blame or pity the working class; those who engage in violence are either barbaric and psychopathic or politically naive, failing to see how they are being manipulated into violence. Structural and political inequalities are often played down for the working class to fit into a simplistic narrative of the conflict that can be easily consumed, and a message of morality delivered. Novels like Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie series (1970-1976), Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows on our Skin (1977) or Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal (1983), despite their many strengths, ultimately encourage us to reject the politics of the working-class community in favour of individual liberation, facilitating what Rolston has called an “escaping ideology.”[4] Rather than challenging structural inequalities or the politics of poverty, these texts suggest that working-class communities in Northern Ireland are fundamentally broken and should be left behind, with protagonists moving to Britain (Kevin and Sadie), the Republic of Ireland (Shadows on our Skin), or into the idealised countryside/middle-class home (Cal).

Likewise, paradigmatic ‘Troubles plays’ like John Boyd’s The Flats (1971) or Wilson John Haire’s Within Two Shadows (1972) invite us to see the personal effects of political violence, appealing to a common humanity that might override difference. While the men in Boyd’s play are committed socialists, and the British soldier character suggests that the Catholics and Protestants should “get togetha”,[5] ideological differences between unionism and nationalism are largely ignored. Despite the socialist ethos of the play, Boyd may be said to engage in what Mahon has termed a “rhetoric of sameness” that facilitates “the separation of politics from an idealized apolitical network of human personal, sexual and emotional relationships.”[6] Similarly, Haire’s play is one of many that allegorises the conflict through the family and a mixed marriage, with structures of sectarianism and inequality taken out of their wider context to become personal prejudices or defects.

While these narratives might call for an end to violence and a return to peace, in their attempt to extract a common humanity or transcend orange-and-green politics, they fail to engage sufficiently with the inequalities and power dynamics that have caused division and often deny agency to those who have chosen to protest their position. This is remarkably similar to the positions articulated in response to the recent violence suggesting that working class loyalist protestors are merely pawns. Neither of these responses engage with the complex structural inequalities of our society and so they remain intact, with issues of class inequality continually downplayed. From narratives of the ‘Troubles’ that see working-class communities as locations to be escaped, to contemporary social media manipulations of loyalist violence to fit one’s own political agenda, the working-class experience continues to be distorted and displaced.

Yet, just as our youth workers and working-class intelligentsia attempted to make an intervention and represent the complex feelings and frustrations of contemporary working-class communities, within the literature of the ‘Troubles’ we find (if we look hard enough) a more nuanced picture of the feelings of anger, powerlessness and injustice that brought about violence. Engaging with writers from within the working-class communities they portray allows for a full interrogation of how attitudes towards the ‘Troubles’ and the working class have been constructed. This includes texts that achieved critical or commercial success, but also those relegated to archives (the work of community drama groups, for example). In contrast to ideologies of escape, in Christina Reid and Glenn Patterson’s work we find deeper engagement with the complexities of class, allowing joy and pain, celebration and shame, to sit alongside each other. Martin Lynch and the Charabanc Theatre Company engaged directly with the communities they aimed to represent, replacing symbolism and allegories of the working class with real-life testimonies in their plays. These works also necessitate an engagement with the intra-group inequalities that some socialist narratives of the ‘Troubles’ occlude and instead allow an understanding of how issues of gender intersect with ethno-nationalism and class to shape various hierarchies of power, avoiding simplistic explanations for violence.

If we look for them, we can find moments of resistance to the louder voices that seek to explain away working-class politics. We can learn how a combination of economic, political, ethnic and gender inequalities intersect to create a melting pot of frustration and disillusionment; and rather than simply pawns in a political game, the working class can be agents with agendas of their own. But are enough people looking? While I have attempted to sketch how these stereotypes operate in Northern Irish literature, they exist across genres, disciplines and regions and countering them requires a collective and sustained academic and societal effort. 

This ethical project in no way requires us to excuse violence or sectarianism, or to argue that the young people throwing petrol bombs today are doing so based on a sophisticated understanding of the Northern Ireland Protocol’s impact on trade. It allows us, however, to see them as more than misinformed miscreants, and as people with their own sense of injustice or betrayal. As I seek to draw out these moments of resistance, I am struck by how class has become a taken-for-granted feature of this period and has been allowed to fall into the background, rather than being interrogated as a central part of how narratives of the conflict and Northern Ireland are constructed.

(Image: People pictured during the 2011 Belfast Riots, Wikimedia Commons)

Ciara McAllister is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast, funded by AHRC’s Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership. Her research project, ‘Gendered and Classed: An Intersectional Approach to the Drama and Fiction of the Troubles’ is supervised by Dr Michael Pierse and Dr Mark Phelan at Queen’s and Eilish Rooney at Ulster University. Ciara obtained her Master’s degree in Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama from University College Dublin and her undergraduate degree in Drama and English from Queen’s University Belfast.

[1] “‘The Future is Precious’: NI Youth Workers Speak”:  

[2] John Wilson Foster, “Corrigbly Plural? Masculinity in Life and Literature,” in Irish Masculinities: Reflections on Literature and Culture, ed. Caroline Magennis and Raymond Mullen (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2011), 28.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bill Rolston, “Escaping from Belfast: Class, Ideology and Literature in Northern Ireland.” Race & Class 20, no. 1 (July 1978): 41–62.

[5] John Boyd, “The Flats,” in Collected Plays, Vol 1: The Flats, The Farm, Guests (Dundonald: Blackstaff Press 1973), 33.

[6] Peter Mahon. Violence, Politics and Textual Interventions in Northern Ireland (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 4.

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