The DUP Deal: A Tale of Two Families

I am fiercely proud of my Labour roots in the old West Cumberland Coalfield. Of my great great grandfather who helped to organise supplies to the Jarrow Marches, of his son-in-law, a miner, Labour activist and First World War veteran. Of communities who taught me the meaning of solidarity, common decency and the dignity of hard work.

But they are only half my story. The other half is slightly more challenging to talk about in Labour circles.

My mum grew up adjacent to the Fountain Estate in Loyalist West Londonderry. In the slum housing that was never cleared because of the Troubles. Mum describes her upbringing as “sunken middle class”. Her grandfather – a one-time Grand Master of the St. Johnston Orange Order – had owned a shipping company in Donegal but it had gone bust with the advent of the motor car and he had moved to Londonderry to work as a docker. Her own father had run a grocery store but he couldn’t bear the idea of his customers going hungry during the Great Depression and his business had also gone bankrupt due to his “excessive” generosity. He died when my mother was nine and granny got a job in one of the city’s many shirt factories.

As a small child, I found the notion my mum had grown up middle class completely baffling – and it genuinely troubled me. There was no question my dad had grown up working class – yet his childhood was positively charmed in comparison to mum’s. His family home was a spacious three bedroomed council house with a large garden and spectacular views over the Solway Firth. “Southerners would pay good money for those views” we used to joke. There was a proper inside bathroom, fitted kitchen with hot running water and central heating. The house was in Lowca – a close-knit pit village where everyone knew everyone – and looked out for each other. This kept crime low – as everyone knew who you were and it would get back to your parents. The family and community faced many, many struggles over the decades – not least during the 1980s and 90s when government policy decimated the local economy. But, when my five-year-old self compared life in Lowca to that of the Fountain, I was desperate to understand why things were so different. To say it politicized me would be an understatement.

The Fountain community my granny lived in was made up of proud, respectable and hard -working people. Folk who went to work, attended church and who moved heaven and earth to keep their homes spick and span. Granny called the front room the “parlour”. The room had illusions of grandeur. Formal but worn furniture, a piano, porcelain and old photos on display. We never used the parlour. It was there for best. But I was never aware of an occasion when it was used. I think it may have been where they put the coffin before a family funeral.

This would have been less of an issue if the rest of the house had been spacious. But this was a tiny two bedroomed property. Life was lived in the living room. This small room doubled as the dining room and – when the metal bath tub came out – the bathroom too. There was one cold tap in the kitchen and in order to have a hot bath, several kettles would be heated on the oven. There was an outside toilet which I always dreaded using. Upstairs, there was a double bedroom and a single bedroom. At one point, three adults and two children had slept in them.

The house – however humble – was the family home for well over half a century. It had seen a lot of joy and tragedy. But it was not the main source of misery for the family. That was the Troubles. Mum and dad would often share the story of their wedding day. They would tell it as some sort of black comedy. “I visited seven tie shops to get a tie for the wedding and only one was still standing by the end of the day!” “It gave a new meaning to the term shotgun wedding!” “The vicar did the service at double speed because bombs were going off!” “We came out of the church and there was a whopping great big crater outside where a bomb had dropped and the cameraman was hiding under the car to avoid being caught in crossfire!” These stories were such a part of my childhood that it has only been in recent years that it has dawned on me that this wasn’t black comedy at all but rather, unmitigated horror. This was not normal.

But the saddest part was the impact on my granny – a widowed woman living alone on a state pension. I don’t think I really appreciated how difficult it must have been for her when I was growing up. She didn’t have the security of living in a safe community. Everywhere she went, she was in danger. I only recently learned that she was never able to visit her late husband’s grave because getting there involved walking through a Catholic area. This was a situation that continued for decades. I remember that when she moved into residential care in a safer part of the city, she was over-the-moon. It was like she had finally arrived – caught up with the Joneses. The creature comforts she enjoyed there were a never-ending source of delight to her. To her, it was like living in a hotel and being waited on hand and foot. She loved it!

The movement of Protestants from West to East Londonderry – as a result of the Troubles – was one of the biggest population movements in Europe during the latter part of the twentieth century and it ran into the tens of thousands. Granny got down to the last ten per cent of these. Now there are only a few hundred Protestants left on the west bank. The Troubles may be over but their legacy lives on. In 2013, in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s death, The Fountain came under sustained sectarian attack. Learning of this broke my heart.

As if the people of the Fountain were Thatcher’s people. They were Thatcher’s people in that she was hardly an “honest broker” during the Troubles. But when I reflect on the impact that her economic policies had on working class communities across the UK, I can think of nowhere less Thatcherite than the Fountain. Moreover, the continuation of the Troubles inflicted its deepest wounds on the poorest communities – both Catholic and Protestant. And it kept them poor, robbed of new housing and economic investment. The Postwar Consensus that had brought so much good to the people of my dad’s native Lowca was never able to penetrate the Fountain.

So when I think of the DUP/Tory deal, it is my granny I think about. Nationalism -the politics that divides people along tribal lines – is no friend of the working classes. It trapped the people of both the Fountain and the neighbouring Catholic Bogside in poverty and the misery of warfare for decades. And only Labour will ever be able to provide a solution. It is within our ideological tradition to believe in working class solidarity: that a Protestant factory worker has more in common with a Catholic factory worker than a Protestant factory owner. And that a public sector pay cap affects Catholic and Protestant nurses alike. This is socialism at its purest.

Yet, in our opposition to the DUP/Tory deal, we are at risk of being caught up in precisely the same tribal politics that has plagued Northern Ireland for decades. We must remember that behind every DUP politician are thousands of (largely) working class Protestants who need a Labour government. The DUP are the only political representation they have in Westminster given that (notwithstanding the tribal politics) Sinn Fein don’t take their seats. Unless we are prepared re-frame our language and communicate with the working class Protestant community, we will continue to be part of the problem rather than the solution.

It was Karl Marx who said: “Workers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your chains”.

Nowhere are those words more relevant than in the Fountain and Bogside.