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Middle class have rejected their roots

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

On Saturday I went to the theatre and left feeling personally affronted. Martin Lynch's play The History of the Troubles According to My Da tells the story of a west Belfast everyman from 1969 to the Good Friday Agreement as he copes with bombs, barricades, internment, bereavement and an apparent belief that Margaret Thatcher killed Bobby Sands with her bare hands.

Dozens of characters populate the dialogue, each involved to varying degrees in the events and organisations that are blighting their lives.

But of all these characters – from the IRA recruiting sergeant to the hospital porter – the only one who is considered completely without redemption, who ends the play as a hopeless outcast and towards whom the only real sense of hatred is directed is 'Eugene from Carryduff'. Because Eugene, like me, is middle class.

He has rejected his roots. He has abandoned his community. He has ideas above his station. And as Eugene commits the ultimate crime, suggesting his brother move to Finaghy for the sake of the kids, I imagined I saw the ghost of Widow Twankey appear behind Eugene urging the audience to boo.

For in the dreary pantomime that is Northern Ireland politics middle class people are always the bad guys.

Although this society is rife with the same tedious and affected reverse-snobbery that afflicts everywhere the English ever landed, we also tolerate several prejudices against the middle class that are quite unique.

Best known is the Eamonn McCann theory of class conflict in which orange-green politics is seen as a distraction manufactured by cunning middle class interests to keep the workers at each other's throats, leaving them weakened and helpless before their capitalist overlords.

If only the working class would realise this and unite, goes the theory, they could throw off the yoke of their north Down oppressors and build a bigotry-free tomorrow.

There may once have been an element of truth to this, back in the days of unionist rule when establishment hardliners schemed in quaint fear of the red menace. However, it is patently not true now, with half the middle class directly employed in attempts to combat sectarianism and the other half praying they succeed for the sake of the housing market.

The idea that Northern Ireland's contemporary business leaders might harbour some selfish, strategic or economic interest in prolonging civil unrest here is lunacy. More insidious is the republican theory of class betrayal where anybody seeking to escape 'the community' gets branded a collaborator – unless they escape to a £300,000 holiday home in Donegal, in which case they get a seat on the Army Council.

It will be interesting to see how long Sinn Féin can keep up the class war rhetoric as those three-bedroom semis creep up the Andersonstown Road.

The David Ervine theory of class conscription is a much more sophisticated attempt to pass the buck up. Every reformed loyalist since Gusty Spence has claimed they would never have run around killing people if Ian Paisley hadn't stirred up the Protestant working class to fight the Troubles on behalf of the Protestant middle class.

This conveniently allows ex-loyalists to imply that they were only following orders, albeit orders issued subliminally from the nearest garden centre. But the theory died an embarrassing death at the 1999 Assembly Elections when Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Bertie Ahern and every media outlet in Northern Ireland explicitly ordered the Protestant working class to vote for David Ervine.

This hugely insulted the law-abiding lower orders and they all voted for Ian Paisley instead.

Still, as the intended beneficiary of Northern Ireland's only actual middle-class electoral conspiracy, David Ervine owes the suburbs an apology for claiming he joined the UVF on our indirect instructions.

Finally there is the David Trimble theory of class desertion in which the 'apathetic' middle classes are blamed for the state of the political system and informed, against all common democratic understanding, that the only way to change that system is to turn out and vote for it in unprecedented numbers.

I can well imagine Mr Trimble explaining to his colleagues how such extra votes might constitute a rejection of party policy.

"The middle class has jumped first, now we must follow," he might say, just before they killed him.

I've been middle class, man and boy.

It's a hard life sometimes – having to read books, eat vegetables and earn a living – but I take comfort from the fact that history is on my side.

For although large numbers of people in Northern Ireland continue, laughably, to describe themselves as working class, the truth is that most of us are Eugene from Carryduff now and most of the rest of us would like to be.

There is no harm in this, no betrayal, no insult even intended.

It is merely, as the Good Friday Agreement might say, our 'legitimate aspiration'.

September 26, 2003

Newton Emerson is editor of the Portadown News.

This article appeared first in the September 25, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News