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Deal with devil small price to pay to snub the snobs

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

Am I a terrible person for finding the DUP-Sinn Féin detente distinctly underwhelming?

Probably not. I am simply a middle-class person and this particular phase of the peace process is not aimed at me. Northern Ireland society comprises a middle class, a lower-middle class and an underclass and it is the lower-middle class that has swung Sinn Féin and the DUP into pole position. Analysis of that swing over the past 10 years suggests that actively floating lower-middles number around 150,000, making them easily the most important local electoral demographic. In fact, the past decade has been a remarkable time for the lower-middle class all round.

Booming property prices and a huge expansion of third-level education have granted them unprecedented levels of wealth and access. This has happened so suddenly and on such a scale that they have felt no need to shed the collective chippiness that characterises their view of the world and of themselves. Northern Ireland's lower-middles might not yet have a shared sense of identity but they are all quite clear that they have not compromised their own identity on the way up.

This facilitates the most effective test for determining whether or not someone is lower-middle class – they call themselves working class, yet they have more money than I do. They might also have a university degree, even if it is only from Queen's, and a four-bedroom detached house, even if it is only in Glengormley. To this extent the decision to vote for Sinn Féin or the DUP becomes an increasingly important signifier of their bogus street-wise posturing.

The aggressively insecure pride of such voters has always been notable in conversation, almost as if they were challenging you to congratulate them. But now that congratulations are actually in order their entire demeanour has altered overnight.

Speaking to various unionist lower-middles in recent days (I am from Portadown, after all) I have been struck by their universally unqualified and almost giddy delight at the DUP-Sinn Féin accord. It transpires that a deal with the devil is a small price to pay to keep the snobs in second place. Judging by republican criticism of the South Down and Londonderry Party, attitudes across the fence are much the same. Lower-middles are delighted because Northern Ireland is now in the hands of politicians who allegedly represent the values of toughness, bluntness and cockiness that lower-middles themselves hold so dear while sitting on their matching leather sofas. Mostly though, lower-middles are delighted because this is their time. They put those politicians into office. Theirs is the unspoken victory of an undeclared class war that has sowed our accursed soil, Carthage-like, with the artificial salt of the earth.

The question now is what shall we reap? During the last phase of the peace process a left-leaning middle-class establishment built a consensus on the need to reach out from the centre by holding hands while reaching down from above by waving cheques. Lower-middles find this distinctly underwhelming.

People who sincerely believe they are working class while aspiring to rent slum houses to immigrants are certainly capable of believing they are naturally left-of-centre while remaining instinctively right-of-centre. New Labour understood this well when its electoral strategists first identified 'Mondeo Man'. Of all the social classes it is lower-middles who are the most likely to criticise soft policing, lenient sentencing, welfare dependency, poor parenting, high taxation and the general excesses of a spineless public sector. They are also the people most likely to feel ignored, ripped off and patronised by mechanisms that employ the middle class to mollify the underclass – which covers most of the machinery of the peace process to date.

For example, the Human Rights Commission is currently seeking an end to all custodial sentences for women and young offenders. This publicly-funded advocacy is so far out of line with lower-middle class sensibilities that even Sinn Féin may be forced to condemn it. Of the two largest parties, Sinn Féin certainly faces the greater paradox between its stated policies and the attitude of its crucial new voters, although Sinn Féin is also the more skilled at managing political schizophrenia. But both parties will have to reconcile the assertive materialism of the lower-middles to the gormless sense of entitlement-by-right they have encouraged in their underclass base. Wealth redistribution is a tough sell to those who have just acquired their wealth.

Still, what can I do other than wish our new ascendancy well? The middle class had its chance – and we blew it.

March 30, 2007

This article appeared first in the March 29, 2007 edition of the Irish News.

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