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The Beginning of the End of the Six County State

4 Mar

So here we are. For the first time ever Northern Ireland’s government isn’t unionist dominated. Unionism has repeatedly failed its ‘people’, focusing too often on single topics rather than wider issues. It isn’t enough to just want to be part of the UK, you need to do more than lip service – rim jobbing the conservatives in London isn’t being particularly British, but it is what unionism seems to have become. When you’re out of thinking with the rest of the country you so badly want to remain part of on issues like women’s rights, marriage equality, and anything to do with the LGBT community, eventually the voters will desert you.

35% of those eligible still didn’t vote this time round, and their apathy is in part because of the failure of politicians to be forward thinking or responsive. Sinn Féin have succeeded by refreshing the optics, preaching equality (though as I wrote on Friday, I’m concerned about how that will play out for non-republicans once they’re in ‘control’ ) and motivating their populous. Unionism sits on past glories, complacently assuming that the public will come out and vote for them.

Parliament Buildings, Stormont, 2009.

Parliament Buildings, Stormont, 2009. Image © 2017 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

They now have three weeks to reach an agreement for power sharing. SF have already said they won’t accept Arlene Foster until the investigation into the heating cock up is complete. Arlene refuses to budge. With no agreement then we’d face yet another election or go back to direct rule from Westminster. The latter won’t please republicans, and would surely motivate a return to violent protest and terrorist manoeuvres from the likes of the IRA. But with our assembly now no longer Unionist-controlled I expect the DUP to force through a situation where direct rule is enforced, breaking any progress from the peace process. The DUP is like Nero fiddling while the country burns, willing to fuck everyone and blame the fall out on anyone but themselves. It’s not enough to be linked to the £1/2 billion wasted  through the RHI scheme, the fortunes wasted in court battles over gay blood etc, why not waste yet more in a pointless series of elections until everyone snuffs it or simply grows bored of the whole damn thing.  I could be wrong, but then power balance is shifting and the Unionists know this. The DUP in all probability would rather collapse Stormont than allow a nationalist rule.

Thanks to Brexit  I suspect within ten,  if not five years,  we will have a vote in favour of a united Ireland. And with that a return to civil unrest from small vocal factions. But none of this should surprise. Northern Ireland will simply be following the examples of the other colonies in the former British Empire, redefining itself as a nation shaped and influenced by the British presence but with its own culture. We just aren’t economically strong enough to stand without help from outside.

What would it be like for a Northern Irish Brit in a united Ireland?

I suspect odd. Its hard to imagine that the territorial imagery would disappear, but one suspects there’d be a lot more tricolours flying and that would probably rankle hardliners. None of my protestant friends in the south of Ireland ever seem particularly bothered, and I don’t even recall any of them of British descent complaining about being on the end of prejudicial treatment, and that’s exactly how it should be when reunification finally happens. Defining one’s nationality is a complex business, and most of us have at least one strand of ancestry that is imported from outside the island. Self-identifying as Irish or British shouldn’t stop you living a normal life in either country, or being allowed to display paraphernalia that relates to your nationality. There’s no reason why the Orange Order couldn’t continue to march and celebrate its past (they already do in displays across the Irish republic, which are closer to peaceful pageantry than anything in the North). And finally we could all celebrate St Patrick’s day as a shared heritage.

But I think British residents will be scared, paranoid, and anxious, and likely to fall into antagonistic language and behaviour with little provocation. They know the perceptions of the past just as well as the republicans. Hopefully they won’t be intimidated out of areas or out of the island. In the past, the British might well have treated the native population appallingly, but one needs to remember that we are not responsible for our ancestor’s antics, only our own. Certainly the thought that I might be persona non grata simply because I carry a British passport is most uncomfortable. And I don’t wish to be ridiculed because of my heritage, any more than republicans wish to be for theirs.

Uncertainty breeds fear. Fear breeds anger. Anger breeds trouble. And that is the situation I foresee. This summer’s parade season could be a real melting pot of pent up anger.

Undoubtedly the change is now on us. And I find it hard to believe that things will swing the other way any time soon. We should all begin to prepare for the possible outcomes of an ideological swing and a new national identity. Border poll or not, I will remain Northern Irish – proudly aware of my mixed heritage and upbringing informed by bother British and Irish culture. And I only hope that whatever happens, we are able to retain that sense of identity as the very face of Europe alters.


Power is about to shift…

3 Mar

As I write this, 70 of the 90 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly Election for 2017 have been announced. And it makes for an interesting glimpse into a changing country. Sinn Féin hold the largest number of seats with 24, and the SDLP have 9. The DUP have 18 and UUP 9. Taking Aliance out of the proceedings that gives a nationalists a five seat lead.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Disappointingly the country appears to have shunned the opportunity to usher in a change in our country’s leadership – the embittered, stubborn, starkly green and orange parties Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party are still on top. And its hard to see how anything is going to change while that remains the case. Northern Ireland is a shared country whether you like it or not. And the only way to move forward is through mediation and negotiation and compromise.

But then I’m a broadly liberal leftist long lapsed from a background of unionism, so its easy for me to say. I don’t hate my fellow citizens because of their religion or their politics or what language they wish to converse in or what way they define their national identity. But it matters to many others out there.

Without a change, I can’t help but wonder if the assembly will not just be brought down again? And if it does, then surely direct rule from Westminster is inevitable? And to do that would be foolhardy, because that will give many militant republicans the excuse they need to reactivate a campaign of violence against the perceived British threat in the country, and take us all back to pre-1997 times. Its not as if the leaders of the two biggest parties actually give a toss about the Northern Irish people anyway, and our democratic views. The DUP backed Brexit in spite of the majority of Northern Ireland voting to stay IN Europe, and Sinn Féin still refuse to sit in Westminster for ideological reasons, which means they aren’t actually helping to represent the people either. A right golden shower the lot of them.

And I’m sitting here thinking about something that I haven’t actually heard voiced yet. But what happens if Sinn Féin come away from this election as the largest political party in Northern Ireland? Ignoring their catalogue of cover-ups (notably with regards sex abuse cases) and their power-hungry control of republican ideology in Northern Ireland (there’s as many kinds of republicans as their are unionists), we’ve never had a republican party as the largest in NI. The balance has always (by design more often than democracy) lain in the hands of the unionist parties, and for decades the unionists and loyalists have been happy because they’ve benefitted in things like employment, funding, rights etc. The republican voice has been silenced (once upon a time, literally), oppressed, which in turn has only helped to stir up support.

Right now we’re at loggerheads, with both sides bashing each other where possible, positioning themselves as ‘us’ and ‘them’. They put down propositions made by the others because of the potential for small victories. They turn simple things into massive issues. They allow prejudice to dictate policy and propaganda does the rest.

Whats scares unionists is what will happen when the power finally switches. It seems rather improbable that a republican dominated political arena is going to sit back and allow loyalism to continue its triumphant marches and shouting and brow-busting. That call for a referendum on a united Ireland can’t be far away now, and that scares the unionists because it might actually go through. Most of us don’t want to leave the EU, and joining up with Ireland is a sure way to ensure we don’t. Britain doesn’t actually care about Northern Ireland. We’re a population of 1.8million out of some 64 million across the islands. We’re a massive drain on resources, particularly bearing in mind our habit of fighting on a regular basis, incurring vast policing costs etc, every time we have a “celebration”. Will the republican brothers and sisters treat the unionists with open arms, and remind them that Ireland has already embraced Protestant culture as symbolised in the orange on the Tricolour? Sadly, probably not. Instead, the sort of hostility that has been shown to many of them is likely to be returned. Its the way of the wild. Captive turns captor. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, not actually how you were treated…

I’m slightly scared for people like me. Those of us who sit somewhere between the ideologies. Not necessarily undecided, but who are aware of our backgrounds, and the complex web that we were born into without say. Northern Ireland is occupied – the politicians decided to remain as part of the UK, not the people themselves, and so a border poll would be interesting, to finally give all of us a say. We aren’t all going to get our way though, and as Brexit has most recently reminded us (and indeed the US elections), when voting is split, things can get nasty. I don’t want to return to violence. I don’t want to be scared of visiting friends across sectarian divides, or to be picked out because I don’t see eye to eye with official lines of whatever persuasion.

Its time to stop being complacent. Time to learn to moderate, to co-operate, and to stop wallowing in the past. Think about the people.

Belfast City Cemetery – Shared History. An interview with Tom Hartley (2014)

29 Nov

September 2013. I’ve recently been exploring Belfast City Cemetery for the first time in search of family graves. Even though we have quite a few relatives perpetually resting here, my protestant relatives aren’t keen on visiting – perceiving it to be in something of a no-go area, located as it is in the heart of nationalist West Belfast. I’m somewhat taken back by the run-down state of huge sections – the evidence of repeated vandalism, poor signage, and difficulty in navigating. I write to Tom Hartley, a Sinn Fein politician who has researched the history of the graveyard, published an excellent book on the subject and regularly gives tours. I receive a reply from his office that emphasises the ongoing work to improve the cosmetics of the cemetery.

View across Belfast City Cemetery, March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved

View across Belfast City Cemetery, March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved

February 2014. I’ve been researching a radio feature on the history of the cemetery, hoping to focus on the potential for it as a location of shared history between the Protestant and Catholic communities. I reach out to several local politicians for an interview and only Tom replies in the time I have available with any sense of engagement. Ultimately the feature was abandoned because I wanted a more rounded set of voices. I’m disappointed in particular in the Protestant leaders (I’d contacted the former DUP Mayor of Belfast, Gavin Robinson, but he declined to take part) -as its their community history that I think we can build a story out of.

I’ve been back researching the cemetery in person several times since then, with more work to do.  Belatedly, I present here a slightly edited transcription of the discussion between me and Hartley, without additional comment. A loose discussion between two men, ostensibly from opposite sides of the community divide in NI, but with a shared interest in the history of the cemetery space and the city we were both born and bred in.

We meet 10.45 am, Wednesday 12 February 2014, a short walk from the City Cemetery, in the Culturlann on the Falls Road – my first time at this location. I enter the cafe area, find Tom, order a coffee and as I sit, hit record on my Sony minidisc. We join the conversation after the opening salvos…

TOM HARTLEY: …Its about knowing your own city.

ROBERT SIMPSON: One of the things I’ve been trying to do over the last couple of years, is actually go to places that when I was growing up I wouldn’t have been to. Places that either were forbidden, because of the Troubles and things, I was too young to travel around, or just kind of peaked my curiosity.

I took a trip into the Bogside last year – first time I’ve done that –

TH: Did you survive it okay?

RS: I survived [laughter]. But I mean, having been in Derry forever, my grandparents live there, it was somewhere I’d never been properly.

TH: What school did you go to in Belfast?

RS: Campbell College.

TH: Campbell College… so that’s the C.S. Lewis connection?

RS: That’s the one, yeah. Very tenuous C.S. Lewis connection…

TH: But nevertheless still there.

RS: I actually grew up round the corner from where he did, so its all very familiar territory. I feel quite bad I’ve not been up [to the cemetery] before.

TH: Well for instance, across the road is Dominican College. One of the great artworks of Belfast is in the college and that is a stained glass window by a man called Harry Clark. Now if you know anything about stained glass windows Harry Clark is one of the pre-eminent stain glass window artists in this country; he’s dead, he died in the 1930s but his windows are very famous, you know…. There’s another stained glass window in Townsend Presbyterian church by a woman called Wilhelmina Geddes… So its all sorts of material that you find here in this part of the city, which we as a city should be celebrating.

RS: I have to say I agree, and that’s actually where I come into this, this project, this piece I’m doing about the City Cemetery… I’d read some of your comments from a couple of years ago about the City Cemetery and the lack of… the protestants that weren’t coming in and you seemed to be making some effort at the time to try and address that and that was quite interesting for me because coming from where I come from and my family – we have family buried in City Cemetery. My grandfather hasn’t been up to see his parents’ grave in years…

TH: Why not?

RS: I think for him it was an emotional problem. His problem was that he put – in his specific example, he’d put a wooden cross on the grave a few times and it had been removed and vandalised repeatedly, and I think he found that…

TH: Distressing?

RS: Yeah, after a while.

TH: Yes

RS: So that’s his personal thing, obviously that may be different for somebody else – may have other reasons, but I’m aware there has been a lot of vandalism…

Damage to headstones in Belfast City Cemetery. March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Damage to headstones in Belfast City Cemetery. March 2013. Photo © Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

TH: …Well, there has been, but it’s like I suppose any open space in this city, but we have worked hard as a community to reduce it. I’m not so sure that, given that it’s a big open space that you’ll ever, totally… eradicate it. .
But I think you can raise community awareness about the site, how valuable it is and what it means to us as a city. And if you get communities then around the cemetery, I think we’ve already achieved this, taking ownership of the cemetery and beginning to see it as a very important site in the narrative of Belfast then that begins to change the way people view the cemetery.
But also, you know, I have a view that in the 1970s and 80s and really the 1990s, Belfast City Council gave up on the cemetery. So you had a lot of vandalism, theft. Also it was overgrown you know, and where a spot is overgrown it encourages drinkers and vandals so all that has been cut back and while we haven’t reached the position I think where you could rest… With the work that has been done or achieved, it is still a much different space today than it was 20 or 30 years ago.

RS: I think I was even reading stuff online from forums from 5 or 6 years ago and there are people talking about the state of the cemeteries then, so obviously there’s a lot of work that’s been done. I’ve been up to both the City Cemetery and Milltown, and my first impressions – I actually wrote to you about this last year – my first impressions of Milltown were considerably better than City Cemetery. It is more obviously neglected… but then, that’s coming from someone who hasn’t had the benefit of being up here for 20 years and seeing the changes.

TH: When I went into it first you could hardly see the inner sections… overgrown… And now, you begin to see even when you walk along the frontage of the Falls Road you begin to see the layout. There’s been a lot of undergrowth, trees , naturally seeded by the birds. Then given the weather and the global warming – you cut one year and the next year its just as bad. Now I think the Council needs to then be on top of that situation. I suppose in an older type of cemetery it’s a bit difficult because of the stone surrounds. Whereas if you look at the new lawn type sections at the top of the cemetery, where you don’t have surrounds, where headstones are by and large of similar height, then what you begin to get is a section that is easy to maintain, whereas some of the older sections are difficult in that sense to maintain. But I think that’s up to Belfast City Council to find ways of looking after the cemetery.

RS: Your own book [Belfast City Cemetery: The History of Belfast Written In Stone, Blackstaff Press] that you published on it is, I thought it was a great read, very informative and its, it is actually very well balanced for someone who, I guess for someone who has been a politician and has a particular allegiance – your representation of the story of Belfast City Cemetery is the story of the people, and I wouldn’t say is in any way a biased one. Which is what a good historian should be…

TH: Well… I of course see it as the history of my city; and its like you could have a different political view than I have, and that’s democracy but it doesn’t make you – really it doesn’t make you essentially the enemy. You’re not someone to be avoided. And your history and where you come from – is probably a part of my history – the history of my city. I just see in that in this city politically there are dimensions of who we are. And that enhances our sense of us, it doesn’t diminish. So its not something that I think, ‘I’m going in here to write as a republican’, I’m just writing as someone who loves this city, its people and its history, and its difficult at times and there are really difficult… situations that you deal with. For instance I don’t believe – and this is I suppose the public person in me – I don’t believe that we should be hurting each other over our dead, and I think we do that. And whether its desecration of a grave, of a war grave or a republican plot; or what we say – the way we talk about the dead, I think we have this great capacity in our society to hurt each other over our dead, whereas I have a view that the dead do represent multiple dimensions of us as a city and we should use that history, that complexity, and that often difficult history as a way of enhancing our sense of us, not diminishing us.

RS: I think that’s something that you and Máirtín Ó Muilleoir [Lord Mayor of Belfast at time of interview] actually have gone to great pains to do – to make it a more inclusive thing. It seems to me as well that you are at times bashing your head against a brick wall with the reaction that you get from some parts of the certainly the loyalist and unionist community.

TH: Well, I mean, oddly enough now, in their defence, I have done walks through the cemetery with loyalists, and I have to say, I always found them very open to history. And I have brought them in, a difficult walk for me, through Milltown Cemetery. But they were there, they came. So, in some sense I think that when you look at elements say of the loyalist protest… and then that very quickly becomes a monolithic view of a whole community. And the one thing I learned in politics, or the one thing politics taught me, was don’t ever look at anything in a monolithic way because then you stop seeing opportunities and you stop seeing; you stop seeing the human element and how you can make contact, and how you can engage and how… You can talk about our history and you can differ about it, but that doesn’t mean you end up sticking out your tongue at someone you know and huffin’. And sometimes I think we do a form of that in society – you’re the baddy and I’m the goody. But life is much more grey than that. And history teaches me that. And in their defence now, I have walked through Milltown Cemetery with loyalists, and they would disagree with the politics of those who lie there, but what was important was that they were in Milltown, they were looking at that history, they were engaging with it in the walk and I think that’s very important.

RS: Is that something you struggle to do, to – not necessarily personally, but is it an uphill struggle to encourage those from the loyalist backgrounds to come into this neck of the woods again.

TH: No, I’ve had many loyalists in the City Cemetery, I’ve led numerous groups from the protestant/unionist community and no, they come in. Now, a lot of those walks would be into the City Cemetery… but nevertheless the complexity of our life, our history, is to be found in City Cemetery as much as it is found in Milltown Cemetery.
I have a great sense of people being open to the history of this place. And they don’t have to agree with me; and as I say, you can agree or disagree, you can like or not like the politics of the people who are buried in Milltown and City Cemetery, but what you can’t disagree with is that it’s the history of our city, and therefore because it’s the history of our city, it belongs to us. All of us.

RS: I would agree with that. You wouldn’t say there are still no go areas in Belfast for one community or the other, or are there?

TH: Well, I think there are tensions in areas, and you can see it, we have to…. You can see… the situation in the Lower Newtownards Road the other week… But… There’s a burial ground over in the Lower Newtownards Road beside the Methodist Meeting House… I would campaign as much for that history and that story to be told as I would for a story on the Falls Road to be told. And I suppose given my face, and the atmosphere that you find in parts of the city, you do need to take that into account. But I have spoken in all areas of Belfast on the City Cemetery, and I’ve always got a great reception – always. People are always interested in hearing about the history of the place. Now that doesn’t mean they agree with me, but they come and they listen.

RS: What was it that prompted you to start researching the Cemetery?

TH: Oh that’s a long story.

RS: You grew up around here?

TH: About five minutes from here. Think I was born here, so that’s where it all began. Where does it all begin? I’ve been trying to unravel that…. I suppose way back in the 1970s I was involved with the Republican Press Centre and we used to get journalists from Britain coming across to us and at that time we had 13 or 14 big British military forts round West Belfast – something like out of the Wild West. And they used to ask us to take them and show them, and in between showing them the forts I would point out this street and that street and this… And that then eventually became the tour, became a tour for me when the West Belfast Festival started in 1987. So it was ready made because I just, through the years had brought all sorts of people round to show them the place. So when ’87 came along I organised a bus tour, and then I ended up in the City Cemetery and started to become very interested in that so. I gave up the bus tour and started to do a walking tour of both the City and Milltown, and that lasted for about 6 hours. And I used to have a badge “I survived Tom Hartley’s tour.”
But then it just got too much, cus it was 6 hours. I mean I could do it, but I could see when I started off in the City and wind my way eventually into Milltown and then I could see at the end of it people gasping for breath. Mind you, they stayed with me and they loved it. But it was a bit too much so I broke it up, so we have a separate tour, we have a tour of Milltown and we have a separate tour of City which I do. And so its been a long story.

RS: I’m right in my understanding of the geography of Belfast and the history of the cemetery in that it was initially basically a Protestant burial ground, with a few Catholic burials after the dispute?

TH: Well it was meant to be an interdenominational. Then the dispute arose, between the Bishop Patrick Dorrien, catholic bishop Patrick Dorrien, and the Belfast Corporation, of course the Belfast City Council. And the dispute was over who had ultimate burial rights for those to be buried in catholic-blessed ground. And so a stillborn child would not be buried in catholic-blessed ground, nor would a suicide, or someone that had been excommunicated.
The last category, and I was telling a group this story one day, and I said, the last category was a Catholic who had bought a grave as a Catholic but then became a Protestant, and a voice at the back of the group went “God Forbid!” [laughter].

So eventually we ended up with two cemeteries you know, Milltown and the City. But the story for me it is the one narrative and indeed I’ll be launching a book at the festival on the 31st July on Milltown Cemetery to tell that element of our history. [Milltown Cemetery: The History of Belfast Written In Stone, Blackstaff Press]

RS: My understanding of the geography is that now the City Cemetery is surrounded by nationalist areas on all sides.

TH: Yes, yes, aye. Well, I mean, when it opened first of all it was outside the City boundaries, and they had to have what is called a Local Parliamentary Act to give the Local Corporation the right to get the land. You see when I was growing up on the Falls Road, this was [the Culturlann] of course a Presbyterian Church and I remember the Orangemen coming in here, marching in here on 12th July. They would march up Broadway, down to Beechmount Avenue, and then up the road and into here – this building. And so this, there was a Methodist Church, Presbyterian churches and on this road, a Church of Ireland and so there were, I would say right up until the 1950s – the streets here, Thames’s Street – there would have been Protestants living in these areas. But after 1970, for example the congregation of this church probably moved on given the crises. So, you know the Fellons Club on the Falls Road – it’s a club for to be a member you have to be an ex-prisoner. But it started off as a Methodist Hall. Life is much more complex and layered than we pretend.

RS: Does that strike you at all as curious I guess, that there is this little space full of dead protestants in the middle of…

TH: No, not at all. Why would it? Its I mean…. If you start looking at it that way… ok… I suppose there were… The reality of course is when you get to know for instance sometimes there’s as many tensions between Presbyterians and Methodists and Church of Ireland as there is between Catholics and Protestants.

RS: Agreed.

TH: Its just happened that way. Does that make, in a sense I just see that as, I’m glad they’re there cus… I’m able to tell that story. And I’m able to tell it for people who may not appreciate the depth of it.

RS: I don’t mean that to sound sort of political. For me its curious that for a society that’s still so bogged down on these divisions, when you get to the City Cemetery its actually quite inclusive.

TH: Well, you know, everyone’s equal in death. So… in some senses it offers an opportunity, because of its location, it actually challenges you – how do you tell that history? So there’s a grave it in of Rutledge Kane, a very famous Belfast Orangeman, and minister of the Church of Ireland and he was instrumental in creating opposition to Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill, but on his headstone it says “A loyal Irish patriot”. So if you think you’re a loyal, you think you’re an Irish patriot, and with loyalist you’ll say, how does that fit in? And the same with unionist heart, the heart of modern-day unionists who would not adopt the term Irish, nor even Irish Patriot and yet this man who was key in opposition to Gladstone’s First Home Rule Bill sees himself as Irish and sees himself in the context of the culture of this island. And there doesn’t seem to be a conflict in his life between how he sees himself as a unionist, and he is, and how he sees himself culturally a part of this island. Now some modern day unionists would find that difficult too… so I think that’s the challenge.

RS: If I can ask one more question of you its what do you see the legacy of the Troubles on the City Cemetery story?

TH: In what sense?

RS: I guess I’m aware that the Troubles has affected everybody in respect of all the areas… and my impression, my impression of what the Troubles has led about to, as you intimated in some of your articles a couple of years ago, was the protestant abandonment of the area for a while at least and obviously there’s a lot of vandalism that has occurred and neglect which…

TH: …I think the word ‘abandon’ is too, too strong. I just think circumstances, you know. This area was, you might say, in the middle of a war zone, people were frightened. And then the practice – cus when I would often do the walks I hear from people that they used to come every Sunday, but the nature of the conflict then, people were frightened to come and are still a bit frightened. And in some senses stories of vandalism, mayhem in graveyards, reinforce that message, whereas in fact if someone is coming along to the cemetery and they are frightened, all they have to do is speak to the staff. The staff at the cemetery are brilliant. Staff in the cemetery will bring them to a grave, you know will find out for them… so it is, I think it is changed. But of course one of the ways it impacted of course was for instance Pat Finucane is buried there; a young woman called Livingstone who was killed by a plastic bullet is buried there; there’s the very first ‘blanket man’ Kieran Nugent, is buried at the top end. So you can begin to see there are a number of burials that have taken place there that reflect that element of the conflict. Although Milltown is a lot more serious, Milltown really is really reflective of the trauma, and all dimensions of it, suffered by the Belfast Catholic population during the conflict.

RS: Thank you. I don’t want to take up any more….

TH: I don’t mean that at all to sound sort of political but I think there is challenges there. How do you tell the story? So when I was in Milltown. The one thing I don’t want to do when I bring people on a walk is to hurt them. They have sensibilities. And in fact what happened with one chap, at the end of the walk he says “You know Tom, I lost my father, my father was shot by the IRA, and this is…” But then I thought the great thing, not just that he told me that, but the fact that he was there. And to some extent I think, I think that in some ways the present political crisis really does create a view of Loyalists as one block, and they’re not.

RS: They’re not at all.

TH: Although I think that tends to make it difficult for people who actually want to say look, this is complex, layered, difficult history but its ours. Its about narrowing that ground isn’t it?

RS: I think so.

TH: The comments about learning the Irish language. As if learning a language is radically going to change your view of the world.

RS: I don’t understand that, that obstruction to the language thing because if we look back a hundred years there’s plenty of the Protestants and the ancestors of modern day loyalists who know the language.

TH: The one thing has been said about the language belonging to the Catholics of Ireland…. It doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to all the people of this island. It even belongs to people who don’t speak it. I mean I’m not an Irish speaker, but it belongs to me. It’s a part of Belfast – Béal Feirste, Shankhill, the old Church, Stormont, if you think about it all these Irish… Ardoyne, Divis, Carrickfergus, you know, Stranmillis, Ballyhackamore, we’re steeped in it.

The grave of Samuel Scott, first 'victim' of the Titanic, in Belfast City Cemetery. © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

The grave of Samuel Scott, first ‘victim’ of the Titanic, in Belfast City Cemetery. © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

RS: It’s the language of the island really, isn’t it. We’re all just temporary custodians of the island. No, its interesting. I think I’m too middle ground to worry about some of the stuff… I don’t get worked up in the same way…

TH: Well, I wouldn’t class myself as middle ground. But I think all of us have a right to…. Once you even say that its like you start to fall into a trap. People just like the history of the city, like the history of the island, and history is difficult. There’s no use running away from that issue. Its difficult in how you tell that story. I found it more difficult to tell the story of Milltown, which first of all I thought I knew, than say the City Cemetery, cus at the time to some extent I was outside this history and as I got to know it and embrace it, but Milltown is the raw history of my experience. Which is, so… How do you deal with people killed by the IRA? How do you deal with state killings? How do you deal with British army killings? One of the things in Milltown, I tried to update the number of people killed in Belfast in the 1920s, and in Belfast in two years there were 4 or 500 people – 500. And what I find odd about it is there is such an intense discussion going on now about memory and remembrance, and yet a hundred years ago, just under 100 years ago, 90 years ago, 500 people died in this city [through] conflict. Now they’re probably remembered in terms of families, but this society doesn’t tear itself apart for that period. And its still close. I don’t know what the conclusion is but it seems to be at odds with all this talk of closure and memory…

RS: Is that not in some ways, what would you call it…? My impression about some of the issues about closure and about those specific events that we have to remember and we have to be offended by when somebody else remembers it, its almost the impression I get, but that in a way just seems to be a justification to continue the rows and the rants and the upset…

My recording runs out here. The conversation moved from the cemetery towards issues of shared history, the representation of memory, and trauma. Ground that I believe is fertile for further exploration. Politically this is, I believe, where we are frequently manipulated – emotionally steered to suit an agenda that we may not even be aware of. In 2016 we have marked the centenaries of both the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, and have become acutely aware that questions of loyalty and nationality were incredibly complex for many of those involved in those struggles. Belfast remains a divided city, most acutely observed in the working class districts – spurred on by fear and a sense of disenfranchisement and neglect. But those communities which are being deprived of social development and investment have more in common with each other and their mindsets than they might realise.

As someone from a mostly Protestant background, I wish more would pay attention to the history of the city and venture back into the City Cemetery and reclaim their relatives’ plots. The desecration of plots, and in particular repeated attacks on the Jewish plots which this interview didn’t even get near examining, shows a violent hatred and xenophobia which should not be tolerated in a modern city.

My thanks to Tom Hartley for spending the time talking to me. I can heartily (pun intended) recommend both his books on the histories of the cemeteries, available from Blackstaff Press. Links below.

I’d be interested in continuing these conversations with other interested parties. Please contact me via the blog comments, Facebook, or via email to rjesimpson[at]gmail[dot]com.

Belfast City Cemetery: Written In Stone
published Blackstaff Press, 2014

Milltown Cemetery: Written In Stone
published Blackstaff Press, 2014

Bonfire of Hate?

12 Jul

This time last year I was sitting at the top of Scrabo Hill in Newtownards, photographing the 11th July bonfires from a safe distance. Part of an attempt to engage with the symbolism and iconography of this country and the cultures that surrounded me. A year later and I feel that I’ve travelled far. I’ve watched Orange Order parades, walked past the Ardoyne Shops unhindered en route to the Crum, cycled down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, begun exploring the Bogside in Derry, stood silently in front of UVF and IRA graves, had coffee with a Sinn Fein politician on the Falls, run an interview with LAD and criss-crossed Belfast more times than I ever would have dreamed possible growing up.

For some this may seem rather basic, unexemplary, mundane. Others will see me as some sort of traitor for even daring the breathe in the same air. For me it has been about attempting to understand the divisions on a personal level.

"Coastal Beacon" [Groomsport].  © 2014, Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved

“Coastal Beacon” [Groomsport].
© 2014, Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved

This year I chose not to go out and photograph the bonfires. With the solitary exception of an unlit one in Groomsport when I happened to be passing through last week, it didn’t feel right. The increasing visibility of election posters, racist slogans, flags and dummies for lynching, made me feel too uncomfortable even to venture out to document the occasion.

When I was a kid I loved 11th night bonfires for being just that – big bonfires. I’d grown up in the countryside and it was fairly common to see our father light a bonfire for practical reasons around the garden. Scared as I was of fire’s destructive capabilities, I was also captivated – gathering the wood for fires when we camped in Tollymore Forest Park and watching it burn into the small hours was one of life’s great simple pleasures.

The colossal bonfires that are constructed each July were to us simply bringing it to a larger scale. I don’t recall seeing flags and slogans and so on, but I was probably too small to notice, and we seemed to always arrive after the fire had been lit so wouldn’t have seen flags burning anyway. There wasn’t at that age a sectarian bone in my body. I didn’t think about the reasons the fires were lit, merely that they were awesome spectacles. I do remember the searing heat and being surprised that they were allowed to build them so close to houses – I always expected the fires to topple and the houses to go up in flames too.

That changed as I got older, and now I’m so aware of the negative associations I find myself conflicted and appalled. I could accept the bonfires as a tradition and as a spectacle if they were better controlled – if they weren’t used politically. I don’t want to see flags or pictures of Anna Lo being burned. I don’t want the builders to construct them from poisonous tyres. And I don’t want to see the local fences being pulled apart just to facilitate this brief iconic act.

The fire nearest where I live had two gigantic tricolours (the Irish national flag) flying off poles on top of it during the last week. I don’t understand the need to be this provocative. I also don’t think anyone else sees the irony in picking the flag out for destruction, and yet willingly flying it for several days in the middle of a protestant/loyalist/unionist estate. I noticed them long before I noticed the Union Jacks flying elsewhere (and lower down).

I’ve said it before, but the Orange Order are not going to convince the majority that they are not a provoking bigoted organisation until they put stricter binds on things like this.

Northern Ireland’s problems aren’t really about religion either. It is broad politics. Attitudes are taught and learned from an early age. The contempt is accepted without question. I cannot imagine that most could articulate sensible reasons why they are at loggerheads with those of the ‘opposite’ community. And nor can they see the plank in their own eyes before removing the speck in yours.

I can’t stand July. Over the years I’ve had objects thrown at me, sectarian abuse shouted at me, intimidating songs sung at me, roads blocked, petrol bombs thrown outside my house – and all by those supposedly from “my own people”. I’m going to be staying in this year on the 12th too – photographing last year was risky enough. Fortunately if you’re careful and time it right, it is largely possible to avoid the activity around the 11th and 12th – escape the worst of the excesses and only deal with the aftermath. If it wasn’t I’d have to move.

Decommissioning LAD – NI’s Satirical Warlords On Temporary Ceasefire?

21 Apr
Anonymous victim in Alan Clarke's 'Elephant'

Anonymous victim in Alan Clarke’s ‘Elephant’

On Friday afternoon known dissident republican Tommy Crossan was shot dead in West Belfast near an industrial estate in broad daylight. The murder of Crossan prompted condemnation from both first and deputy ministers.

I’ve already written this weekend about the numb response paramilitary killings have received in the past in Northern Ireland in relation to Alan Clarke’s 1989 film for BBC tv – Elephant. I argued that the Clarke’s elephant is very much still in the room, and that we need reminded every once in a while to engage. Decades of violence here have turned much of the population into cold beings. While we continue to get used to universal condemnation of violence, the political statements do little to bring an end to it on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Satirical commentary? 

On Friday, satirical group LAD (Loyalists Against Democracy, aka. LADFleg) responded to news of the killing with the Tweet: “BREAKING NEWS: Criminal shot dead by other criminals. Moral of story: Live by the gun, die by the gun”

A lengthy engagement with the message followed on Twitter, and on Facebook (before the Facebook page was itself decommissioned – more on that shortly). Criticism seems to be largely two fold – i) that LAD are glorifying violence and being disrespectful to the family of the deceased, ii) that LAD were labelling (all) republicans as criminals.

LAD's Easter 2014 logo

LAD’s Easter 2014 logo

On Saturday LAD subsequently posted an apology of sorts [LAD say it is a statement] on their Tumblr. The original tweet was made by a LADmin frustrated by the regular occurrences of the shootings. The group accepted that their choice of wording was not to everyone’s taste, and that not everyone liked everything the group posts.

At the same time the Facebook account was deactivated, and their Twitter announced:

To all intents and purposes it appeared that LAD had finally fallen foul of public opinion. But was this an appropriate response?

With regards to the criticisms several points can be observed. I don’t for a moment take the “offending” message as being one that condones violence. Rather it picks up on a well-known piece of cautionary advice “those who live by the sword, die by the sword”. If one lives in a world of guns and violence, there is a probability that the guns and violence may be delivered on you.

I shouldn’t need to, and have no desire to be an apologist for LAD, but some of the responses given are blinkered and betray the inevitable bias of the posters.

The inference that the post referred to all republicans is a weak one. The tweet happens to refer to two republicans in THIS instance. The gunman who murdered Crossan is undoubtedly a criminal. Murder is against the law in both the UK and Ireland, and most of the rest of the world (I’m assuming there is some distant place where it might just be considered okay). Crossan himself was already labelled a criminal through his involvement with the Continuity IRA: he had been given a ten year sentence previously for his involvement in an attempt to murder an RUC officer.

While some republicans might view the RUC as a ‘legitimate target’ for an assassination attempt, the taking of another’s life is still murder, and still a crime. Plotting to facilitate this provides a mens rea which would be used to aid a conviction. In this specific circumstance, both Crossan and his murderer are criminals. The LAD statement is accurate, and appropriate.

There are no doubt family members of Crossan who will be horrified by what has happened.

The henchman's family mourn in "Austin Powers" (1997)

The henchman’s family mourn in “Austin Powers” (1997)

There’s that wonderful scene in the Austin Powers movies where the killed henchman’s family are told of their dad’s death at the office after being crushed by a steamroller, and the ramifications for those who aren’t directly involved. A comedy moment which deftly approaches an impact of criminal behaviour we seldom think about. I had a chance encounter with the sibling of a murdered terrorist a few months ago, and they expressed to me their horror at the world their loved one had been wrapped up in, but their love and pain over the death of their kin. Regardless of how much they disapproved of the terrorist actions, they had still lost a family member in the process. Everyone has a family. How sensitive one should be is a matter of debate.

With anything controversial, or close-to-the-bone, one needs to be aware that somebody will be offended every single time a comment is made. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s evangelist, another’s oppressor etc etc. As a satirical group it can be taken as read that some will disagree.

Queen of Bleeding Hearts

My own twitter profile was hit up again by the problematic David Todd again on Sunday (David you may recall created a fictitious account in order to pursue LAD last year before being exposed).

David complained “They also used the music from the song sung by Elton John @ Princess Diana’s funeral on Fri”, with the link supplied taking us to Elton singing his revised version of Candle in the Wind at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.

LAD used the tune for a video in honour of Jamie Bryson’s political ceasefire “Nando’s In The Bin” and it goes like this:

So what?

Am I meant to take from David’s message that he thinks that LAD shouldn’t be using that particular song for a parody because Elton used it to pay homage to Diana following her death? Does that make it sacred? Absolutely not. Candle In The Wind has been parodied before (there’s a number on YouTube) and was itself a reworking of a 1973 song produced for Elton’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road LP about Marilyn Monroe. Arguably by reworking the song already, Elton was parodying himself.

With the metaphor of a candle being snuffed out before its time fresh in the mind, it seems a rather apt choice for a aspirant politician who ended his career before it even began. Quality of lyrics and production aside, it works. You don’t have to like it, but it works. No tune is beyond re-appropriation and parody.

The apology posted on Saturday by LAD is a rare moment of self-awareness for the group. So often presenting a façade of immunity to criticism, it betrays a human element to the LAD collective’s make-up. But in seeking to explain and apologise LAD also seems weaker, less confident. There is a change brewing within LAD, a refining of approach and ideals, resulting in the apparent hiatus in operations .


Marilyn Monroe – beyond parody

In the week that Jamie Bryson claims to have given up the fags politics, and with an election just weeks away, one would expect LAD should be at its peak, fighting back against the deceptions within government, and the skulduggery on the streets. A rise in dissident republican activity over the last year has left an uneasy feeling in the country, exacerbated by the continued presence of the more extreme brand of loyalism of which Bryson was merely a part. Top that off with a rise in racist abuse and attacks in light of increased immigration, and Northern Ireland is fast becoming a melting pot ready to boil over. Silly season is just around the corner.

Amidst this background, I fired some questions over to LAD via email which they have responded to below. This is not an interview as such. I have not (as far as I am aware) met any of the LADmins. I have been given names by others of purported members of the group, but do not have proof which would allow me to ‘out’ them, assuming I was the sort into ‘outing’ anyway.  This is not exhaustive. It does however shed some light into current LAD thinking, and some of the reasoning behind their temporary satirical ceasefire.

(I am not a member of LAD, nor am I to my knowledge, friends with LAD members. I am sympathetic to Northern Irish political satire. I believe LAD treads a fine line which it has on occasion crossed. Such are my prejudices before I begin).


RJES: Why take down the Facebook page at all. I thought you never gave in?

LAD: We needed a couple of days to regroup. A LADmin resigned, our comments section was been overrun making moderation difficult, we needed to discuss internally where we go from here. We are approaching a busy period in are wee country and we need to be ready for that. The organisation, while striving to be professional, has up to this point has been a bit ad hoc at times. We need to fix that. We need this period to finish our book and plan the future of LAD.

Isn’t the deletion of comments and pages not as bad as the likes of David Todd and his unreliability as a source?  [I meant this with regards the sudden deletion of the entire Facebook page, but could have applied to other comments etc]

We have always moderated the comments section on are pages, we have deleted comments and blocked people previously with no fuss. We have a ban list that runs to pages. We’ve always had a strict set of unpublished rules. There are certain words for example that from day one have resulted in an immediate ban. We also have filters on the page that mean if certain words are used they don’t appear on the page. It’s responsible administration, something that Michael Copeland and other MLAs could learn from given some of the vile sectarian filth that they allow to go uncensored.

The blog post you published suggests the tweet about criminals killing criminals was ill-judged and in anger. Do you regret posting either the tweet or apology?

No. Having posted both we don’t regret either. A couple of LADmin do have some reservations but we are working through where we go from here.

Is there a limit to what is acceptable?

If I was to answer honestly I would have to say no there are no limits to what is acceptable for us to say. I would however ask people to exercise their own caution at times, just because you agree with one thing we say doesn’t mean you will agree with another. Sometimes personal opinions, or opinions shared by a minority of LADmin end up in the mix, but LAD is a collective and these things may happen from time to time. We have been accused by certain individuals of being ‘republican’ which is as far from accurate as it’s possible to be and have made this clear on numerous occasions. As a collective we have a mix of various political viewpoints and a general disdain for our local political representatives. The one thing we have in common is support for the Good Friday Agreement and a revulsion of anything that brings terror to our streets. Fundamentally though we like to make people laugh and hopefully in the process stimulate debate.

Why back down over the criminal killing tweet?

I don’t think we have backed down on the tweet, just try to clarify that it was said in frustration and that LAD have no wish to see this type of violent activity on our streets. If anyone had bothered to read our Twitter timeline we echoed the sentiments of Máirtín Ó Muilleoir who tweeted “Shame on those who bring death to Belfast streets at Eastertide. They represent no-one but themselves and have no place in our great city.” Some people who claim to be long time supporters of our page took it upon themselves to state that we were “glorifying” and “justifying” murder which is absolute bollocks. Over the course of the evening we issued a series of tweets to that effect. At one point someone asked us if we were “against the killing” and we replied “Of course we are “against the killing” FFS. Violence breeds violence – ergo, STOP ALL VIOLENCE.” Our position on this is irrefutable.

Typical LAD imagery

Typical LAD imagery

Why announce a hiatus on the run up to an election? Isn’t this the time you should be most active?

As we explained we need a break to develop our plan for the future and to work on a couple of intensive projects. People forget we took a month of last June in the run up to the marching season. We’ll still do stuff on Tumblr, YouTube etc, when the mood takes us but the Facebook page is incredibly time consuming. Our local politicians and would-be politicians should not feel any sense of relief.

How long is the holiday going to last?

Till are uncle Ivan discovers we are squatting in his caravan in Portrush

How is the “retirement” from “politics” of Jamie Bryson going to affect the LAD cause?

It won’t Jamie was a puppet of LAD we grew tired of him and withdrew our support for him after he was approached by special branch and asked to infiltrate us (allegedly). He is an irrelevance and it’s a shame that the likes of the UUP gave him and Frazer any credence during the Haass talks. The fact that a talking gorilla raised more in election funding than him is proof of his total lack of support.

What is the relationship between LAD and Koko the Gorilla?

The people behind Koko are fans of LAD they asked for our support and we obliged, but there is no direct relationship. We are assured that the money raised will go to a good cause.

Are you ever concerned that you are going to goad your opponents too much and incur their wrath?

Not at all. What’s the worse they could do?

What is your current position with regards the PUP?

The PUP had become irrelevant and have used the Fleg and associated protests to bolster their support in the hope of winning a few seats, which they won’t. They should have better vetting of candidates, they have a few badduns standing for them. Although we do like Dr John Kyle.

You’ve mentioned the resignation of a member of the admin. Is there then a sense of conflicting ideologies within the organisation?

We don’t see LAD as an ‘organisation’ but rather a collective and with any collective people will have different opinions. It’s these different opinions that fuel the process. It’s healthy. But the ideology of LAD is quite clear to those who create it. However people are free to walk away. It’s not like the UVF. There is no buy out fee.

You have come in for criticism before (by a number of people including myself) for your casual attitude towards some of the people you name in discussions, and with regards to media law. Will a restructuring attempt to address and solidify this? Will more care be taken in future?

People may be surprised with the amount of care that’s taken. Sometimes we get it wrong but people must be aware that if you post sectarian and racist material on the internet you leave yourself wide open for scrutiny. It amuses us when people gurn about being banned by Facebook and so on then you look at the type of stuff they post and it’s absolutely disgusting. Thankfully the authorities seem to be taking this kind of stuff a bit more seriously now.

LAD is also quite happy to ask questions and name individuals within the political sector, when they feel there is something untoward going on. And yet in the face of repeated questioning, they refuse to reveal their own identities. Why is LAD so reluctant to reveal its “editorial board” (for want of a better phrase) publicly? Does it not concern the group when those who are not LAD are named as being part of the group?

Anonymity allows us access to people and places that we would not get if we identified ourselves. The fact that idiots name individuals with no connection to LAD as being LAD demonstrates an unhealthy obsession with us. When some individuals have been misidentified in the past we have assisted them in providing information to the police.

Does LAD not think their cause would be aided by having a named public face(s)? Does satire not work if writers’ and editors’ identities are known?

We do have a named public face. Billy Smith. Satire works in many different guises.

[I was asked to elaborate on a question…here repeated and expounded] You have come in for criticism before (by a number of people including myself) for your casual attitude towards some of the people you name in discussions (sometimes naming individuals who are potentially vulnerable, unprotected etc.); and also for a casual attitude with regards to media law (eg. publishing names, or images contrary to media legislation

– I refer to an incident involving CCTV images some months back; the criticisms with regards your use of parody). In LADs restructuring, will there be a attempt to be more considerate with regards the data that the group publishes – particularly with regards private individuals not aligned to public politics? Will LAD be paying closer attention to the legal limits on their published material, but with regards to individuals, and the parody/use of copyright material?

We have sought legal advice and been advised we are operating within the law. We respect the law unlike some.

Were permissions and licenses ever sorted with the Last December debacle?

We were ill-advised. It’s still a murky area but frankly we couldn’t be arsed with pursuing it. It was a Christmas song and it would have taken weeks to sort it out so what was the point. We were offered a lot of help but politely declined. The whole thing left a sour taste in our mouths. There are some bitter nasty people out there. As it turned out we were able to donate a tidy sum to a local charity in the end. So alls well that ends well.


An Uneasy Ceasefire

One question in particular was skimmed over in response. I suggested LAD might be concerned about incurring the wrath of their opponents, to which the response was “What’s the worst they can do?”. I believe that the problem here, and where the bulk of criticism of the collective should be aimed, is within the use of personal information and publication of data and claims about individuals via the (now closed) Facebook page in particular.

I talked in my previous blog on LAD about the criticisms that were levelled at LAD by some who alleged LAD to be using bullying tactics. In an incident over Christmas, one woman whose shop was promoted by LAD later alleged via the LAD pages that she received unwanted attention from anti-LAD individuals as a result. Tactics of physical intimidation could (when one is dealing with terrorists, terrorist supporters, and paramilitary types) lead to actual violence and criminal damage. Threats of police action in the face of this may not always work, and there is no reason why LADmins would not be targeted similarly if their identity was known. Goading the enemy is fine, but less wise if he has a gun, ammunition and your address. As much as we want to move away from a weapons based society, the threat is sadly all too present and real.

LAD said via email: “We didn’t take the [Facebook] page down because of that tweet we used the opportunity it presented to take a break”.

LAD has had its mettle tested. Constant accusations of being a republican organisation have taken their toll, resulting in a near compulsion to reiterate time and again that LAD is critical of all of those who attempt to undermine the Northern Ireland peace process. Their comments on Friday were specifically critical of republicans, which in turn incurred the criticism of republicans who while approving of any and all criticisms directed at loyalists and unionists, do not appear to appreciate criticism of their own broad community.

Journalist David McCann described them members in an interview in February as “smart” and “professional”. In spite of the use of some of the phrasing of Fleg Protesters, LAD have frequently been accused of being elitist or middle class. Mocking turns of phrase, poor spelling and the like have likened LADmins to a school teacher, or educated group. Perhaps there is truth in this. Their support of the Good Friday Agreement is a clear indication of their distance from the hardline elements in Northern Ireland’s social-political divide. If LAD are predominantly middle class, and with a  moderate outlook, it may explain both the need to reaffirm their stance, and compound the frustrations and being shouted at by loyalists and republicans.

LAD’s ceasefire is temporary. Their Twitter remains active and so does their Tumblr and blog. Moving away from the vitriolic space of Facebook seems to be a wise move for practical reasons. With a book promised for the near future, there is a hope of LAD becoming more professional – slicker, more informed, and whilst no less controversial, protected by due diligence and common sense.

Their influence continues to spread (over 17000 ‘likes’ on Facebook before the account was put on hold). A form of citizen journalism functions via LAD’s outlet – individuals who would normally stay silent, seem prepared to speak out and supply information because of the humorous trappings of LAD’s media empire. Raising awareness of illegal flag posting, illegal removal of election posters, picking apart what political figures say when they think nobody is paying attention. This is all valuable work. Were LAD better controlled there surely would be scope for a branded television or radio series. But then, maybe that would be too mainstream for them (although speculation persists that certain members are already successful named journalists).

Ultimately, one comes back to LAD’s own tweet as a sage warning for the group going forward. Live by scrutiny, die by scrutiny. If one continues to put politicians, activists and individuals under the microscope, demanding answers, and picking apart their faults, then one cannot complain when the readership or those under scrutiny choose to direct the microscope the other way. With the elections and marching season upon us, it could be an interesting few months.

* My previous piece on LAD from December 2013: Us And Them And L.A.D. – Northern Ireland’s Satirical Warlords

[Addendum 22.04.2014: The LAD member that resigned – “Winston Smith” (evidently not his real name) reached out via Twitter and PM on Facebook because he wasn’t happy with how LAD were spinning the situation over his choice in their responses to my questions. He asked to talk ‘off the record’. I offered him a right to reply (if he wished to exercise it) and told him I would publish his response (with his permission). Smith has given his side of the story on his own blog here.
There are a number of points of concern contained within. Again there is a suggestion that LAD is bullying even among its own members, and the threat of exposure of identities is not lost on me considering the anonymity issue is one I have raised repeatedly.
While I appreciate Smith’s account of his reasoning, as an outsider I retain my own reading of the comments as outlined above. If posting comments on a murder while the family is at the scene one wonders when is appropriate to post?
I asked Smith yesterday if he would answer some follow-up questions in response to his own blog. If he does engage further I will add a separate entry in a new post.]

New York says NO

15 Mar

Just yesterday the press reported that 6 members of the PSNI (that’s the Police Service of Northern Ireland for those that don’t know) would be marching alongside representatives of the Irish policeforce in the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade. But at the same time, pressure was being put on the representatives to boycott the march because of a ban on gay/lesbian/bi and transgender groups taking part – something which had caused New York’s very own mayor to boycott the march.

This would have been the first time the PSNI had taken part in the march, and was seen as an important marker of mutual respect between the two Irish forces played out on an international stage. Its worth noting that the Garda and PSNI regularly collaborate on policing matters on the island. Membership of the PSNI currently sits at over 30% catholic.

And then this evening that invitation was rescinded (one imagines at a point where said officers were either in transit, or preparing to jet off to New York).

Screenshot_2014-03-14-23-16-20The climb down (see posting from their Facebook group on the right) states “While the decision to invite the PSNI was made in an effort to foster peace, we must stand behind those who help make our parade the greatest in the world. Therefore we have rescinded the invitation and the PSNI will not march in the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.”

The question then must be asked – just who is it that makes their parade the greatest in the world? Certainly not anyone who isn’t anything other than a declared heterosexual. And seemingly also not anyone who is anything other than Irish through and through – the PSNI discarded because they are ostensibly part of the British police forces, in spite of the peace process, and post-Good Friday Agreement restructuring (ongoing since the late 1990s).

While Northern Ireland continues to attempt to build bridges metaphorical and literal, enter into power-sharing agreements, and establish the right of every citizen in the country to carry both British AND Irish passports and regard their nationality as British, Irish, or BOTH, it seems the rest of the world is playing catch up.

One presumes that those who actually make the New York St Patrick’s Day happen are ex-pat Irish Nationalists – nay, Irish Republicans, or more emphatically, the sort of ex-pat Irish republicans who fully support, endorse and facilitate dissident terrorism. In other words, the sort of people who couldn’t give a shit about those of us who actually live in this country and who just want to go about their daily lives without the threat of some twat with a gun or a ‘viable device’ looming over them.

How many of the so-called Irish taking part in the parade are actually Irish I wonder? How many of them were born on this island, and how many were born in America or elsewhere – and of those Irish-Americans, how many generations back do we have to go before we establish their Irishness? Was it your grand-parents, great-grandparents or more? How diluted is your genetic line? Are you as Mexican or Italian or Polish as you are Irish I wonder? And if you really are so Irish, why the hell are you living your life in America and not back home on Irish soil, working to build the Irish economy with the rest of your Irish brethren? You know Guinness isn’t meant to be green, right? That leprechauns aren’t real? That The Quiet Man is a film about domestic abuse rather than some fictitious Irish idyll? And that Jonny gets killed at the end of Odd Man Out not because he was an Irish republican and the Brits had to do away with him, but because he was a murdering bastard who didn’t give a shit about anyone but himself.

Screenshot_2014-03-14-23-59-55I find it deeply ironic that the organisers of the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade have stuck two fingers up at the PSNI representatives because the PSNI are seen as being part of the occupying forces (ie. Britain, who America has an allegiance, and various trade and international policing arrangements with), but at the same time are happy to boast about their special messages from various American soldiers who are occupying other territories, including Col. Houston in Bagram, Afghanistan, and all the boys from the USS Harry S Truman – also engaged in Afghanistan on “Operation Enduring Freedom”. Yeah, Enduring Freedom, exemplified by huge military bases, ships and other military vehicles. They could learn a lot from the PSNI and the British military in Northern Ireland – both of whom have closed down large numbers of stations and barracks.

It is, one has to admit, a very sorry state of affairs. But then should we be surprised from a city that takes its motto from Stan Lee comics? America has prided itself on an image as a tolerant nation, New York a melting pot of nationalities, and welcomer of all. But the reality is, that it is just as bigoted as those people it criticises. I can’t be the only one to see a parallel in language between the New Yorkers and NI’s Orangement, with talk of “our loyal supporters and parade participants”.

Last summer Belfast welcomed representatives from across America including New York’s own police and fire services at the World Police and Fire Games, and our PSNI were there participating and also keeping the visiting participants safe during their time in the city and further afield. And they brought away favourable reports – the “best and friendliest ever“. You see, in spite of the many disputes and issues, and frictions that still exist in this country, there also exists a great warmth and desire to be a positive force. Most of us are able to put our difficulties to one side, especially when it comes to making efforts internationally.

The same is not true of the organisers and supporters of the NYC St Patrick’s Day Parade. St Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. He was a Brit too – Romano-British, born most likely in Cumbria, and brought to Ireland by pirates. That he has been adopted as some sort of anti-British, Irish nationalist hero is both preposterous and insulting. If anything, St Patrick stands out as a symbol of the ties between Britain and Ireland – the very epitome of Northern Ireland and the Northern Irish in fact. St Patrick can unify, sadly those who act in his name are more interested in getting drunk than attempting any sort of unification. Shame on you.

Flashing Flesh

5 Mar
Photographer unknown.

Photographer unknown.

It is perhaps simply a symptom of my upbringing, but I have always been a little uncomfortable in situations of nakedness or near-nakedness. An infinite number of films, lunches with actresses whom I have previously seen in the nip upon a screen, and a genuine belief that there is nothing inherently wrong with the human body in its natural state have failed to quieten my obvious discomfort.

As I approach my 33rd birthday I am aware that the only female bodies I have watched undress are those belonging to women I have been involved with romantically.

That changed on Friday night.

I’d popped down to the Black Box for the quarterly 8 To The Bar club night, run by my dear friends and former dance tutors The Bellehoppers. Not being either a dancer or a clubber, I relish the atmosphere, the sharp threads, nifty footwork, and collection of jazz, swing and rockabilly music that provides the background to the evening.

Towards the end of the evening the music stopped and the impending presentations of two burlesque dancers was announced. Burlesque. As in stipping. Oh lord, where shall I look?

The whole thing played out in front of me in an eerie slow-motion. The crowd (predominantly female I might point out) shouted out their support as Teezy Overeazy stomped forward, her lips glistening with green glittery gloss, and she rode a green white and orange feather boa… Is possibly says a great deal about my discomfort that I recall little of her outfit. As the music blasted, Ms Overeazy teased the audience with a carefully timed removal of her clothing (aided by the wonders of velcro), discarding her detachable garments around stage and toying with some gentlemen to my right. I found myself watching as this young woman stood before us, dressed only in her knickers and a hand carefully placed in front of her breasts until the big reveal.

Its a strange ritual. Eroticism is maintained by maintaining a sense of dress not unfamiliar from a visit to a continental beach. I feel like a uncomfortable voyeur, watching but feeling guilty. Previously this ritual has only been played out within the parameters of  a partner. This is normally a charged situation, but that potential for interactivity is removed and so my reference shifts.

Overeazy is followed by Mia Amore, who plays out her routine adorned in a khaki ensemble (and quite probably a pith helmet). Amore makes eye contact with me during her routine and I remain stoney-faced. I want to laugh out at the surrealism of the moment, but to do so would single me out and may offend. I really don’t have a personal reference point for this scenario before this instant.

Both women have considered, engaging routines.  Their bodies are on display without hindrance. They reap the applause of the spectator. These are not women being sexually exploited. And yet, society has taught me to regard burlesque and stripping as part of the sex industry, a term which in itself suggest something seedy. Years of academic study have made me acutely aware of the “male gaze” and the positioning of women within the arts as the passive objects of desire for male viewers. Coming face to face with a burlesque performer mid-act seems to epitomise that kind of male.

Is this kind of stripping debasing or empowering to women? Are they simply playing to male fantasy stereotypes, or is there something more interesting and all-encompassing going on? And where does this leave me the unwitting spectator? What is the appropriate way to respond?

All I know for sure is that I felt like I was crossing a line, and that’s as much to do with my education as it is to my personal feelings.  Just when you think there’s no new experiences or transgressions to be made, something as simple as this happens.