Thus, Sinn Fein and the SDLP fight for the right to represent the Green voters, while the DUP and the Ulster Unionists clash over who’s to lead the charge for Orangeism – and People Before Profit is told that we are “not living in the real world” when we pitch our message to people in the bottom half of society irrespective of the community they come from.
It’s suggested that Protestant workers in particular have crude communal politics in their DNA. There’s no point talking to them, runs the mantra. They are automatic Orange voters and won’t ever change.
This is, for a start, ahistorical. There have always been trades unionists, socialists, liberals and secularists from a Protestant background who wanted no truck with Unionism. The majority of others have been, and are, far from uncritical adherents of Unionist parties or organisations. There are many more Protestants in trades unions than in the Orange Order.
Being a Protestant doesn’t protect you from the ravages of capitalism. And the phoney “protection” once promised by a sectarian State hasn’t been on offer in the living memory of most of us.
A loyalist leader from the early 1970s, Andy Tyrie, remarked in later years that Protestant workers feeling they had a better deal than Catholics was like “Tuppence ha’penny looking down on tuppence.”
True, when you are ground down and living on the edge, that ha’penny difference might loom large. But in the perspective of the big-wigs and the boss-class, it was a small price to pay for keeping the working class divided.
Even in the darkest days, workers repeatedly came together to fight for common interests. Struggle on the economic front has been the sole constant factor in people from “both sides” linking arms in common cause. The major occasions in the last century can be rhymed off – 1907, 1919, 1932. More recently, the fight against austerity, to defend the NHS, to break public and private sector pay barriers, to defend services have all sparked anger and brought people together.
This reflects the fact that there is no solution to problems of poverty in one community which would not also be a solution to problems of poverty in the other community. You can’t win a raise in the minimum wage on the Shankill if you don’t win it also on the Falls.
This has underlain the experience of People Before Profit in the last couple of elections. In Belfast, we have knocked on the doors of the Shankill as well as the Falls. In Derry, we have canvassed Nelson Drive and the Fountain, and also the Bogside and Creggan. We are realistic about the extent of a breakthrough. But we have won a hearing, and won votes.
Protestant votes were crucial in taking a seat in Foyle – and will be again on March 2nd if we are to keep it in a constituency reduced from six seats to five.
People Before Profit’s leading role in campaigns on a range of equality issues has also helped draw support from across the divide. There is little difference between the communities in levels of support for equal marriage or for abortion law reform, for example. The myth of Protestants being somehow “naturally” reactionary on such issues would not survive an analysis of attendance at right to choose rallies, for example.
More broadly, every survey of how people in the North identify themselves shows that up to 30 percent do not see themselves as Unionist or Nationalist.
More than half of Catholics would be content for the North to remain within the UK is they could be certain of equal rights and entitlements. More than half of Protestants regard a united Ireland as liveable, as long as their rights are respected.
This falls far short of a plan for a political settlement. But it shows that the old idea of separate communities with mutually exclusive aspirations and forever at loggerheads, has less substance now than ever before.
The time is now for unity in pursuit of a better, fairer society at ease with itself. Which is to say that the Protestant section of the working class is the key component for shaping a socialist future.