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Culture in a divided place: The arts in Northern Ireland

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Artist Dermont McConaghy, Foto – Sunflowerbelfast.com

By Robert Sharkey

Northern Ireland, like the rest of Ireland and Britain, is geographically close to central Europe. Nonetheless it is often described as a place apart.

The development of culture and the rest of society as a whole in Northern Ireland have been undeniably altered by the decades of sectarian conflict now commonly referred to as “the Troubles.”

If the mainstream narrative is to be believed, then it is likely an outside observer would come to the conclusion that all cultural traditions in Northern Ireland have coloration from one side of the community or the other – either Catholic or Protestant.
The real situation is very different. Frequently it is the case that much of the art produced in Northern Ireland is derived not from sectarianism, or even from just one community’s culture, but as a reflection of the struggles people face in their everyday lives.
The legacy of the Troubles is to a large extent inescapable, and leaves its mark on events here. This legacy is one of entrenchment of political dogma, stigma around aspects of culture, and deepening of existing sectarian divisions.
However, this trend is not uniformly expressed, and there are reactions against it. In the 2011 census, for the first time respondents were asked questions about their perceived national identity. One of the results was nearly a quarter of people choosing to identify themselves as having a solely “Northern Irish” identity – in neither sectarian camp.
The importance of this figure has been exaggerated by political analysts and commentators. But it is symbolic of how the cultural landscape has changed in the two decades since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and the Troubles ended – officially, at least.
A concrete example of this change has been ‘Turas’, a new Irish-language project in the heart of the Protestant community of East Belfast. Such an initiative would have been unthinkable and practically impossible in previous years, due to the association members of the Protestant community make between the Irish language and Irish republicanism.
Genuine grievances exist amongst many Catholics over the obdurate and bigoted opposition of some unionist parties towards making Irish an official language. But republican parties, in particular Sinn Féin, have consistently used the Irish language as a sectarian political football.
At this point, it’s established fact that the Northern Irish political establishment – including the British government in the form of the NI Office – loves to wax lyrical on the need to “celebrate diversity.” Yet when all the main parties here use the logic of sectarian division to maintain their power base, culture will always be something to exploit and manipulate for sectarian political gain.
Beneath the surface, the ongoing efforts of the political establishment in Northern Ireland to sanitise history to suit its own agenda is becoming blatantly clear.
A textbook example of this took place in 2014. As part of a regeneration project, a pedestrian bridge was erected between the docks and a public park in a traditional Protestant working-class area of East Belfast. A public poll to decide the name of the bridge resulted in it being named, with overwhelming support, after Sam Thompson, a socialist and trade unionist from East Belfast. He is best known for his controversial plays which critiqued issues such as sectarianism and political corruption.
The bridge was officially opened by representatives of the two largest political parties in Northern Ireland: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose politicians are fundamentalist Protestants – and Sinn Féin, a Catholic republican party. Without a hint of irony, Sinn Féin sent Máirtín Ó Muilleoir as its representative – a multimillionaire media magnate. And the DUP politician was Peter Robinson, previous first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who has been implicated in so many corruption scandals it really is not worth bothering to keep count anymore.
It is worth noting that the Northern Irish-only option for the census was proposed by Claire Hanna – a councillor for the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a Catholic Irish nationalist group. Hanna was criticised during the 2017 assembly election for opportunistically supporting gay marriage – while at the same time supporting Northern Ireland’s ban on abortion.
Sam Thompson’s legacy of working-class stage plays has been continued by others such as Martin Lynch. Lynch’s most recent work, ‘1932: The People of Gallagher Street’, chronicled the events of that year’s 1932 outdoor relief strike.
For a week, the working class of Belfast united en masse in protest against poverty, unemployment and the Dickensian lack of social welfare. Paddy Devlin, a well-known socialist and trade unionist, wrote a book on this vital period of Belfast’s working-class history called ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’. This refers to a song from a popular show that Catholic and Protestant bandsmen came together to play on demonstrations – it was the only song both sides knew.
Due to the historic divisions in the North, the arts have an important role to play in uniting different sections of society – and in particular, the working class.
Alternative culture has a special significance in Northern Ireland. Those who feel alienated and isolated tend to be particularly influenced by it. This has resulted on many occasions in young people from what seem to be disparate backgrounds being brought together and united in common cause.
Punk bands such as Stiff Little Fingers were highly successful in the 1970s and early 1980s. Stiff Little Fingers called on people to “be an anti-security force” and rise up against “the bores and their laws.” Music in the North of Ireland has an alternative undercurrent that has formed part of the resistance put up by entire generations of young people against being doomed to the blind alley of sectarian conflict.
A common refrain heard today is: ‘Things here are so backwards. We’re still stuck decades in the past.’ It’s no surprise people hold this opinion, considering the current political landscape in Northern Ireland – with, for example, the state using legislation from 1861 to criminalise abortion.
Furthermore, the declaration in 2016 by Arlene Foster, who had just became Northern Ireland’s first female government leader, made clear that she and her party the DUP were going to maintain a ban on gay marriage until at least 2021.
However, the top end of politics has been shown time and again not to reflect the real views of the majority, particularly when it comes to young people.
Musicians who reflect the developing consciousness and attitudes of young people here include SOAK from Derry, and Jealous of the Birds from County Armagh. Both are young women singer-songwriters. Their music is a heady mix of contemporary indie-folk – with a whole range of other influences such as soul, punk, lo-fi and grunge – arranged beneath poetic, soulful lyrics.
Their music paints a vivid portrait of the feelings of the post-Good Friday Agreement generation who are fed up with the divisive politics of the past and are desperate to see Northern Ireland change in favour of young people, workers and the oppressed.
Progressive artists are not just limited to music. There are many others, but one example is Megan Doherty, whose photography gives a colourful vision of the lives of Derry’s youth.
The opinion that the North is effectively a cultural wasteland does not come out of nowhere. It is to a certain extent the product of the increased alienation and isolation from the wider community that all people in Northern Ireland experience in this divided society.
But the reality is that – despite its modest size – Belfast has a positively burgeoning arts scene. For example, artist-led galleries such as Catalyst Arts, Golden Thread and Framewerk regularly put on innovative exhibitions. Local venues such as the Black Box and the MAC display the best foreign and local talent in various formats, from gigs to plays and workshops. Spontaneous collaborative efforts feature too, such as the new literary and visual media magazine The Tangerine, and the independent record label Touch Sensitive.
It cannot be ignored how vast Northern Ireland’s cultural heritage is.
It is the birthplace of many stars of stage and screen, such as Kenneth Brannagh, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Bronagh Gallagher, Adrian Dunbar and Liam Neeson. Liam Neeson has, in recent years, been actively supportive of progressive political campaigns in Ireland. Most notably he narrated the video Chains, produced by Amnesty International, to highlight the ongoing constitutional ban on abortion in the Republic of Ireland, and the campaign to repeal the 8th amendment to the constitution which upholds it. Neeson faced serious criticism for his involvement in the project, and subsequently stepped down as president of his childhood boxing club in his hometown of Ballymena.
The North of Ireland has also made its contribution to literature, with many acclaimed writers. There are the novelists CS Lewis – and Brian Moore, who sold the Trotskyist newspaper Socialist Appeal in Belfast in the 1930s. There are contemporary writers like Glenn Patterson, as well as prestigious poets like Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney and John Hewitt. Hewitt was also a socialist activist, and on May Day 1985 he opened a resource centre for the unemployed which still functions.
And Belfast is full of visual art. Some of its more high-profile visual artists, such as John Kindness and William Conor, are worth attention. They made their careers by creating excellent art which, at least in part, reflected working-class life.
Lastly, the immense contribution to modern popular music by people from the North of Ireland; from Van Morrison to members of legendary rock band Thin Lizzy, Gary Moore and Eric Bell.
Northern Ireland has bands and solo artists which have influenced various genres over several decades, including during the Troubles and right up to today. Some great but underappreciated examples are grunge/alt-metal group Therapy?, ska punk group Pocket Billiards, oi punks Runnin’ Riot, post-rockers ASIWYFA, post-punk group Girls Names, indie group Two Door Cinema Club – and even the pop band Snow Patrol. The indie group Ash played its first public gig at a Youth Against Sectarianism battle of the bands event in 1990s Belfast. Youth Against Sectarianism was a very successful campaign initiated by revolutionary socialists in Militant Labour – now known as the Socialist Party.
One of the pillars of Northern Irish capitalism’s current economic strategy is to promote the North as an ideal location for film and TV production companies to set up operations. There are massive subsidies provided by Northern Ireland Screen, with funding from Invest NI.
Unsurprisingly, handing out huge subsidies has been effective at attracting mega-production companies, such as the US giant HBO. It now produces a large number of episodes of the highly popular TV show Game of Thrones in various locations across the North. But some would question the logic of handing out nearly £50 million in subsidies every year to massive, profitable corporations when the rest of the economy is in a shambles. There was one week in November 2015 when 1,000 job losses were announced. This has since been followed up by further announcements of job cuts totalling hundreds in Caterpillar and Bombardier, two of the largest employers in the region.
The ruling class’s plan of wooing multinational big businesses into investing in the North failed before it even got off the ground. The reality is that the only substantial growth industries are super-exploitative call centres and precarious, low-paid jobs connected to the tourist industry.
In 2015, Sinn Féin’s minister for culture, arts and leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, cut the budget of the Arts Council a number of times, to a total of £2 million. These cuts had a massive impact on already overstressed services in a sector which receives less than £10 million in funding but returns £737 million to the wider economy. The announcement of these cuts was met with a protest at the Stormont Assembly buildings by nearly 300 artists, trade unionists and community campaigners from within the arts sector demanding their full reversal.
In 2016, after the assembly elections, responsibility for the arts was moved to the newly formed Department for Communities. The establishment politicians’ plan for administering the budget in this period can be summed up as robbing Peter to pay Paul. Small but significant cuts were made to various budgets, including one of 6% – £500,000 – to the funding for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
This put immense strain on already struggling arts groups, and even put well-established cultural institutions such as Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in jeopardy. The cuts have partly been mitigated by the Arts Council’s Sustainability Fund. But is the arts sector in Northern sustainable if cuts are not reversed? It’s not as if the politicians are very confident about making them. Cuts to the opening hours of the 14 largest libraries were reversed after a short community campaign organised by independent workers’ movement activists and Labour Alternative, a cross-community electoral alliance including the Socialist Party.
It is no surprise that the political establishment feels the need to distort history, misrepresent the image of Belfast, and attack the arts. The simple fact is the “new” Northern Ireland they are building is nothing but a nightmare for the majority.
Recent political developments in Northern Ireland have been dominated by the Fresh Start Agreement. This was a deal made between Sinn Féin and the DUP to commit to welfare ‘reform’ – cutting benefits for disabled people and the most deprived families – and the decimation of public services through 20,000 redundancies over the next five years. All of this in the name of lowering Northern Ireland’s corporation tax rate, again in the hope of courting mega-profitable corporations to create low-paid, precarious jobs.
I will conclude with a quote from Good Vibrations, a film drama based on Terri Hooley, who played a key role in developing the punk music scene in Belfast.
“When it comes to punk: New York has the haircuts, London has the trousers, but Belfast has the reason!”
If you come from a working-class community in Northern Ireland, the struggle for a peaceful existence free from poverty and oppression is tantamount to revolutionary. The needs for the arts are an integral part of our demand for socialism, and an integral part of our contribution to the struggle.
Robert Sharkey is a young activist with the Socialist Party in Belfast, with an active interest in the arts and music scene in the city and further afield
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