I’ve never been to America, but friends and family who have return marvelling at the contrasts of the big middle of the place. On the one hand, you are immediately aware that the people around you have outspoken views on guns / capital punishment / their own racial superiority, but on the other, the routine friendliness and civility knocks you sideways – in a good way.
For the last month or so, I’ve been in Northern Ireland, driving around to the four corners of our occupied six counties / our wee country (delete according to tradition). It is a weird place in a lot of ways, and it has something in common – for the outsider – with the USA. This post is about my own impressions. And, as far as I can see, generally, guns are not the issue that they are in the American interior – a few of the people who actually do have them insist that they don’t. Capital punishment doesn’t come up as much, but the day-to-day needle – the chauvinistic little subtexts – around identity are absolutely everywhere.
As an outsider to the place, it’s hard to know whether there are factors that you aren’t aware of, or if you have the benefit of the kind of insight that detachment brings – are you able to cut through the centuries of unresolved grievances, yesbuttery and the demagoguery that plagues a divided society. A few days in the place, and you can be very quickly – and falsely - convinced that you are a prince of reasonableness and perspective in a cage of bigots.
Yet – again – like the USA, you can arrive in a town that is bedecked with quite horrible sectarian imagery, only to be treated with warmth and civility that I’ve not found anywhere else on these islands. And the illusion that this is a highly bigoted society gives way to something much more complicated. In my time there, I’ve met anti-agreement unionists and rejectionist republicans whose reasonableness and logic I found hard to fault.
Of course, the flags – mostly loyalist ones nowadays (there seems to have been a concerted attempt to decommission Nationalist murals and flags) - are hoisted and maintained by a small group of people. They are by no means representative of the estates that they fly over.
As the troubles recede, the variety of voices on the radio becomes more pronounced. Radio phone-ins often feature Catholics from West Belfast (for example) calling in to explain and identify with unionist concerns, and to call for more flexibility from other Catholics / nationalists. And vice versa.
Unionist politicians – privately – are sometimes embarrassed by the ubiquitous Union Flags, though in my time there, I’ve never heard any DUP or UUP politician put much energy into demanding their removal. And when the murals are painted over, they are often replaced by a surrogate for Loyalist chauvinism. In other cases, the naked viciousness is still pronounced – I saw one that was very similar to this in a small town on the north coast a few days ago.
In Belfast, UFF gables are painted over with commemorations that are still not neutral. There can be no corner of Europe that venerates its dead from the Great War in the way that the people of Newtownards Road and Sandy Row do. I was there last November, flying out from Stansted passing hundreds of people who were – like myself – wearing a poppy.
In Belfast, however, you either don’t wear a poppy, or you WEAR A POPPY. And not just one, but a dozen of the things – all shapes and sizes. Along with enamel poppy badges. And regimental badges, if you have one. Or even three or four.
There seems to me to be very little by way of a Nationalist equivalent. In the last month driving to almost every town in the North, I’ve seen a few fading signs commemorating the hunger-strikers or some ancient Republican luminaries. I’ve seen two Tricolours and one Starry Plough. A couple of trips into West Belfast, driving along the Falls Road increases the count a little, but even then, not massively. And that’s it.
There is, however, the usual noisy colourful flag-and-bunting display showing GAA (Gaelic games) colours. In the Republic, if you go to County Mayo on a year that they are destined for at least a semi-final, everywhere is bedecked in the Red and Green of the county. Absolutely everywhere – to a degree that really surprises visitors.
This is clearly and obviously done in innocence. It annoys no-one apart from the rare Mayo aesthete and it is almost impossible to see it as a provocation there – mainly because there is almost no-one (apart from a small army of Polish builders) that don’t come from a tradition that played Gaelic games at school.
Similarly Tyrone - or more accurately, parts of Tyrone, have been absolutely covered in the county’s red and white flags and bunting. And one suspects that those parts that are covered in flags are even more comprehensively covered than Mayo is. It’s impossible to actually pin down, but I sensed that the sheer density of flags and bunting in some Tyrone towns and villages was – at least in part – a ‘fuck-you’ to neighbours who are a bit free with their Union Jacks.
Yet, then again, Tyrone has had an utterly fantastic year – winning the Major and Minor football finals. Perhaps it is entirely innocent?
Whatever. The needle is never far from the surface. And while the excitement in Tyrone was at fever pitch a few weeks ago, someone demanded that a smallish Tyrone flag was removed from a car in Strabane to comply with the ‘neutral workplaces’ rule. Nationalist politicians hopped up and down complaining (quite reasonably in my view) that this was an abuse of rules that were designed to deal with provocative and chauvinistic paraphernalia in workplaces. Unionists replied that Catholics had only got what was coming to them, and that some stupid objections had been raised to ‘British’ objects in workplaces in the past had set a precedent.
Northern Ireland appears to have a society that will always find ways to sneak in surrogates for national flags, and will always find ways to confound attempts to stifle this low-level sectarian needle. The nationalist objection to the flag-in-the-car-park-removal was somewhat undermined by the row that was caused by the flying of a Union flag-themed London 2012 flag in Craigavon earlier in the summer.
Again, one wonders where anyone would find the energy to object to it. On the other hand, one wonders where Craigavon’s councillors went to find a version of the Olympic flag that is so calculated to annoy Nationalists.
So what to conclude from all of this? Well, I’m a blow-in. Sometimes things look more simple to outsiders than they do to those who confront the problems day-to-day. Even Derby looks quite nice from the air, so anything I say here is observation rather than confident assertion. But it seems to me that this perpetual needle is poisonous and it could be easily resisted.
It’s all pervading. It is a massive piece of misdirection by politicians who aren’t able to get their act together to finish the normalisation of politics – particularly at the moment. It’s like the ‘oh look! A polar bear!’ manoeuvre. Whenever an awkward question is asked, someone pops up with some imagined grievance or some other bit of insensitive banter. You can almost touch the desperation of politicians who haven’t a clue about how to deal with any other question than ‘was it themmuns that did if first?’.
The media in Northern Ireland don’t help either. Don't even get me started on The Newsletter. But public service broadcasters offer a different kind of problem. BBC Radio Ulster have the most insufferably demagogic chat-show host in the morning in Stephen Nolan, and at lunchtime, there is a phone-in that is hosted by someone who is so smug and insufferable that I can’t bear to remember his name. When the flag-in-the-car-park crisis a few weeks ago was in full flow, they managed to dedicate a huge amount of time, getting different spokesmen on and inviting callers to chip in. Almost every caller that offered a particularly polarising view suffixed it with ‘...and one other thing .... er .... don’t you think you’re going a bit overboard on this story?’
The host excuses himself by saying that this is what people want to talk about, and does so in a way that convinces you that he has no clue about how the news media can lead or follow an agenda.
And finally, you can spot just how inadequate a politican is by the frequency with which they use the word ‘community’. Now, I’ve posted on the notion of ‘community leaders’ before, and if you’ve been here before, you’ll know my line on this.
But it needs restating. If ever there is a place that needs a thorough-going democratic renewal, it’s Northern Ireland. It needs a different sort of people to go into politics. There is no simpler way of saying this, because – unlike the rest of the UK – the political class are badly failing the people that they are supposed to represent.
The people of Northern Ireland, as far as I can see, need to recognise that as long as politicians are twittering on about flags, they are failing as representatives. It is that black-and-white. Sure, there is a political dynamic that results in politicians competing for the approval of an assertive noisy outgroup, but I don't think that - even from a cynical point of view - this is even good politics when you get down to it.
Demanding an end to the needle and a moratorium on discussion about symbols seems to me to be something that a noisy cross-section of Northern Ireland could campaign for.
As an outsider, I don’t know why such a campaign doesn’t really exist.