The top and the bottom: mind the gap

Dessie Donnelly Director PPR

Dessie Donnelly
Director PPR

Sometimes, in our joy at headline change, we forget what’s going on at the bottom of the story.  The election (and re-election) of Barack Obama caused a tumult of delight, particularly among African-Americans. But if you look at educational attainment,  prison population,  unemployment,  you’ll still see an unsettling story about the African-American population of the United States. In 2011, for example, it was reckoned that there were more African-Americans in prison than were enslaved in 1850. 

Is there a similar gap between the attainment of nationalists/republicans in the political sphere and those stuck at the bottom of the social ladder? I attended a meeting yesterday that suggests there is,  and that the dispossessed find great difficulty when they try to get a response from those in power.

The title of the meeting was “Accountability in Northern Ireland” and it was sponsored, if that’s the word I want, by the Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) organisation. I’ve written before about this organisation, founded by the late and lovely Inez McCormack. It exists to try to address the social and economic disadvantage that seems built in to our society. There was a range of speakers: Dessie Donnelly, the Director (Development) of PPR,  Sam McBride, who’s the political correspondent for the News Letter, Laura McMahon who is a barrister working in Belfast and London, and Bette Graham, who is a resident of North Belfast and a founder member of the Right to Work: Right to Welfare group (R2W).

The speakers ranged widely in their discussion. Sam McBride talked about the way in which libel laws can cow those in the media, whether that’s professional journalists like himself or unpaid bloggers like me. Direct one loose accusation at someone and you could find yourself up before the beak. Dessie Donnelly talked about housing, and cited the case of a single mother of two children, living in unfit conditions but helpless in the grip of an unresponsive system. Laura McMahon spoke of the link between the cost of public inquiries and the reluctance of governments to put all the relevant information on the table.  Betty Graham emphasised the need for government to be transparent in what it did, making clear their reasons for what that they do and showing themselves accountable to those who elect them.

One of the speakers from the floor was Bernadette McAliskey,  a woman for whom I have enormous admiration,  and who these days works tirelessly on behalf of immigrants in the Dungannon area and beyond. She urged the need for the revival of a Civic Forum, so that government could be scrutinised and where necessary called to account.

What it all boiled down to was that we mustn’t see democracy as voting for our various candidates every four or five years.  True democracy demands that social injustice and inequality be tackled with real determination, and that the gap between those we elect and those who struggle to survive from day-to-day be bridged. With that in mind, the PPR have organised another meeting on Tuesday 6 May from 11 a m to 1 p m, in the Long Gallery at Parliament Buildings. If I tell you that the meeting is titled “Equality Can’t Wait: Residents Tell Their Stories – A Call For Action”,  you’ll see how determined the PPR is to give a voice to the voiceless. You might even want to attend, in which case send an email to

19 Responses to The top and the bottom: mind the gap

  1. ANOTHER JUDE April 26, 2014 at 11:33 pm #

    Bernadette is a legend, I well remember her being name checked in an episode of the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith, when Wolfie the urban revolutionary (admittedly not a very good one) referred to Cheryl his girlfriend as my `own little Bernadette Devlin`. She was a hate figure for loyalists, but she does not have a sectarian bone in her body. She has a heart of gold and has always spoken for the oppressed, whether here or overseas. She also said, in reference to the north, that the war is over and the good guys lost. I remember the excitement and raw emotion when Obama was elected, but I think, like Tony Blair, he will be judged a disappointment mainly due to lousy foreign policy.

  2. Am Ghobsmacht April 27, 2014 at 1:53 am #

    I was working in east Africa when Obama was elected the first time.

    A local DJ on the radio said something along the lines of “we have black musicians, black sportsmen, black actors, black artists and now a black American president. We cannot blame other people anymore, if you are not where you want to be then look at yourself, not others”.

    A sobering statement I thought.

    I would have thought that being born into a nationalist family would help set one up quite nicely?

    Brilliant schools, Irish citizenship (i.e. free university education), more social cohesion, strong cultural attachment to name a few. (And from memory west Belfast is a lot more inviting and presentable than the east end of Glasgow)

    Years ago, after I graduated, I dabbled with the idea of joining the PSNI, but I was discouraged by family and friends as it was perceived that it would be difficult for me to get in as I was a ‘Protestant’ (not religious in the slightest but labels stick).

    Ho-hum I thought, paying for the sins of my grandfather (a B Special), well, a necessary step then.

    So be it.

    A door closed, but sod it, I just had to look elsewhere.

    As did DOZENS of Protestants that I know/know of.

    Entire households just upped sticks and sought fortunes elsewhere (my own included).

    I know a number of middle aged couples with no children or grandchildren left on the island.

    Such is life.

    There might not be anyone to blame for this lack of achievement for people at the bottom of the social ladder?

    What happens if that’s the case?

  3. Anton April 27, 2014 at 9:03 am #

    I think the claim of your family and friends that it would be ‘difficult for you to get into the P.S.N.I because you were Protestant’ was very wide of the mark. The last breakdown on religious grounds for P.S.N.I membership I read was 73% Protestant to 27% Catholic.

    Although you are right that being born into a ‘nationalist’ family has many advantages

  4. Brian Patterson April 27, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    Yours is but one perspective – and a very valid one from where you stand. However it bears some scrutiny. You talk of dozens of Protestants upping sticks and moving when they could not get a job. Try to remember that was the norm for hundreds of thousands of Irish (North and south of the border) for generations.For many Protestants too. But in the north a large minority, the Catholics, had an additional hurdle to surmount, that of individual and collective discrimination because of their religion. If we have good Catholic schools, it’s largely because the much-maligned (often deservedly so) clergy, especially nuns and Christian Brothers set a high premium on education and shouldered much of the burden of delivering it.But disadvantage takes generations to eradicate and the social and economic structures of past generations (eg the famine)can remain a burden for centuries. Your individual drive and initiative is commendable. But remember in spite of what Thatcher said there is such thing as SOCIETY, composed her of hundreds of thousands of individuals each wjth their own heritage, baggage whatever. As regards the PSNI, I would remind you that while Protestants make up about 45 per cent of the population here, they constitute 70 per cent of that force. Now that quotas have been abolished that situation is unlikely to change much in the near future. Food for thought – and I have not even touched cultural discrimination.

  5. paddykool April 27, 2014 at 11:28 am #

    Jude et al :

    This really is a tough one to figure out. Take any family .It is made up of a group of disparate characters , possibly of mixed sexes. Each one is nurtured in the same household but they will all have different skillsets, personalities, loves and ambitions. Some may be bright as a razor , others may be a little duller but have better practical skills.

    I always argue that there are different kinds of “intelligence”. For example you may be a fabulous wordsmith but are unable to put together an Ikea flatpack.

    Each one of those individuals is flying off from the nest hoping to get some kind of a job to support themselves. Even those individuals who manage to complete education to degree standard , because there are so many of them now, are all hustling for humbler jobs than they hoped their extended education would grant them..Where does that leave the poorer educated when he or she is competing to stack shelves with someone with a Master’s ?
    Already a generation of skilled builders have been left to wallow in the economic and building slump while the schools are popping even more onto the market to compete for jobs that don’t exist.

    Who do we blame for any of that? That’s maybe only the households that put a value on education..It’s obvious looking around us that the streets are also full of people who don’t value education at all and are quite content in their near -illiteracy .They may even wear it like a badge with some pride.Many of them are more worried about flags and bonfires than education , for example..
    Education only works if we want it….and expectations for instant gratification are greater than ever…

    • Jude Collins April 27, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

      Excellent points, paddykool. I think myself that change in society positioning can happen quite quickly. My father, for example, at the age of 12 was hired at Strabane Hiring Fair and worked in ghastly conditions for a local Protestant farmer. Yet his eight children, myself included, got third-level education and have all moved firmly into the middle class and are relatively comfortable financially. However, education has an equally important role: it helps people think. That’s the key thing. As you say, there are those who revel in their ignorance. Education, where it’s properly delivered, encourages thought, helps appreciate beauty, allows for complexity and doesn’t do Pavlov’s-dog response.

      • neill April 28, 2014 at 11:25 am #

        My father, for example, at the age of 12 was hired at Strabane Hiring Fair and worked in ghastly conditions for a local Protestant farmer

        Ah now we see were it comes from and why Jude writes like a features editor from
        Der Stürmer.

        • Jude Collins April 28, 2014 at 12:34 pm #

          Well now – that’s what I’d call a sectarian comment, Neill. The fact that my father worked in ghastly conditions had nothing to do with his employer’s Protestantism. As it happened he worked alongside a Protestant servant who lived in similar conditions. So you see: the world isn’t as neatly packaged as you’d like to think.

          • neill April 28, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

            Jude why didnt you say my Father worked for a local farmer then?

            You bought up the mans religion not I.

        • Pointis April 28, 2014 at 2:54 pm #

          Hi Neill,

          Are you a regular reader of Der Stürmer?

          • neill April 28, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

            In fairness I wasnt around at its peak in the 30`s but Judes blog has many similarities…

          • Pointis April 28, 2014 at 5:31 pm #

            Neill, do you really believe Jude is sectarian or are you just being a tad over touchy?

            If you really believe that he has said something which could be perceived as sectarian is not the better option persuasion rather than personal insults?

  6. paddykool April 28, 2014 at 8:53 am #

    Jude :
    Yes, I agree things can and do change quickly in societies and in family. We are all different too. My father was born in 1919. He was out working as a stonemason and bricklayer at the age of fourteen.As a young man he went to London towards the end of the Second World War where he bumped into the woman who became my mother. She too had gone from a small village in Northern Ireland to find work in the Big Smoke.She worked in a N.A.F.F.I .canteen as a cook serving American and British soldiers at the tail-end of the war. . They were both Northern Irish nationalists who went where the work was, much as we all did as youngsters for the experience and the adventure….Much as I did myself,and as two of my children did, come to think of it.. It’s a damn sight easier getting on an Easyjet now compared to the oversea/overland haul it used to be.

    My parents married in London, honeymooned in Brighton and eventually returned to Ireland in the late 1940’s, where they had their family .

    My father’s siblings were variously , a baker, civil servant/writer, social worker. etc. A mixed set of talents there from the same source.Education within the household was held in high regard and books and knowledge were prime.
    My parents went on to instill those same values in us children .

  7. Jude Collins April 28, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    Why not? If I mention someone’s religion, you interpret that as bigotry? Strewth…

    • neill April 29, 2014 at 6:44 am #

      Imagine if somebody was reading your blog for the first time they would suspect it was an elaborate pisstake however when they read more they would certainly think you were sectarian.

      • Jude Collins April 29, 2014 at 11:28 am #

        Well I can see you’ve decided I’m sectarian so I’m happy to leave you in that conviction.

        • neill April 29, 2014 at 7:11 pm #

          You are what you are Jude if you cant be honest with yourself whats the point?

  8. paddykool April 29, 2014 at 8:31 am #

    It begins to look as though you are making assumptions based on a descriptive single word. It could be construed that although the conditions of Jude’s father’s employ were tough for everyone.,It so happened that the protestant farmer was willing to hire a catholic man unconditionally even though he “dug with the other foot” it were…. In other words, he didn’t give a toss as long as the man’s teeth were all his own. People. after all , were hired as horses were bought, , at those Hiring Fairs.

    .In other words, a benign man who simply wanted a good strong, capable worker of whatever stripe. I’m sure farm work was hard for anyone back then before serious mechanisation.It didn’t matter who you were but you may have had a reputation or a local pedigree as a good worker and not some feckless scallywag..

    As Jude later describes, his father worked alongside other men of the protestant faith as equals in that particular hell.What he means is religion did not matter .There was equality in hardship, but his father managed somehow to rise above that hardship and educate his entire family out of that particular rut.

    Sometimes, Neill it appears you are cavilling only to score a point …..looking for weevils in the rice that are almost certainly not present.
    There were always men and women in both communities who had a jaundiced , bigoted eye, depending on their own particular upbringing. Not everyone saw their world in those extreme black and white terms.though.That was possibly most salient in rural communities.

  9. mez October 22, 2014 at 10:48 pm #

    I’m with you Neill, why the mention of religion when the issue was hardship. It seems an unnecessary bit of information and thus sectarian comment, like ” a Traveller/Polish/Chinese person appeared in court charged with …..” Why mention their ethnicity unless its to make a point?