Tag Archives: Ireland

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

Why I shouldn’t go down alleyways…

15 Apr

A few years ago Dublin had become my second home, my research and education took me there most weeks, and I was rapidly being absorbed by the wonders of the library at Trinity College. I’d been giving serious consideration to moving there permanently, as it made more sense than to spend up to six hours a day travelling up and down the motorway.

For various reasons that move didn’t happen. And I’ve been a bit neglectful for the last few years. The city has begun changing and I feel like I’m playing catch up when I’m down. I can still orientate myself fairly well, but haunts have gone, eateries have closed, friends have moved away.

I must have been sticking to the nice areas recently, because on a visit at the weekend I was reminded of the one aspect of Dublin that sticks out when you’re a nice polite boy from Belfast – the scammers!

Begging is a condition that afflicts most major cities, and large towns. Whether its a Big Issue seller yelling after you for walking past his patch, a drunken ginger Santa bumming 50p for the bus, or a Romany type with an amplified violin. My own patience was pushed to the limit some time back (I’ve told the story before), but people beg for all sorts of reasons and there but for the grace of God… etc.

In Dublin beggers are a breed all of their own. The most pushy, aggressive, intimidating group of beggars I’ve ever come across.

Pushy beggars is nothing new. I recall being pursued on the Champs Elysses by one flower seller; another scammer sat trying to trick tourists into handing over money at the rail ticket booth in Milan; and in Belfast they’ve taken to seating themselves just in front of shop doorways or adjacent to ATMs, so you’re guilted into handing over something before they pickpocket you (seriously, I’ve told that story). But Dublin is a whole new level of aggressive.

I remember being warned about the pick-pockets by my teacher when I first visited as a teenager. You do tend to find a few quiet ones strategically placed on the bridges going into town, but it is down the main streets where trouble is to be found. They sidle up to you in parks and museums, asking for spare change, they chase you down when you ignore them, or refuse, and all the time you’re unconsciously tapping your pocket to make sure your wallet is still there while their accomplice works out exactly which one to dip their sticky fingers into.

I made the mistake of wandering down a small alley off Dame Street I hadn’t been down before – heck there looked to be life on it – only to find me running a gauntlet of beggar types. I watched as one well-dressed woman handed over some change (looked like a few Euros) to a woman, only for the beggar woman to shout after her because it wasn’t enough. Oh shit… Eyes locked on the exit. Walk faster. Escape.

Seeing my friend off to the multi-story after coffee, another beggar sat facing the pay machine on the stairwell to the upper floor, talking very loudly and persistently.

“Excuse me. EXCUSE ME. Have you any change. HAVE YOU ANY Change.”

No actually.

“Only I’M VERY HUNGRY”.

Can’t get up stairs past him…

I know, you think less of me complaining. Maybe you have to be there. And I’m sure there are genuine hopeless cases out there. But I’m so cynical. I don’t believe you should be bullied into giving over money, or guilted into doing so. I also think you need to be careful, because there are people out there simply looking to pull  a fast one. Admittedly I’ve watched a lot of Real Hustle and no longer trust any strangers as a result, but…

And no, it isn’t all a case of foreigners coming into the country and causing all the trouble either. I’d say drink and drugs probably had more to do with it.

Just have to remember to not wander off the well-trodden path too much in future.

To Fleg or not to Fleg

22 Dec

Ye gods! In spite of my extreme discomfort when it comes to Northern Irish politics (mostly because I suspect that in less enlightened times I would be pinned atop the Belfast Peace Wall and shot by representatives of both side should I actually voice my opinions) I keep getting dragged into it of late.

My post last week about LAD has stirred up a significant body of traffic and not a few comments. And the increasing LAD-related discussions in my Twitter feed are hard to ignore at times. I’m planning to come back to the topic in a few days in relation to the ongoing debate about humour and whether LAD’s postings can actually be regarded as such.

There was an exchange via Twitter last night where we were discussing the class boundaries, with LAD declaring “The whole class thing is a scam designed to keep people in boxes…There ain’t no box big enough to hold a LAD.” Considering I see myself as a box jumper (its in the eye of the beholder regarding what class boundary I am seen as – if one believes in such things), I should state for record now, that I am not a LAD, although I have sympathies with a significant chunk of their activity. I’m not part of their admin team, and if I have met them ever, it is unknown to me. As some individuals are on a campaign to unmask the organisation and being aware of my own public interaction, statements and media background, its probably best to clear that up lest someone finger me for some reason.

heraldic Flag Of Ulster

heraldic Flag Of Ulster

At the moment American Dr Richard Haas is in the country leading discussions between our political representatives regarding the latest set of peace initiatives, proposing how Northern Ireland should deal with parades, flags and “the past”. Ignoring the temptation to see it as an insane prospect to have someone fly into the country and resolve some of our most contentious issues through a week’s chit chat when we haven’t been able to fix it for decades, the flag debate appears to be the most contentious.

The red/white/blue and green/white/orange combinations are used here as tribal colours, marking territory as republican or unionist and effectively dividing the country up into a series of no-go areas. I know far too many people who refuse to make trips anywhere near particular areas because of the perceived threat embodied in those flag colours. Over the last year much has been made of the Union flag (red/white/blue – UK), which after over a century of continuous flying has been removed from Belfast City Hall except for designated days – and which was used by certain groups as incitement to riot and intimidate the entire country through road blocks and protests last Christmas. They cry that “Ulster Is British” and that as such only the Union flag should fly.

Irish Tricolour

Irish Tricolour

On the other side are the republicans, who use the Irish Tricolour (green/white/orange), and who would welcome the use of the Tricolour alongside the Union flag as a compromise. The Unionists it seems aren’t too happy with this, viewing it as a “foreign” flag, and refuse to permit its flying anywhere.

The whole point of the Good Friday Agreement was, I thought, to learn the need to compromise. Protestants are no longer the overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland, and proper democracy demands that opinions of all are taken into account. Traditionally protestants and unionists were inextricably linked, and the same with catholics and republicans – but the realities are somewhat more skewed. It makes using any term rather limiting and inadequate.

The 2010 Westminster elections resulted in unionists taking 50.5% of the votes (barely passing the half way mark), with 42% going to the republicans, and 7.5% going to other parties. Effectively this means if we took a sample of ten people, 5 are unionist and 4 republican. In terms of logistics, the difference is so slight that one cannot comfortably speak of majorities. Unionists have to accept that there are nearly as many people voting republican as unionist, and republicans have to accept that unionists still have a huge say.

UK union flag

UK union flag of 1606 – before Ireland joined the Union and so missing St Patrick’s Cross. 

Now, I accept that voting patterns for political parties do not necessarily represent what way the vote would go in a referendum if offered the choice for Northern Ireland to either remain in the union, or rejoin with the rest of Ireland. But our democratic declaration is pretty evenly split – hence the reason why Alliance often seem to have a deciding vote – and have come in for much grief for every view expressed that doesn’t align with the unionist parties’.

Standing back and trying to be objective, bringing the union flag flying policies in line with the rest of the UK’s councils seems to be perfect sense, and is perhaps the properly ‘loyal’ thing to do, rather than be zealot-like in an over-declaration. In fact, it might even help dissipate some of the dick-waggling that seems to go with regards to these sorts of symbols among the masses.

We’ve had power sharing for many years now, both between NI and the UK, and NI and the Irish Government via the North/South Ministerial Committee. Ireland has a say in certain issues within the country, and by extension NI has a say in Ireland. NI also benefits from funding from Europe, so the idea that we exist in some sort of splendid isolation, or in an exclusive relationship with Westminster is a complete fallacy. There are pros and cons to these relationships which I leave for economists and politicians to debate at length, but the reality is that government is complicated.

With this in view, optionally flying the Tricolour alongside (but not in a superior position to, as per the UK guidelines) the Union flag isn’t that disrespectful, and acknowledges Northern Ireland’s rather unique position as a hybrid state between the UK and Ireland without needing to sever individual connections and benefits to either. Further, the unionists/protestants should maybe consider viewing the compromise as something which further recognises their position. The symbolism of the Tricolour is itself the symbolism of contrast, with the green traditionally representing Gaelic Ireland, the orange symbolising protestantism and the white marking a hoped for peace between. Poetic license and those uncomfortable with the representations often refer to ‘gold’ rather than orange, but this doesn’t negate the intent.

I have little doubt that proposals will be forwarded for a new flag for Northern Ireland which will in some way incorporate both traditions, and will no doubt be rejected by both loyalists and republicans as disrespectful and evidence of their country selling-out – especially if it incorporates green/orange/red/blue. My own suggestion is for something in black and white (easily photocopiable/faxable) – also indicative of the attitudes of many, who see the politics here as simple (its us or them). Though from a tourism point of view, that would be a waste – we need iconic things to attract foreigners. Celtic harps and celtic crosses are probably too Irish for the loyalists, and imperialistic imagery like Britannia is just going to wind up the republicans. Simple shapes will probably win out.  A representation of the Giant’s Causeway would perhaps be a sensible move – as an utterly non-sectarian and mythical place (replacing the Red Hand motif), and also symbolising the journey of the Ulster Scots, which is utterly relevant to most of us here in some way.

Anyway – its just a flag. A temporary symbol of a ruling authority – and frankly if it induces riots, it isn’t worth having. The number of people who claim to hold the flag with esteem may want to think about that – every week I see the tattered remnants of various flags flying from posts, and in trees across the city.

What happens in Donegal…

17 May

I’m not sure that my friends would appreciate if I shared our stories freely with the world, but so crucial was the bonding a group of us did in the rugged hills around Donegal during our undergraduate years that it has left an indelible impression upon my mind, heart and soul.

I hope that you all either have already or will have an experience like it. A sort of late coming-of-age event (as opposed to a mid-life crisis). A chance to make solid friends. The drinking is not compulsory. Sex is ill-advised. Video cameras, cream cheese and a spare car will go far.

There is one cardinal rule that you need to bear in mind – what happens in Donegal stays in Donegal. You see crossing over the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic you find yourself like Roman Polanski, safely in another jurisdiction where the same rules no longer apply. Where bars don’t close because you’re the only customers they’ve had all year – until you’re too drunk to play pool anymore without tearing the cloth… where surfing is something you do with a car rather than a board… where your neighbours are drug dealers… where your ex-girlfriend (no, not that one…) thinks its okay (sober) to take a piss in public behind a sanddune, watched over by a couple in a Range Rover (true story). A place where ‘No’ means ‘No’. And if you aren’t burning a peat fire then you haven’t lived. Erm…

In Donegal.... no-one can hear you scream (except the sheep...)

Its a low-key, more sedate version I think of all those Americans who cross over the border to Mexico in those American tv shows I can’t stand like The OC (yeah, I’m so five years ago).

I don’t get holiday romances. Or getting blocked/stoned for the duration of a holiday and making an arse of yourself. Why adopt an entirely different (and rather less pleasing) persona when in a different place? As I approach my 30s I realise that I must have completely missed that period during which I’m meant to be particularly raucous. I’ve never partaken of one of those 18-30s excursions (they sound like hell to me), and the closest I’ve come to illicit substances was a) finding and handling some ecstasy tablets in the grotty staff room of the hotel I once worked in (which my supervisor took away and disposed of)  and b) being at a few parties where marijuana was being passed around. Curiously I find myself transfixed by those god-awful documentaries on the television where all the ‘kids’ head off to some sunny beach, listen to a lot of dance music, take a lot of drugs, and have a lot of unprotected sex. Not me at all.

I was in a club once and once only. ‘Milk’ in Belfast several years ago. We were shooting a tourism advert for Belfast and I was working as a camera assistant. I think we were there for a tad over half an hour, working around the DJ’s desk. It was deafening, and the place looked like a meat-market. I saw no appeal whatsoever. I’m an old man. My hearing range used to be fantastic, but I’m convinced I have tinnitus, exacerbated by being at a few gigs some years ago far too close to the front and not enough time in between to recover. Really, does it have to be that loud? No wonder I’m happier with jazz and old man acoustic folk sessions where I don’t have to have people literally shout into my ears to be heard…

There are different aspects to a man’s personality, and what one individual recognises as you may be completely alien to another. Those that know me solely for my work researching films and in particular Hammer horrors have often expressed surprise when they learn about my other interests and pursuits. Surely it is the same for you? Keeping the personal and the professional life separate is a wise decision, but one which I don’t always follow making life somewhat more complicated now than it used to be. I find the days blur into one and my leisure pursuits have become my work. Most damaging was the writer’s block which came out of it. It’s why I’m headlong into this blog. It is a welcome refocussing.

Some people have two or more private personas. I am sure than as friends get to know me they uncover a rather different individual, but one which has had comparatively few complaints so far. But the ‘real’ me, isn’t that far removed from the private me. Rather that than try to bury my thoughts or desires or fetishes, to literally mask the individual. Is this why clubs are formed? To feel that one belongs, to find a safe comfortable environment where you can truly be yourself, open and frank without repercussion? I think I’m like Groucho Marx, I don’t really want to be part of a club that would have me as a member… though this year for the first time I gave serious consideration to joining one of those ‘gentleman’s clubs’ (no, not those kind….).

Those weeks spent with friends in Donegal cleansed me of much of my restraint and inhibition. The libations were only partly to blame. The change of environment and scenery, and being forced to share a comparatively small space (four of us crammed into a little Volkswagen car for hours on end) brought us together and out. From the moment we drove down the N56, saw the lake to the left and the tiny former chip-shop-cum-cottage on the right hand side that would become our regular haunt, we were brought together by a sense of randomness and the surreal. I dare say prior to that trip there was a side of me which had remained restrained for a long time, but once the cork had been removed the genie refused to get back in the bottle. That perhaps is the difference to one of those 18-30s holidays. I don’t need liquored up and a party to be myself.

Despite the cardinal rule of course I did bring something back… three friendships. I guess maybe some things should cross the border line…