Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Belfast burning

Come on, you all know the words: #It was on the twelfth when the Pope shite himself/It was on the Shankill road...# No? You haven't heard that? My, you have lived a sheltered life, haven't you? How about this one?: #We shall be mastered by no fenian bastard/For we are the boys of the POTV [Pride of the Village - an exuberantly violent flute band from Templepatrick]...# You're joking me? You've not heard tell of that one either? Well, these are popular folk songs where I come from. I don't know about the songs on the other side. There were some Catholics in our estate, but they didn't exactly go around the place singing - or, rather, they did, but it was more likely to be 'Hey Frankie' by Sisters Sledge than the 'Soldier's Song'. I suppose I just felt like mentioning this because I caused some minor offence when, at my Marxism talk, I jokingly suggested that I have a privileged position from which to view the 'culture' wars, as Northern Ireland doesn't really have a culture. Let me tell you this, boy: Northern Ireland has culture coming out of its arse. (Or is that kultur?) Why, look, just look at it. Culture, curling out in magnificent, glossy segments. It's like cross between a bakery and a Canadian logging camp.

Of course, this is rather unfair and, if I was being entirely serious, would place me right alongside the ridiculous handwringing unionist and nationalist politicians and reverends bleating about how violence has no place in a civilized society. Next, I'd be saying how disgawsted ay awm with the oitrayt vayilence n thawggery awn display. These rictus-mouthed, pious officials and holy-holy sooks look and sound ridiculous, and powerless, because in a way they are. The British state rules round these parts, and the British state has already determined what the contours of the settlement are to be. If you doubt this, ask the DUP. They were shit full of opposition to the institutions of Good Friday, and led hundreds of thousands of Protestant bigots constituents to believe that it was possible to overthrow this arrangement - now they're it's guardians. So, if everyone is happy, and if the settlement is so wonderful for both sides (because there are only two sides of any argument in Northern Ireland), how could it possibly be that there are protests, sit-down strikes, and now riots, hijackings and bomb scares, with police being shot at and injured? It must be the Republican dissidents. Or, as you English put it, the three Bs: bog-trotting bastards in balaclavas. That's the line from Martin McGuinness, Peter Robinson, and the Chief Constable. It's always the same story: a small minority ruining it for everyone else.

Aye, as they say, right. No such thing. There has been constant sectarianism and violence since the peace accords, not to mention racist pogroms, and while one doesn't discount the existence of a minority of Republicans who can't let go of the dream, they can't be blamed for every sign of social distress and dissent. The short background is that the Orange Order, (whose role in the origins of racial supremacy was recently the subject of heated debate here), have yet to abandon their hobby of marching on nationalist communities during the bonfire season around 12th July each year. There's nothing intimidating about this, you understand: it's just a friendly hello, and an invitation to experience Orange culture up close. Most peaceful Catholic residents enjoy the opportunity to gawp at the gallons of Harp lager consumed, the tattoos, the pot bellies, the stanley knives, and the young man twirling a baton made from a stick, two tennis balls and red-white-and-blue sticky tape.

Essentially, it works like this. In the weeks before the big parades day, the 12th, loyalists in Protestant estates construct a make-shift mountain in some grassy area of the estate, from pallets, tires, furniture, planks, and consumer durables, all stolen from back yards, living rooms and industrial estates. At the top of this mountain, they pin an effigy which they invite people to believe is the Pope or some lesser papist. Then on the evening of the 11th July, they get a wee bit pissed, go round bricking Catholic windows, maybe find a 'fenian' out after curfew and give him something to think about, then head back to the mountain to set it on fire. Beholding this blazing sacrificial behemoth, like little Orange druids, they drink more lager to the sound of loyalist songs not a kick in the arse away from the childish ditties I recounted at the top of this post. Having spent all night getting sozzled in twenty-four packs and bigotry, anyone in a flute band hastily throws on a uniform and heads off with his musical implement, more lager, plenty of fags, and some mates, to march through some fortunate town centre or village. And, if tradition is duly revered, someone identified as a 'taig' will likely get his ballicks booted in, or cut off. I myself have a rather special memory of the Murray Memorial Flute Band's antics in my own home town. They got a bit lathered and apparently staggered on to an Ulsterbus where - would you believe it? - the driver was a Catholic. In a fit of inspiration, they dragged him outside and stabbed him so many times that when an old dear tried to staunch the bleeding by wrapping him in ten towels, she ended up with a mass of blood-soaked cloth and a dead man in her arms. Ah, blessed culture.

Where was I? Oh yes. A minority of recalcitrant Catholics do sometimes try to obstruct these harmless cultural festivals with their petty, resentful protests. They stage sit-down protests and block the roads, absurdly claiming that residents have rights. This being in flagrant defiance of the decisions of the Parades Commission, the residents are all too often setting themselves up against the police, who have the werewithal to remove them. And then you get 'trouble'. This year, Catholic residents of Ardoyne did just that: they staged a sit-down strike. They insisted to anyone who would listen, that they were not Republican dissidents, but residents protecting their area. Now, as Splintered Sunrise suggests, there's a lot of young unemployed men who are always up for a fight with the cops in Northern Ireland. This made up a fairly hefty proportion of loyalist rioters when I was still living there. For many of my young peers, it was recreation. In a social landscape with fuck all to do unless you've got money, the opportunity to take on the forces of authority for a few nights, and even end up in the news, is not to be missed. The more adventurous elements even found the time to hijack cars, break into factories and set up road blocks. And if the same police have been part of a machinery that is oppressing you, and has been since you were born, there's probably an added frisson in causing injury to a few of them.

The trouble is, of course, that after a few days and nights in which a slightly other-worldly atmosphere descends on the six counties, everything goes back to normal. Young people go back to being unemployed, poverty remains poverty, and the working class still gets battered by the extreme neoliberalism of a sectarian proto-state that reduces every important political question to whether it is Protestants or Catholics who are predominantly getting shafted. Sectarianism remains the life-blood of Northern Ireland politics, loyalist gangs still extort, rob and apply vigilante 'justice', and the political leadership ventilates about peace while also regularly exhaling bigotry about ethnic minorities and gays. Nothing changes. They let out a bit of steam, and it goes back to the way it was. And that's the crisis: that things stay exactly as they are.