Return to Peace Process menu
British advance the cause of sectarianism again

C J Hill

26 April 2006

The decision of the British government to give over £30 million to disadvantaged Protestant areas not specifically because they are poor but because they are Protestant is a significant intensification of sectarianism in the North.

The terminally naïve, who harbour some belief that the best of intentions lies behind the British government’s distribution of money to the poor, should ponder this decision carefully and consider what it tells us about the nature of the new dispensation in the North of Ireland. 

The carefully considered plans that went onto this initiative for the Protestant working class involved a telephone call to the local Health Service Trust giving it one hour to come back with proposals on how it could spend some money. However, because it is supposed to be for Protestants only, the front line services in health and others will be left with the problem of ensuring only Protestants benefit.  And how will they do that?  By looking at the postcode of the patient or client, or perhaps by more traditional methods? 

The ‘sectarianisation’ of services that has been granted to unionist politicians will require measures to ensure that only Protestants benefit and past history tells us that unionist politicians will demand steps to record this to show they have successfully delivered the sectarian goods.  The health, social services and other public services will now be under pressure to demonstrate that they are working in a sectarian manner.

There is little attempt to hide the purely sectarian agenda behind the initiative and in fact the Report of the government’s ‘Taskforce on Protestant working Class Communities’ acknowledges that ‘whilst disadvantage and poverty are still greater in Catholic communities, there is better developed capacity at community level to take advantage of the opportunities offered by Government funded programmes and services to support those communities.’

The first part of this statement is true.  The British government had hoped that the second would be accepted as fact but research commissioned by the Special European Union Programme Body (SEUPB) and revealed under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed the latter as a carefully fostered myth.

This myth is part of wider campaign by unionists to argue that it is Protestants who are now suffering disadvantage and inequality although, according to the DUP’s Nelson McCausland, this is a not a fairly recent phenomenon, as previously appeared to have been argued.  ‘For decades unionist communities have suffered inequality and disadvantage,’ he says.  ‘There will have to be institutional and structural changes.’

This now sums up the programme of unionism – the institutionalisation of Unionist sectarian advantage.  The £30m initiative by the British is clear endorsement of this programme.  The reaction of unionist politicians has been to welcome it and describe it as only the start.

For unionism normalisation, the defeat of republicanism and endorsement of their constitutional position adds up to the endorsement of their traditional programme of sectarian advantage and now they want the fruits of that victory.  Normality in the North has always meant sectarianism built into every aspect of society.  The defeat of republicanism means that nothing now challenges the Unionist demands and the endorsement of their constitutional position in the Good Friday Agreement provides the launchpad for the sectarians to assert the rights that, they claim, ‘majorities’ have in all other societies.


The European funded research by PriceWaterhouseCoopers was commissioned to discover how money given for ‘building community infrastructure’ was being spent.  It showed that the success rate for applications was 61% for Protestant areas and 43% for Catholic.  Of funds spent 57% of the total went to Protestant areas and 43% to Catholic with the latter tending to have a cross-community character while Protestant area funding tended to benefit only Protestant areas.

A separate study carried out at a later date found that the situation had changed somewhat. It found that at the time of the study 51.4% of resources went to Catholics and 48.6% to Protestants but argued that ‘It is therefore both predictable and desirable that the Catholic share of funding should be greater than the Catholic share of the population.  The key point is that this higher share should reflect the degree of deprivation of the areas from which project proposals originate and not merely their religious composition. . . Further reductions in the Catholic share of funding are likely to be at the cost of effectively targeting social need.’ The British government have now effectively broken with this approach and this will have the negative effect on effective targeting of social need that the analysis predicted.

The SEUP report shows that disadvantage is unequally distributed between Catholics and Protestants with the former making up only 19.5% of those living in the most well off areas and 72% in the most deprived.  Catholics should therefore be expected to apply much more for funding and to receive it.  Had they the much stronger community infrastructure claimed by the British and unionists this would be reflected even more in the Catholic capture of funding.  The figures show this simply hasn’t happened.

In fact they remain relatively disadvantaged even when it comes to receipt of funding to eliminate disadvantage. Spending per head in disadvantaged Catholic areas is five times that of spending in the most affluent but 16 times more per head is spent in disadvantaged Protestant areas compared to their most well off areas.  The number of applications per 1,000 people in the most deprived areas is 13 for Protestants and 9 for Catholics and funding received per head is £462 for Protestants and £314 for Catholics.  So Protestant groups are actually more successful in making applications and in winning resources from Peace II funding.


Of course the £30m has nothing to do with an honest attempt to really tackle Protestant disadvantage. Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionist party complained that it was not all new money and that a few days previously the Belfast Education and Library Board had cut £3.5m from its budget.

The money has been widely seen as a response to the Loyalist riots last year, when the British put some restrictions on the Whiterock Orange march through a Catholic area, but it fits into a longer running theme of a supposed Protestant alienation and demoralisation that does not affect Catholics.

In the Taskforce Report this is put in terms of the one statistic that supposedly shows Protestant workers worse off: ‘of the 15 wards performing worst in educational attainment as identified under Noble indices, 13 are predominantly Protestant.’  It has been pointed out however that the number of Catholics leaving school without any educational qualification is 20% higher than for Protestants.

The statistics are unambiguous but the argument isn’t really about statistics and the smokescreen of particular Protestant working class alienation is one that more than the British and unionists have contributed to.

The failure of working class Protestant communities is supposedly the reverse of the amazing grass roots community organisation generated by republicanism in Catholic areas.  This image has been assiduously cultivated by republicans who have tried to cover their political capitulation to imperialism in rhetoric about a new found nationalist confidence that they must largely take credit for.  For them to challenge the relative impoverishment of Protestant community infrastructure would be to undermine their own claims to success, although how many would be initially conscious of the inconsistency is another matter.  Similarly it is ironic to hear nationalists complain of their relative educational failure compared to Protestants yet defend the Catholic Church controlled education system the British have funded which is responsible for the failure.

Mark Langhammer of the Irish Labour Party has made a different case for demoralisation in Protestant working class communities, pointing to the decline in church initiatives and particularly the disappearance of the trade union activists who previously lived in working class communities and brought their negotiating experience from the now dead shipbuilding and engineering industries to their local areas.


The careful reader of Langhammer’s analysis however will note that he doesn’t claim that the Protestant working class is leaderless.  The vacuum caused by the decline of church and trade union activity has been filled by loyalist paramilitaries and the demoralisation of Protestant working class areas is partly a result of their brand of leadership.

A large part of the blame for this belongs to the British, who over twenty five years armed and provided organisation, through agents in the loyalists’ ranks, to make these organisations the menace they now are.  More and more information is coming out that reveals these organisations to be not much more than the vicious rottweilers of the British State that sometimes had to be kept on a leash and whipped but which were trained to police Protestant workers in addition to their role of bring random sectarian terror to Catholics. There is a wealth of evidence showing the remarkable freedom the Loyalists were allowed to engage in their criminality.

It is now believed that the British want to dump their former allies and high profile arrests and busting of some loyalist criminal enterprises has taken place.  What is involved in this however is not a change of policy but a continuation of the old one.  The British have embarked on another exercise in moulding these organisations to their preferred shape and for their preferred role.

This has been a longish process which has included attempting to give legitimacy to the loyalist political front organisations and repeated warnings that they will face the full rigours of the law should they continue with criminality but will be welcomed with open arms if they follow the road of ‘peace’.  It has involved removing those individuals that they think will not be amenable such as Johnny Adair and promoting others like Jackie McDonald.  The promotion of extreme loyalism has involved the appointment of loyalist representatives on the parades commission, even when they invent references from nationalists and are criticised by government equality bodies; and to the policing board even if they are members of the political front party of the UVF, up to its neck in killing and gangsterism.

The latest £30m should be seen in this context.  It follows the award of almost £100,000 to a loyalist museum against all procedures for evaluating and awarding such funding and after a previous award of £67,000 - again given without proper appraisal.  Following the £30m announcement the Public Prosecution Service dropped 13 cases against 200 loyalists arising out of last years Whiterock riots. The excuse – sorry, reason – the police had handed them the files one week before the deadline. That is, the state dropped the prosecutions because the loyalist defendants received the information on time!

The British taskforce report claims that it is designed to ‘work with communities to free them from the burden and negative influence of paramilitarism and its related criminality.’  This claim cannot be taken seriously, especially with the paramilitaries’ front men sitting in the audience at the government press announcement.  The sectarian distribution of funding has been one demand of these paramilitaries and the government taskforce report is a complete endorsement of this demand.  The British government has signalled, not for the first time, that they will continue an alliance with loyalist killers and gangsters in peace as during the war.  They just have to learn how to behave themselves.

No other explanation for the British action can account for what has happened.  It confirms everything that Socialist Democracy has said about the reactionary character of the peace process.  The British remain in charge and it is they, not the loyalists, that are the power behind the sectarian character of the North.  The peace process has strengthened imperialism and sectarianism - contrary to the analysis of every other self-identified Marxist organisation in Ireland, who have claimed exactly the opposite.

The latest actions of the British reveal once again that opposition to imperialism is not an optional extra in opposing sectarianism but the essential requirement for success.


Return to top of page