Archive for troubles

Are working-class Protestants out in the cold – again?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on December 13, 2008 by gtam80

david_cameron1One thing that has become clear since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 is that working class Protestants in Loyalist areas have, on the whole, felt a sense of detachment from the ongoing ‘peace process’. Of course this sense of dislocation has both short-term and immediate causes which are rooted in a perception that the political negotiations have given Republicans and Nationalists a winning margin in the ongoing redrafting of Northern Ireland’s short but tumultuous history. However it has become increasingly obvious to the more acute observer of the Protestant working class in the province over the past forty years that recently noted anxieties have, in fact, longer and deeper explanations than many would care to admit or give proper attention to.

Yet one of the most obvious and central backdrops to this ongoing crisis has been the less than smooth relationship that the Protestant working class has had with the Ulster Unionist Party, which sat unchallenged for so long in Stormont until 1972. The Troubles, however, highlighted the declining faith that ordinary Protestants had in the seemingly monolithic political force. Challenges to the Unionist Party from the DUP and Vanguard in the early 1970s raised awareness of a class schism within Protestant politics and society in Northern Ireland, and that sense of discord has been increasingly important in the confrontations between Ulster Unionism’s different faces.

It seems strange, then, that at a time when working class faith in the UUP is still low the party would try to reinvigorate its links with the Conservative Party whose leader and potential future Prime Minister David Cameron was invited to the UUP’s conference at the weekend. Chris McGimpsey, who worked tirelessly on the Shankill with families affected by the paramilitary feud of 2000, was dismayed at the formation of the UUP/Conservative bond. The negative reaction of McGimpsey toward the alliance may have been a minority verdict within the UUP, yet it was vital in highlighting the reservations that many working class Protestants hold for the Conservatives.

On one level it might be suggested that this pessimistic response can be traced back to more recent reservations about the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the mid-1980s, however it is also possible and perhaps more crucial that many working class Protestants are also aware of the labourist tradition that has long existed within their community. The PUP for example has often proclaimed its Northern Ireland Labour Party credentials.

While the UUP’s flirtations with Cameron are an attempt to reassure errant supporters about the future shape of the Union, it seems that the party has overlooked the importance of labour politics and trade unionism to many working class Protestants in Northern Ireland – an historic factor which needs to be reclaimed by the Unionist and Loyalist community if attempts to empower a people often regarded as experiencing a process of social and political decline are to prove successful.

Source: Belfast News Letter, December 2008

Documentary adds to political unease

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

The recent local television documentary about the IRA’s 1983 Maze prison breakout was ill-timed. At a juncture when suspicion still exists between the two overarching political communities in Northern Ireland, a programme celebrating the escapades of a group of terrorists seemed glibly out of touch with the current sense of unease. Indeed the surreal sight of Gerry Kelly reminiscing about shouting orders at prison officials put one in mind of a piece of Sinn Fein propaganda that might usually be sold in one of the party’s constituency offices or gift shops, but not broadcast to the general public. While these stories, as part of a Troubles history, are interesting it is the fashion in which this particular one was told that could spread yet more negativity through one half of the community in particular.

The tone of the interviewees ensured that the programme was as controversial as its title suggested – for instead of recalling events that occurred during some of Northern Ireland’s darkest years in a manner befitting such an era the jolly tone, almost Dan Dare-like, throughout much of the documentary was a stark juxtaposition to a recent book by the journalist Susan McKay in which she allowed victims of paramilitary violence to recount in grim detail their horrendous experiences. Not so in this programme, where the IRA-related crimes were airbrushed out and the violence which occurred during the prisoners’ breakout was mentioned almost as an afterthought despite a prison official losing his life.

It almost seems as though a certain slot on Monday evenings is being filled with controversial Troubles-related programme making for the sake of it, without considering the effects of such programmes on the wider public’s opinions regarding the peace process. Indeed a subsequent documentary on Marie Jones’s play ‘A Night in November’ is sure to have made people incandescent. Jones appears in the advertisement suggesting that on that night in November 1993 at Windsor Park the sectarianism of Northern Ireland football supporters had reached an epoch. Again it must be questioned what the benefits are of rerunning this play and the accompanying documentary at a time when Northern Ireland’s fans have been officially recognised as among the greatest in Europe.

Now is perhaps not the best time for such partisan programming. If anything a ‘shared vision’ should be encouraged by celebrating the positives of Belfast and Northern Ireland both historically and in the present.

Source: Belfast News Letter, September 2008

It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City? Malachi O’Doherty’s ‘The Telling Year’ and Kevin Myers’s ‘Watching the Door’ reviewed

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

Amidst all of the publicity surrounding recent political developments at Stormont and the promise of a bright new future for Northern Ireland, two journalistic accounts of the early years of the conflict in the province have emerged. Malachi O’Doherty’s The Telling Year and Kevin Myers’s Watching the Door are contextually overlapping autobiographies recounting the lives of two young men trying to carve out a reputation in the media during some of the most subterranean levels of violence that Belfast has witnessed. Although the most casual observer of Northern Irish politics will know to some extent how bad the early 1970s were in the city and beyond, these books still have the ability to shock and appal the reader with their anecdotes about poverty, violence and bigotry. Essentially Belfast plays a central role in both authors’ works and tellingly it is the way in which the city, then in terminal decay, manages to become a central protagonist in each memoir that makes the books personal and fresh, setting them apart from so many other journalistic takes on the ‘Troubles’.

O’Doherty’s book is subtitled Belfast 1972 and while elsewhere in that year West Germany and Poland were renewing diplomatic relations, the conflict in Northern Ireland was about to accelerate exponentially and once again divide communities whose previous polarisation was thawing, albeit incrementally, throughout the 1960s. Just as in The Trouble With Guns, O’Doherty’s nationalist west Belfast community plays an integral role in his writing. Moreover he gives the reader glimpses of how hailing from a political and military stronghold proved to be a double-edged sword. He was privy to first-hand experience of local IRA units but was working for the vehemently anti-Provo The Sunday News and describes the sense that, in the wake of Bloody Friday, the columnist Observer was almost writing directly to him when criticising the actions of the IRA through the residents of west Belfast’s nationalist communities’ need to “dissociate themselves from the men of violence”. It’s this peculiar dynamic of being caught between the worlds of the personal and professional that contributes to the appeal of O’Doherty’s account of 1972. While many journalists reporting on the conflict came to Belfast with little or no previous experience, O’Doherty is very much of the city and at the time was wrestling with perception and professionalism. As is often the case however it is the lesser-known details that make for intriguing reading such as how the city was affected in other ways by the violence. For example O’Doherty recounts the little-known fact that suicide rates decreased as the murder rate went up. Light relief comes at the end of chapter 25 where he describes a secret war being waged on the streets of Belfast: the war between rival factions of hippies – the “Freaks for Ulster had declared war on other freaks for their ‘apathy and indifference’ to the troubles” – well, at least according to soon-to-be local punk legend and music scene guru Terri Hooley who had tipped O’Doherty off about the war after receiving a threat from ‘Freaks for Ulster’!

Whereas O’Doherty’s book describes how Belfast lurched from near-normality into sectarian murder fields, the city in Kevin Myers book acts as an unrelentingly grim stage on which he plays out his professional rites of passage and personal mid-twenties angst. Intriguing nostalgia about the political events of the day, among them tales of accompanying Billy Mitchell and other UVF delegates to County Cavan chime melodically alongside bawdy retellings of his seemingly endless sexual conquests. Depressingly these conquests come across more as grim, meaningless encounters in a city where people had become objects rather than human beings. Myers solemnly recounts “picking up” a young art student in the Bank Bar and unburdening her of her virginity only to be accosted about his misogyny by the tearful student a couple of days later. Myers’s lyrical writing style is conducive to a convincing description of the inner and outer turmoil of living and working in Belfast through the 1970s. The tension hanging over the city played into the hands of Myers’s dystopia and the negativity in the air at the time feeds into his personal recollections – “Nightly I would wake up and hear the silence of the city – for unlike other cities at night, Belfast was almost noiseless. It was waiting. Nobody moved. People lay in their beds, listening to thousands of other people listening. A single noise, a snapping twig, would get an entire multitude of pulses hammering like protesting prisoners with their tin mugs in a cell block.” More than being a mere excavation of the social and political upheaval in Belfast in the 1970s, Myers’s description of his experiences of this time reads as a cathartic exorcising of inner demons, culminating in a positive line from the final chapter where he readily admits “Decades have passed since these events occurred, and I am only able to write this because I am now an extremely contented man…For in time I learnt that despair and unhappiness are mere seasons in your span, which will sooner or later pass.” Sadly for many readers of these books that contentment will never come and trawling through these rich accounts will only deepen pangs of loss and longing. In years to come it may be harder for today’s younger local journalists to produce such fine books without self-aggrandising, but hopefully their tales will include more ‘hippy wars’ and outweigh anecdotes about real war.

Source: The Other View Magazine, Summer 2007

O Superman (For Sash Gordon)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

For many people the most recent memory of the Orange Order in Northern Ireland was the awe-inspiring refusal by Dawson Bailie to condemn the violence of Loyalist protestors, which included many sashless Orangemen, during the social malaise which occurred in September 2005. The following year, Brian Kennaway faced much criticism when he penned his authoritative assessment of the modern decline of the Order. Tristram Hunt’s recent BBC4 history of the ‘Protestant revolution’ served as a stark reminder of how the Order’s original guiding principle of upholding civil and religious liberties got lost during the Troubles.

The abatement of the Order’s ideological origins has not been helped by the fact that self-representation has possibly been one of the Order’s weakest points. So when David Hume, the Grand Lodge of Ireland’s Director of Services recently unveiled the Order’s new caped superhero in order to appeal to a younger generation, he may have been forgiven for thinking that Orangeism had finally turned a corner. Instead, ‘Sash Gordon’ as he has been dubbed by some in the press has become yet another metaphorical fish to shoot in the Orange barrel, lending itself so freely to Internet satire. Indeed there are many who would argue that the cartoonish elements in Orangeism manifested themselves during September 2005 with some senior members demonstrating a breathtaking ability to defy reality.

Rather than releasing benign sketches of meaningless supermen in an effort to soften and modernise, the Orange Order should perhaps act in a more circumspect and historically knowing manner. Arguably one of the main casualties of the conflict was the loss of a civic-minded attitude that was so prevalent in Northern Ireland’s working-class Protestant community prior to the early 1970s. There appears to have been a collective amnesia of a time when people cherished sporting achievement, respected the integral role of the churches’ uniformed organisations and held a passion for education and knowledge. The Order needs to play a positive role in helping to reclaim that lost sense of collectiveness and civic pride. Then the real intent of their role in modern society may become less ominous to everyone else, allowing tourism chiefs the integrity to make the Twelfth a day for cultural tourism.

Source: Belfast News Letter, November 2007