Tag Archives: politics

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.

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 .

Barris_Marilyn_Monroe

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).

Q&A

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. http://loyalistsagainstdemocracy.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/lad-charity-single-announcement.html

Q&A ENDS

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.

Keeping Up Appearances

19 Jan
Top Secret - movie poster

Top Secret – movie poster

I suppose that it is far to say, that we all have secrets we’d rather keep hidden and skeletons in our closet. Doing family tree research for myself and for others, I frequently encounter attitudes of suspicion and fear regarding whatever I may find out. Curiously in most instances there isn’t even a hint as to what the secrets might be, but there are few families that aren’t without a torrid affair, a bastard baby or two or a criminal conviction. Thankfully we live in more enlightened times, so the scandals of the early 20th century simply provide colour in most instances rather than being something to get caught up and worried about. Though of course, there are relatives – often siblings or children – who still seem to carry that inherited shame, and it gets worse when dealing with families of a religious bent.

Secrets beget secrets.

The problem with secrets is that they can mess with your mind and have consequences much further down the line, particularly with children, and in turn they with their children. I’m still undecided whether it is worse to have to keep up the pretence of a secret or to uncover one and be unable to do or talk anything about it. Again within the genealogy research, I’ve stumbled inadvertently on a few (both in my family and others), and there are certain folk who you simply cannot talk to about the contents because of the potential for offence or upset. Meanwhile they might well be living with additional knowledge or living in fear of having additional secrets uncovered. What was gossip 60 years ago perhaps, is well buried now.

Of course everyone has a right to their own secrets and the privacy of their own lives. Really their issues are between them and whoever else was directly involved (assuming that the secrets involve others). Individuals ought to be allowed to express their own take as and when they choose, but none of us really has the right to press them on circumstances and events for which we were not a direct part.

This in turn finds its pinnacle in the fragile state of inter-personal relationships. It is not unknown for couples going through difficult times to present a unified image in public (think of celebrities for example) while they work through whatever processes they need to in private. With our limited knowledge it is far too easy from a read of the celebrity tabloids to say “I never saw it coming” when the relationship has been in tatters for a long time. Look for example at the ‘revelations’ this week about Linda Nolan in Celebrity Big Brother who drunkenly revealed that her solid marriage of 25 years was not a strictly monogomous one – but that she had sex with a significant number of male partners in the company of her husband (and no mention of whether he was offered the same luxury). With her husband long deceased, making such a confession in a public sphere isn’t going to cause upset to him, though possibly will shock friends/family. On the other hand, it may not. I certainly know a number of couples who are very public about their open relationships, and they themselves seem very content about it too. I’ll be frank and say that its something that I have hypothetically considered myself, though never actually indulged in. The notion that you and your partner might be so comfortable that you allow yourselves that freedom and trust is attractive mentally, though I very much doubt that it is something that I would ever be able to pull off – and certainly not without feeling even more guilt than normal, and pangs of jealousy for my partner’s freedom (in my head, they’re always the ones who succeed in the open bit, while I end up in unintentionally the same state as before). Unless the scenario is laid out as a possibility going in, I suspect presenting the open relationship scenario is really just a final test of the end of a relationship.

There’s an interesting documentary aired on Radio 4 last year, Monogamy and the Rules of Love which seeks to investigate the concept of polyamory and in particular one head-melter of a union between a group of four and their various spin offs (boy-girl, boy-girl, girl-girl, but not boy-boy, and member of group-plus a.n.y. other). The documentary goes to pains to obscure the identity of several participants and it is clear that the social stigma and shame surrounding some of these unconventional-but-modern relationship ideals is something which prevents couples from being honest with friends and family.

I think most people in Western Europe, and certainly here in Northern Ireland, would understand why something like this might still need to be kept private. We still live, as the documentary suggests, in a society where within marriage at least, the idea prevails of couples and not three and four-somes excepts outside swinging clubs and occasional indulgences (I’m told this happens anyway). And yet, outside of marriage, we turn a blind eye to ‘players’ and those who may be seeing two or more people simultaneously, quite possibly with full knowledge of the other participants. The media furore recently about French government officials have reminded us of how the idea of the Mistress is seemingly engrained in the French national concious too.

But what if you are a reluctant player? Should you be shamed into keeping shtum? Should your own experiences be something you have to keep locked away because of a fear of upsetting the other players? Here at least the laws of libel and slander may well serve to protect individuals and prevent a full and frank disclosure, and cripple the person making the public statements in the first place. But one shouldn’t be afraid to express a point of view, an experience, or indeed recount events verbatim, and one certainly shouldn’t be forced to maintain a false appearance of one’s own life or experiences because someone else asks you to.

Last year I removed a blog post because of the questions that arose from it and the repeated fear voiced that was I was saying might jeopardise my future prospects – being frank about mental health and depression experiences is still a taboo, and one has to tease out information rather than info-dump as I did. But doing so stifled me and undid the release I felt on writing and publishing in the first place. I’ve subsequently been able to address several of the core issues anyway through counselling and writing (both fictional and non-fictional pieces, some of which are pending an audience outlet). I also know that there have been times where my own life has been presented to others in a way other than the experiences I was living, and indeed other than I was expressing myself. So the question for some is, just who is telling the truth? As an historian I have to say, look at all the stories, and use the balance of common sense, interpretation and probable bias/agenda in order to discern the reality of any situation.

The OED suggests that ‘truth’ is something which is in accordance with fact or reality; but the truth of that is that yours and my reality of any given situation might be entirely different and indeed at odds. History is said to be written by the victors (when was the last time you read a National Socialist history of the 2nd World War for example – and no, that shouldn’t count as invoking Godwin’s Law), but we live in a day and age of immediate narrative via social networking and the uninhibited public airing of grievances via blogs and personal websites that are often little more than literary wank banks.

 

Publicity image of Stanley Kubrick directing Barry Lyndon

Publicity image of Stanley Kubrick directing Barry Lyndon

One of the first pieces I had professionally published was an article on the image of film director Stanley Kubrick who died in 1999, and in it I sought to reconcile the image of Kubrick as portrayed by the media (a strange solitary eccentric) with the reality as conveyed through interviews, surviving evidence and family member’s recollections (a much warmer, cleverer and public-facing man than myth conveyed). Kubrick himself appeared to be complicit in his media image, and so one was very aware that in essence there was truth to both accounts – but that one of those truths was built around false information and manipulation of fact.

It is often suggested in grievances and debates about historical veracity that the writers involved has misremembered, or misrepresented a particular event or set of circumstances. And that might well be the case – but that doesn’t necessarily negate their interpretation of the truth, and in those instances where their interpretation can be aided by supporting evidence we ask ourselves the basic question of ‘who do we believe’.

Martin McGuinness (Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland) was on BBC’s The View last week discussing his belief (repeated four times in the broadcast interview) that the Orange Order, PUP and UVF were in fact one and the same and that he had this on the authority of unnamed seniors within Unionism. A bold statement which has caused a great deal of debate and upset here. Perhaps a fair analysis of McGuinness’ beliefs and interpretation, but utterly lacking in credible supporting evidence. The public image in that the three organisations are separate, McGuinness says they are one and the same. Of course, I couldn’t help but think of that long-standing assertion by Unionists that Sinn Fein and the IRA were synonymous too – what goes around comes around.

Ian Paisley as shown on-screen in his BBC interviews broadcast January 2014

Ian Paisley as shown on-screen in his BBC interviews broadcast January 2014

Or there’s Ian Paisley who in his much-trailed televised interviews seems to have adopted a peculiar distance from reality – disassociating himself from memories of events, and certainly from the impact that his own statements had on individual people. Presented with newspaper reports of his inflammatory speeches in the 1960s and 70s, Paisley simply states that he has no recollection and even goes as far as to cast doubt on the veracity of some. It seems that for some, even presented with fairly solid proof (and one has to conceed the point that in those instances where no audio visual recording exists, Paisley may be being misquoted), they are inclined to re-write circumstances and events to suit their own agenda.

Maintaining false pretences is draining, and sooner or later the cracks will begin to show. There are those I know whose lives exist in a state of falseness, where public image and reality are mutually incompatible. But it is their lives, and I must respect their choice to work through things in their own way. For me, I simply try and be honest and frank – particularly since I had my first nervous breakdown several years ago. Being forthright has given me personal strength, and while I must watch my words I don’t find myself struggling with living a lie – and where and when appropriate I am able to expound on my experiences without fear.

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.

Us and Them and L.A.D. – Northern Ireland’s Satirical Warlords

17 Dec

I find myself increasingly fascinated by the extremism of so-called ‘culture’ here in Northern Ireland. I’m not referring to the various arts programmes in Belfast and beyond (Turner prize in Derry/Londonderry anyone?), but the territorial pissing a line in the sand type culture broadly labelled as Catholics/Republicans and Protestants/Loyalists (or Us and Them – Them and Us). To those unfamiliar with the country, often demarked by the painting of street kerbs and flying of flags/flegs and all the inherent symbolism. Wandering around various parts of Belfast during the last 10 months I’ve found my eye drawn to the murals and graffiti, the traces of destruction, and the invisible lines which carve up the city into acceptable and no-go areas.

I’ve been forced to confront my received ‘culture’ head on, and it has struck me increasingly that while the specifics of the iconography and precise words change between Themuns and Us, the language and execution remains largely the same. Even more disturbing, there are voices rising above the white noise which are not only being heard (he who can be heard above the crowd isn’t always the one making sense) but being acted upon, whose language and sentiment is positively dangerous – hellbent it seems on dragging us back to a Northern Ireland before the ceasefires.

As a country we’ve grown lazy. Those in power have grown comfortable and a significant portion of the population apathetic, comfortable in a status quo. But in the decade and a half since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement a generation has grown up without first hand memories of the Troubles, their lives thus far unrestricted. Some of that generation accept things for how they are and are appalled by recent rumblings, but there are others who feel disenfranchised by the political landscape, and who feel frustrated and restless. No doubt buoyed by anecdotes of the ‘heroic’ deeds of their parents and grandparents in a different era they feel inclined to mirror their tactics.

The danger is seems to me, is that while the unnamed individuals know the broad tactics, they lack a certain amount of discipline. The language of the civil rights movement of the 1960s has been invoked increasingly of late, and to an extent I believe that those invoking those rights have a point, but their execution is less about the people and more about themselves and their ‘culture’.

“We want what they have” is a fair enough request – there should be equality. But stirring up terror among the ordinary citizens of Northern Ireland whether it be through bombing campaigns or confrontational marches in highly sensitive areas (at which derogatory language and violence is used) is not the way to go about it. Sure, marches, demonstrations and peaceful protests are fine, but when you start shouting abuse at someone because of their religion, or throwing stones at the police force, then you have lost the argument.

Parody

LAD's logo

LAD’s logo

Out of this landscape this year has emerged an interesting group of anonymous individuals, who are seeking to bring attention to the activities of the extremists in Northern Ireland – LAD (Loyalists Against Democracy). Set up amid the crippling street protests by loyalists last year following the decision to cease flying the Union flag at Belfast City Hall 365 days a year (and instead bring it in line with other major civic buildings in England, Scotland and Wales and fly it on selected days), LAD combines investigative journalism practices alongside satirical swipes and light-heartedness to highlight the US and THEM culture of blame and redress.

LAD has also incurred the wrath of a number of individuals and loyalist organisations in particular, who seem to have pinned LAD down as republican sympathisers, middle class, and media led. LAD’s approach has certainly been frequently geared towards observations of those involved with the Protestant Coalition (PC) a “a new political party that aims to secure parity of esteem for the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist (PUL) people of Northern Ireland” according to their website (and whose tagline LAD draws from with their slogan “Parody of Esteem”).

The interaction between the two groups is fascinating and downright scary at times. There is a sizeable following for both groups (just nudged in front by LAD). The PC has of right now, 10,011 on Facebook and 157 on Twitter. LAD has 12,488 on Facebook and 7,349 on Twitter. LAD’s hand of revealing a string of abusive comments, idiotic behaviour and threatening behaviour is a bold one, particularly in light of the sheer force of hatred which seems to flow back from the PC pages by their supporters.

Right now Loyalism (and Unionism) is making itself known in an unprecedented manner – with the ‘Fleg’ protests ongoing these last 12 months, along with various controversial marches including those focussing on the Ardoyne shops. Hardline figures like Willie Frazer and Jamie Bryson seem to appeal to a frustrated demographic, while middle-of-the-road Unionists like Edwin Poots pursue expensive and unwinable personal agendas in court  and in turn are ripe for parody by others. For every idiotic Gerry Kelly surfing-on-a-landrover moment it seems that Bryson/Frazer and co. can issue a dozen ill-judged but impassioned statements. It is little wonder groups like LAD are focussing on the (at first appearances) single issue (Flegs) parties.

Satire and mockery are very much a British institution, and if we were in England we would expect our political parties to be lampooned whether it be through newspaper cartoons, Have I Got News For You, or just about every other wag on Twitter – and we would accept it. We might not always like it, but mocking others is in the British (and Irish for that matter) makeup. But so narrow-minded are some of the folk aligning themselves with the extremists/revolutionaries in Northern Ireland, that anyone daring to put their head above the parapet and fire off a blog, or a quip, or even to pick fault with (for example) a group of protestants blaming every injustice in the country on the catholic population, is in for a rough ride. And aligning yourselves as sympathetic to that message seems to warrant a crossfire to be placed on your person.

Two incidents in recent weeks have brought a lot of extra attention to the LAD campaign and the dangers embodied by those associated with the Protestant Coalition, and simultaneously pinpointed the inexperience of LAD when it comes to their media savvy.

Last December
First up was the LAD’s parody song Last December by “Paramilitary Wives” which in a typical Weird Al sort of way, adopted revised lyrics mocking the Flag protesters and the impact on Belfast/Northern Ireland, to the tune of Wham’s Last Christmas. The digital release on 8 December had the song flying up the charts and bookies were placing strong odds for the track as a potential Christmas No. 1.  Unfortunately several things went wrong very quickly.

LAD announced on 2 December that they had signed up to donate the proceeds of their single to the officially registered charity S.O.S. Bus NI – a non-denominational, non-sectarian, useful organisation that provides first hand care and medical help to folk of all ages. The S.O.S. Bus retweeted LAD posts on the 2nd and 5th December affirming the association. Soon after the announcement was made a blog was posted which made accusations against LAD, and incited a campaign of protests to S.O.S. As ever, certain individuals took it too far and are alleged to have sent threatening and abusive messages resulting in S.O.S. withdrawing their public association. (S.O.S. did however accept donations made in LAD’s name via their Justgiving page, and via Twitter acknowledged a number of such donations themselves).
As LAD declared “Our chosen charity has been bombarded with vile abuse for agreeing to accept a donation from us from the proceeds of the Christmas single”

//

Post by LAD.

LAD then promised on 6 December that the single would go ahead with the money going to another charity whose name was to remain private, but would endeavour to have the name independently verified by the press/public figure/both.

The anonymity makes sense (as we’ll shortly see again) to protect the charity against those whose retribution knows no bounds. But also left LAD open to criticisms of secrecy – especially considering their contributors largely remain anonymous – and further suspicions of aligning with a republican charity (I can’t imagine loyalists would be terribly pleased with a donation to St Vincent De Paul for example). Its a catch 22 situation – damned either way.

With the single released on 8 December to much media attention come the 9 December the single was being pulled from the various online retailers, with LAD citing ‘Legal reasons’ (that great catch all when you don’t want to be too specific – often with very valid reason). Cue lots of triumphalism from the PC brigade who have taken objection to LAD, and much speculation from LAD followers ranging from ‘the PC blokes did it’ to ‘George Michael’s people objected to the sectarianism’. In fact the sectarian allegations were made quite a bit, notable in a short lived Tumblr blog (now heavily revised – twice) by ‘Frankie Regan’ – who used his Twitter account to notify me (why?) about the exposure of LAD’s Christmas ditty.

LAD’s own brief investigations revealed the real identity of Frankie Regan to be one David Todd of Coleraine. LAD had already been in communication with Todd it seems – and one of the exchanges LAD published discusses the situation with the SOS Bus arrangements in more detail. While Todd/Regan raised some valid comments and concerns regarding the appropriate securing of permissions, the smug feel to his posts (not dissimilar to some of LAD’s postings, critics may say) and the construction of a false profile in order to make his point completely undermined the validity of his arguments, suggestions and observations.  He claimed to be a songwriter concerned about artists’ income being deprived, standing up for “all the singer/songwriters like myself strugling to make a living”. Hmm, I’m pretty confident that George Michael (writer of the Last Christmas tune) isn’t struggling to make a living, and that the song earns a tidy royalty for him annually. He further undermined himself when he removed all his original postings, replaced them with a second false profile, and then a third version which simply points one through the procedure for uploading a song to Ditto Music (Last December’s distributor).

On LAD’s investigative blog Todd took right of reply and made further comments and asked questions including a call asking for the identity of those who had made the decisions to upload the song without securing the permissions. LAD admitted it “may have made a mistake”.

After I pressed them on what I felt was a valid question Todd had raised – ie. did you actually have permission to use the tune – they responded: “We actually did receive the necessary mechanical clearance for the use of the track (it couldn’t have been uploaded without them) and it was only when the issue of so-called ‘sectarianism’ was raised to our distributors that things got murky, That’s why we say we may have made a mistake – truth is we don’t know and we have several clever people looking at it on our behalf”.

The accusation was used that the song was sectarian in the appeals to the distributor.  On being accused of being a sectarian himself Todd denies the claim and defines the word as “denoting or concerning a sect or sects.a member of a sect”. The Oxford definition elaborates further including: a person who rigidly follows the doctrines of a sect or other group; rigidly following the doctrines of a sect or other group; (of an action) carried out on the grounds of membership of a sect, denomination, or other group.
To say that the song is the product of a sect, the sect being the group LAD might just pass muster, but the implication when one uses the word in Northern Ireland it conjurs up specific associations with political and religious bias. LAD picks at “both” sides.

It is useful to remind ourselves of the definition of satire: “the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues” or a revival of the Latin usage “a literary miscellany, especially a poem ridiculing prevalent vices or follies”. This latter applies largely to LAD’s content I think.

At any rate at the time of writing I understand that the issues with the distributor are yet to be settled, and there continues to be accusations made that appropriate copyright wasn’t cleared before the song was recorded. The lyrics for the song are available here for you to make your own mind up.

Bedpush
Willie Frazer’s planned bedpush of 14 December came in for similar criticism from LAD – not least because after being described as a “charity bed push” there seemed to be no sign of a bed, no pushing and no registered charity either.

Objectively Frazer and co missed a trick here. Even knowing they would be stopped from proceeding along their planned route, they ought to have been seen to try – and should have brought the bed with them. It makes for better images – better press coverage – and also would have helped lend suggestion that the group were sincere.  And would have made up for the lack of supporters visible in the footage of the event I saw.
Vague allusions to the money going to take victims of IRA bullets to Libya to talk with government representatives there ought to have been more concrete. LAD and the PC should learn things from each other – including the use of independent adjudicators – though considering the PC seems to view the Parades Commission as the IRA Parades Commission judging by the new banners (because they aren’t giving them any of the answers they want to hear) then perhaps they don’t believe in independence.

All for charity
One does wonder how many of those who were in support of the bed push BECAUSE it was for charity were in turn against the charity LAD single?

Unfortunately one of the excuses LAD has used with reference to the charity single was that “what we did was genuinely meant with good intention” and expounded “This is an issue of motivation. Our motivation in releasing the song was good. The motivation of those who sought to kill the song is demonstrably bad.” This is the same sort of response publishers often use when they’ve stolen intellectual property – whether it be a review, blog or photograph – in my experience. Ignorance and ‘but we’re giving you exposure’ type responses demean the sincerity of the cause. I’ve seen just about every group using guilt as a weapon – complaining when a chosen charity doesn’t receive the ‘benefit’ of whatever activity they’re involved with. Heck, I’m working on a charity project at the moment, salvaging it from the negative impact of one of these sort of situations. Charities still have to work within the law, and that includes copyright and IP law. We all know that it’s illegal to download a film or piece of music when we torrent something (unless its one that has been approved!), and we know that bootlegging DVDs up at Nutts Corner or St George’s Market is also illegal. If the allegations that copyright was flaunted (and LAD have inferred that they weren’t) are true, then LAD should have had the intelligence to know selling something using somebody else’s music was going to land them in trouble.

There’s lots of goodwill out there for LAD and a lot of intelligent, articulate and creative people, who would be willing to help the cause. One can only hope LAD starts making better use of them.

People in glass houses
A second, perhaps more worrying incident occurred over the last few days. The owner of a shop off Ann Street in Belfast happened to post a message to the LAD Facebook wall sharing her own experience of the impact of the flag protests on Belfast trade – after several years in business her shop is due to close in January.  A street which sees a fair bit of traffic these days – and can serve as a rat run for folks heading between the Cathedral Quarter and Victoria Square. She pointed out that last Christmas sales were down 40%. Retail depends on the trade in the November/December period to see it through the harder months at the beginning of the year and can have a long-reaching impact on the business. Certainly the experience cited was in line with other reports from the business community when it reviewed the impact in January of this year. And for those with short memories – the protests brought Belfast to a standstill on a near-nightly basis at one point, with marches between City Hall and East Belfast resulting in rioting and folk having to either avoid Belfast or find safer alternate routes, and with many being let home early from their places of work for their own safety.

LAD spotted her post and offered to highlight her plight (as an example of the affect on Belfast generally) and she offered 10% discount to anyone citing LAD while purchasing.

As with the S.O.S. affiliation, the post was picked up by the PC and reposted on their Facebook, attracting a number of comments from supporters, some of those which I saw were frankly outrageous. Yes, the points about the economic downturn are fair to an extent, but to pretend that the Flag protests didn’t negatively impact on trade in Belfast and further afield flies in the face of all collated and published figures. And yes, the recent Republican attacks on Belfast are also going to have a negative impact – but so far they haven’t brought the city to its knees – the flag riots last year did. There were also personal attacks on the retailer questioning her ability to run a business, the decision to only offer an online store now and various other insults.

The retailer was in touch again yesterday with LAD after “two unsavory individuals” paid a visit to the shop – making the retailer feel intimidated with their UVF and Union Jack badges. Following LAD’s posting of a (now-deleted) blog on the matter which included images captured from a CCTV monitor showing the men in question, and an indication that the men were part of a group from another clearer image (I shan’t name names), the retailer (allegedly) received a message from the PC indicating that PC was a “dangerous man” and complaining (rightly as it happens) about the use of the CCTV images. Following on from the visit by the PC members, the message was understandably seen as threatening (and not just for the promise that the retailer would be hearing from PC’s solicitor).

[PC seems to refer both to the group and an individual – which makes levelling accusations a very perilous business. I’m reporting on allegations made elsewhere – not levelling blame at an individual].

Information on the now-deleted blog, and seen by a number of journalists (including myself), would suggest that the men in question were aligned with the PC. They have stated that they were merely in the shop out of curiosity and were on the phone arranging a meeting outside a nearby premises (a probable excuse). LAD allege on their Twitter feed that the retailer in question has been subjected to further threats and have removed the blogs on the retailer’s request (but continue to make the information available to journalists).

This may all seem rather long-winded explanation, but it is important to look at the picture from as broad a spectrum as possible. As much as I admire LAD’s steely determination to raise a mirror to those making fools of themselves (assuming they can see that) and a magnifying glass to injustice, their approach is encouraging reprisals. While LAD’s admin crew can hide behind an anonymity (PC prematurely declaring they’d worked out which PR company were behind LAD during the last few days), those they name in support cannot. There are republican and loyalist zealots out there who see any commentary on ‘their community’ as a personal attack and seem set on a Troubles approach of tit-for-tat retribution. So much so, that in putting this essay together I worry that someone will decide to find me and put a petrol bomb through the letterbox because I have little time for extremists, but find the trappings fascinating.

LAD’s repeated revision of blogs and their photoshop manipulation is not without its critics. The MadeInUlster blog levels accusations regarding the attitude displayed by some of their members which indeed are cause for concern. And certainly I have seen some of the comments on the LAD Facebook which have me in doubt whether those posting are trying to use satire themselves, or are simply sectarian. Some of the criticisms which can be levelled at the PC’s support group can also be levelled at LAD’s – and on occasion also overlap. There is real danger that a very valid and positive attempt from LAD to put this country under scrutiny is getting caught up in a personal battle between LAD and the PC.

The retailers and charities who support the humour are being lined up with the worst tactics of LAD, and in turn risk persecution. Sure, this is Northern Ireland and the idea of protection money is nothing new here – but just who is going to protect those of us who engage with LAD using our real names?

Both the charity single and the retailer threat are fine examples not only of LAD’s good gestures, but also of a stunning naivety of the media and media law. Perhaps you have to break a few laws before you know which ones apply to you – but you are putting yourselves and others at risk and need to start getting to grips quickly. Hastily retracting and deleting posts (something both the PC and LAD are prone to) once the damage is done helps nobody and makes everyone seem incapable.

In the instance of the CCTV, guidelines are available here and suggest that images showing identifiable people shouldn’t be supplied to the press or media for entertainment purposes. Arguably because LAD takes the piss, it is read in part for entertainment. Although the blog in question was clearly of an investigative journalism type. I couldn’t identify the people in the images myself – but with the additional information provided the identities were narrowed down significantly and in that instance, unless you have the means to argue the case in court, or have taken legal advice I wouldn’t have made the disclosure of the images.

I have likened LAD to the magazine Private Eye on a number of occasions – for both are using evidence and journalism alongside comedy to make their point. And often the dividing line is hard to define (such is satire). But to date LAD lack Private Eye‘s lengthy experience, bankroll (unless I’m mistaken), or legal advisers. In dealing with some of the antagonistic comments they’ve had, LAD have yet to learn the value of the Arkell vs Pressdram case in their communications, or how saying less sometimes says more.

As they make further inroads into the use of screenshots, photoshop, novelty record making, satirical videos and online publishing they will find their identities harder to conceal and will need to consider removing the balaclavas and must up their game. As earnest as LAD appears to be, they are not above the law, and I would hate to see them taken out of action because of another screw-up.

I’ve recently discovered A Perforated Ulster, which is able to take swipes at many of the same figures – but with the benefit of BBC lawyers to protect the writers and performers. LAD is bolder – but possibly just a tad cocky right now.

There will be more folk trying to ‘expose’ LAD and criticising them. On 7 December the PC issued this ‘Press release’:

“Since the Protestant Coalition was formed we like many others from the PUL community have been continually castigated and derided by a group on Facebook called LAD. Through their page LAD have on numerous occasions published photos, videos and personal facebook photographs of some of our members and their families resulting in death threats being issued by republicans. LAD claim that they have been around for one year yet withall they still hide their identities, what for I wonder. We the Protestant Coalition publicly call for a meeting between those behind LAD and ourselves to try and resolve whatever issues that they have with us and the PUL community as a whole.”

Both LAD and PC make similar accusations of the other – their identification of individuals and treatment of is putting them in danger. LAD are of course entitled to anonymity – just as the PC name can be used to hide any number of individuals – albeit behind a handful of named persons. The message in NI is clear though – getting political is risky.

Dangerous men
Which brings us back to the issue of the allegation that PC referred to itself as a “dangerous man” – a clearly intimidating statement considering the content and viewpoints expressed by those associated with the PC elsewhere. PC have yet to publicly respond to the allegation (as far as I am aware), and would do more for their cause in not using such tactics. We live in a very media oriented age, with more information instantly available than ever before. It takes moments to capture and repost information online and lay threats bare to the public and media and police. The anxious retailer seems to have been trying to protect itself by supplying the information to LAD – and at the same time it seems to say to LAD, ‘this is what getting involved with you can do.’ Surely PC could find someone with media experience to filter their postings and statements in a way that will remove the risk of something similar happening again? Sinn Fein and the IRA learned during the 70s and 80s how to use the media, and how to use language in a way to further their cause (they had to – seeing as their actual voices were censored and replaced by actors, including at least one genuine Northern Irish comic), and if the PC are taking lessons from the civil rights movement they should look at SF too.

People who make intimidating threats in order to progress their ideology have no place in our society. Those who are frightened should be free to voice their concerns to the likes of LAD (sort of community whistle-blowing) – but they should also waste no time in reporting any hatred, harassment or intimidation to the PSNI. And in light of the content of the deleted blog, the retailer in question would be perfectly entitled to address their concerns to the police. They are after all the representatives of the Queen’s constabulary here in Northern Ireland, so the PC would surely be supportive of an act which utilises a UK agency.

As individuals we all need to stand up and say “enough”  to the violence and intimidation – and make a difference and steer this land away from a descent into pre-ceasefire living – they haven’t gone away you know. Belfast in 2013 is so vastly different from Belfast in 1996 – I can’t believe it only took 15 years to forget what it was like before.

There’s also a certain irony with the PC – stating on Facebook yesterday “The Protestant coalition has been doing a bit of digging and believe a pr company based in Belfast is involved with the lad page and hopefully will be getting exposed very soon”. Resisting the temptation to make jokes about how the PC wants to see the lad exposed, while they disapprove of LAD using the media and or PR, they have themselves set up their own group – PUL Media – though getting someone who knows the difference between there, their and they’re will do wonders for how that is received in the real world of media types.

Happy finish?
I began this piece looking at an emerging voice in Northern Ireland via the LAD group, and in broad support of its content and ideas. But in discussing, I find enough among the tactics to worry for it and more obviously for those who voice support of it.

Where LAD is at its strongest and most balanced is in its guest blogs. Secondly in the use of actual screenshots and quotes to build up supporting evidence for its criticisms of other individuals and groups. It is a vital part of Northern Ireland’s publishing community, but it lacks due diligence in its approach – all to ready to go in guns blazing and worry about the clean up later. It is refreshing to see somebody speak out so blatantly, but genuinely innocent individuals have been put at risk as a result. Accusations (made on among other places the PC and SOS Bus Facebook pages) of LAD “shit-stirring” through use of fake profiles, and actually scripting the very sectarian comments that they then take issue with need responded to – and sensibly and maturely. If LAD wants to be taken seriously then returning fire with more name-calling will simply leave them as no better than those they seek to castigate. If they’re going to continue taking pot-shots, then they will have to be prepared for scrutiny themselves and I hope can deal with it appropriately.

Northern Ireland is on a knife-edge going into 2014. Is LAD the blade or part of the problem?

I trust that this piece isn’t seen as lecture, but rather a set of observations. Within acceptable boundaries of language, I’m perfectly happy for any party named (or unnamed herein) to use their right of reply to either affirm or rebut any of the observations, or add to the discussion. If there is any personal issue with any of the content please email me or leave a post in the comments and I will address promptly. Descents into sectarianism, hatred or insulting language will be deleted/reported/edited as appropriate. Please be better people.