We Lead, They Follow: On Loyalist Political Incoherence

At last year’s DUP conference, the First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson lamented what he described as the existence of apartheid in the education system, whereby Catholic and Protestant children were segregated in different schools.

Segregation on the basis of religious denomination is surely a factor in the reproduction of sectarianism in Northern Ireland society, but it can get overstated in so far as there are areas of the North where even if you did have integrated schools the large majority of students in a particular school would be of one religion or the other, due to the way the population is distributed.

What is understated, however, is segregation in Northern Ireland schools on the basis of academic ability. Generations of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland have gone through a process of selection -which is to say, rejection- at age 11. The 11 plus exam result determined whether or not you went to a grammar school or a secondary modern, and the process of going through the exam could get you labelled as either a success or a failure.

By the standards of the system, the majority of children -Protestant and Catholic alike- were categorised as unsuitable for academic study at age 11. However, middle class Protestants and the emerging Catholic middle class on the whole have maintained an attachment to grammar schools, to the detriment of working class children’s education and self-esteem. Many of those who did not necessarily perceive themselves as failures still accepted the judgement of the system on their abilities, or the abilities of their child.

There have been plenty of images in circulation in recent days highlighting the poor spelling and syntax of signs held up by loyalist protesters, accompanied by derisive comment. But one of the reasons for this is the huge gap in literacy levels between grammar and non-grammar schools.

Even with the ending of the 11 plus exam, many grammar schools have chosen to set their own entrance exams to filter out undesirables. The segregated education system has created a certain kind of social authoritarianism in the North, in which many of those at the bottom believe they are there for a reason, and those on top believe the educational system has selected them to lead. There are also a substantial number of people from working class backgrounds who believe that the grammar school system was intelligent enough to identify them as worth saving from a dismal future, and support it as a consequence.
The particular relevance to loyalism is that whereas the nationalist parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, historically opposed academic selection/rejection, the unionist parties, the UUP and the DUP, have always supported it, without regard for the effect that it had on their working class constituencies, or perhaps even grateful for that effect.

The current Stormont Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, is a good example of the phenomenon of unionst support for selection. In the 2010 Westminster elections,

Wilson presented himself as ‘The only candidate defending grammar schools‘ in elections in the East Antrim constituency.

According to 2007-8 figures from the Department of Education in Northern Ireland, there were 6,562 students in post-primary education in East Antrim. A majority of these students went to non-grammar schools: 53% vs 47% at grammar schools. Entitlement to free school meals, an important indicator of poverty, was 17% for children at non-grammar schools in East Antrim, compared to only 4% attending grammar schools in the constituency. Throughout Northern Ireland the entitlement in 2011/12 was 27% for Secondary schools and 7% for Grammar schools.

Wilson’s constituency is typical of the class divide maintained by the North’s education system, with additional biographical piquancy in this case: the Finance Minister with responsibility for the implementation of local austerity budgets in keeping with neo-liberal doctrine, is a former head of Economics at a grammar school, and former Assistant Chief Examiner for Economics in the local examinations board. His public pronouncements are racist and misogynist, even by the standards of mainstream unionism.

The glaring contradiction between a unionist politician such as Sammy Wilson’s own interests and those of most of his constituents goes some way toward explaining why unionist parties mobilise people around the fear that their lives stand to be destroyed by the removal of flags from official buildings, and not the social and economic policies such politicians endorse as a self-evident necessity.

Above is a clip of Ruth Patterson, a Belfast DUP councillor, talking on Saturday about how the loyalist protesters needed a ‘leader’ to bring them out of the ‘wilderness’. Aside from the biblical overtones, this encapsulates an attitude characteristic of many unionist politicians towards the constituencies that elect them: we lead, they follow.

That they get away with such an attitude is due in part to the cruelty of an education system that tells people they need others to think for them and administer to them, since they’ve proven themselves officially incapable of doing it for themselves.

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