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Cultural perversity

Northern Ireland: is Orange the new black?

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics World

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  • The blacks of Ulster

It is accepted wisdom in England that people in Northern Ireland are stuck in the past, that like fractious children they have some insane addiction to violence that stems from some age-old religious quarrel. The annual festivities at Drumcree seem to buttress this perception, with those atavistic Orangemen mindlessly intent on walking down a road just because that’s the road they’re fathers and grandfathers walked down.

But things are moving with the times. Orangemen in times past legitimised their activities by declaring it was part of their civil and religious liberty to walk the Queen’s Highway. Not today. At the weekend, Nigel Dawson, Portadown district secretary of the Orange Order, declared that an attempt to forbid a procession down the mainly Catholic Garvaghy Road was a ‘violation of European human rights’.

This is not such a new development. In 1998, Joel Patton, founder of the hardline Orange movement, the Spirit of Drumcree pronounced: ‘We’re battling for our civil rights’, bemoaning the Parades Commission’s ‘attempt to subjugate and remove the civil rights and cultural identity of the people’. That same year, Denis Watson, a senior Orangeman, told a crowd: ‘Cultural apartheid did not work in South Africa. It did not work in the USA. And it’s not going to work in any part of the United Kingdom.’

Rather than being fed by anachronistic sectarianism and ‘ancient tribal hatreds’, Northern Ireland’s continuing troubles are being given succour by the very modern language of victimhood and identity politics. In a depressing sense, the loyalists are correct: Ulster really is British, part of a society in which people’s sanctified ‘culture’ is bestowed a totemic quality.

That loyalists now use the emotive language of victimhood is an understandable ploy. For aeons, it was the Catholic Irish who were the trod-upon; they had been ethnically cleansed, they had their martyrs, their poems and weepy ballads. Loyalists have realised that to solicit any sympathy from the English they have to play the same game.

So now we have the charismatic, moustachioed David Ervine – leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), which represents the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – who has gained credibility from unlikely sources, principally for talking in a ham-actorish way about ‘hurt’. Every time Ervine appears on TV, he seems to be giving an Oscar speech: the chin wobbles, the eyes look to the floor sadly, seemingly ready to break into tears.

Ervine is not the worst. The UVF has plenty to be sorry about, and behind the gushing there appears to be a good element of sincerity.

So on to Michael Stone, who’s one-man assault on Milltown cemetery in 1988 led to the death of three mourners. Just as Gerry Adams has impressed all with his writing skills and Martin McGuinness has been transformed into a kiddy-hugging education minister who loves fly-fishing, so Stone has metamorphosed into a cultured man of letters. Stone has penned an autobiography for Blake Publishing, and has also become a renowned artist, whose work is sold by leading Belfast galleries. Elsewhere, the UVF similarly claim to be victims. ‘Simply the Best – Their Only Crime was Loyalty’, read a t-shirt worn by members of the rival Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) at Drumcree last year. Their only crime, is of course, murdering people.

It all seems distressingly reminiscent of a story from the Portadown News, Northern Ireland’s leading satirical website, from this time last year:

‘Orange Order Grand Wizard Robert Saulters raised eyebrows at last week’s Drumcree standoff by claiming that Orangemen are black. “We are the victims of cultural apartheid”, said Mr Saulters. “So Sinn Fein needn’t compare us to the Afrikaners – we’re the nig-nogs in this situation.”

But Garvaghy Road Residents’ Committee Chairperson Brendan McKenna immediately hit back. “The Orange Order is marching through our neighbourhood just like the Ku Klux Klan, so actually we’re the jungle bunnies in Portadown.”‘ (1)

  • Back to the 1980s

Oh dear, they’re at it again. Those who had hoped that the spectacle of artists mouthing off about politics ended with Live Aid have been depressed by two recent events: George Michael releasing a song criticising American foreign policy and Rik Mayall appearing as Adolf Hitler in an anti-Euro cinema advertisement. It was bad enough having Geri Halliwell as a UN Ambassador, Susan Sarandon bleating on about the death penalty and Charlton Heston demanding that everybody in the entire world possess a gun.

In the Rik Mayall controversy, only a few raised the proper question: why are we being lectured to by an actor on such matters? Celebrity artists are for most part self-obsessed, self-promoting neurotics. They are interested in gestures, in telling the world how much they care and impressing their peers in doing so. More importantly, actors are professional liars; their job is to synthesise characters and emotions, to convince the audience they are someone they are not.

  • The fight continues

An animal rights meeting at London’s Methodist Central Hall was disrupted earlier this week when principal spokesbeing Sherpa, a boisterous Pekingese-Norwich Terrier, spent the evening’s proceedings mindlessly gnawing table legs, sofas and banisters. The clownish, demented canine was last seen scurrying off towards the Houses of Parliament where, with the utmost ruthlessness, he dispatched the entire herbaceous contents of Black Rod’s private garden.

Jemima the cat, instead of reading from her speech, walked all over it, brushing her quivering tail against the nose of Terry the Panda in the process, which quite annoyed him. Meanwhile, Sparky sent a message of regret explaining his absence. The eight-year-old former greyhound racer had been impounded by his owner for pissing all over the kitchen floor.

‘No one said the fight for animal liberation would be easy’, concluded Millward the Lion, officiously shuffling his notes. ‘Our thoughts are with Sparky today. Remember, Nelson Mandela did not spend an eternity on Robben Island’, said a hungry Millward, before unexpectedly jumping a member of the wildebeest contingent and ripping its face apart.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) ‘We’re black’, say Orangemen, Portadown News, 20 July 2001

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