There is no doubt that the continuing and escalating violence in the North has many people shrugging their shoulders with indifference. They might recall, more than two decades after the collapse of communism and the tearing down of the Berlin wall, what Churchill said about world events coming and going` but the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone go on forever and ever.
Despair in these circumstances may be the only logical conclusion and many people up North ignore the challenges of the peace process and get on with their lives within the confines of their own communities. The fact that most of the disturbances originate where these communities geographically meet, the interfaces, attests to this observation. These are the spaces where symbols confront each other for dominance and where with the regularity of a metronome violence breaks out. The present phase of the ever ticking conflict began last November when Belfast City Council voted that the British flag, the essential symbol ofUlsterunionism shall be flown on designated days only.
Since then the conflict between the two communities has expressed itself over marches, commemorations and flags; the conflict is expressing itself in cultural terms. Loyalist working class people at football matches and other public events now hear taunts from Republicans `that we have taken away your flag, now we will take away your culture’
Loyalist are seeing and experiencing their culture being eroded. This is the context of the disturbances that erupted when the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor went down to the top of theShankill Roadto open a refurbishedWoodvalepark. TheWoodvaleEstate is an interface with the republican Ardoyne area. The boundary between the two areas has been the scenes of the bitterest sectarian disputes. The Holy cross girl’s school incident happened here and this also is where this yearsOrangeparade was banned from passing through. It is an area of constant tension and unresolved cultural issues.
Working class loyalist communities, inBelfastespecially, are suffering a range of disadvantages such as early school leaving, unemployment and bad housing. Nothing new in that and these conditions are shared by Nationalist working class communities. However, there are degrees of disadvantage and theWoodvalearea is the second most disadvantaged electoral ward inBelfaston a range of indicators such as unemployment, welfare dependency, low levels of formal education, car ownership and so on .
Did, in this context, the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor really expect to have a cup of tea and a friendly chat with some of the most aggrieved people in the North who see his party as the source of their cultural erosion?
This is delusionary arrogance. What the protestors were saying is that there will not be a shared space if there is no respect for our culture. They also clearly say that they have not experienced any so called peace dividend in terms of improved life chances.
We have been working in North Belfast for about six years, in mainly loyalist areas such asWoodvaleandMount Vernon. We have also been involved in many exchanges between loyalist ex prisoners involved with Epic and republican ex prisoners involved in Abhaile aris. This work was done initially at the invitation of Billy Hutchinson in his role as coordinator of theMount Vernoncommunity project. The exchanges we had with women fromWoodvaleand women fromDerryfaltered because of the feeling of cultural erosion and cross community exchanges were perceived by theWoodvalewomen as an attempt to assimilate them into nationalist culture.
. The men have continued to be involved and at the end of July we hosted another exchange. The emphasis was on the shared social history of the two groups and particular 1913, the tenements and the struggle for collective bargaining and Larkin’s involvement in both theBelfastandDublindocks. This was a side of Irish history with which the loyalists were not familiar.
We had discussed the whole issue of the cultural impasse with Billy Hutchinson, now leader of the PUP. We explained that in our view loyalist culture was seen in very negative ways by those who didn’t know loyalists. The methods that they were deploying to defend and assert that culture was reinforcing that negative view. How could we begin a process of exploring and expressing loyalist identity and culture in more creative ways?
He told us that coincidently that he was involved with an initiative addressing the same issue of loyalist culture and identity. He introduced us to two loyalist playwrights Robert Niblock and William Mitchell who were involved in setting up a theatre group dedicated to putting on plays about the loyalist working class experience ,titled ETCETRA.. Robert Niblock’s very successful play titled “A Reason to Believe” had toured community halls to sell out audiences a few years ago
They had the support of people like Martian Lynch and Chris Hudson. Subsequently their theatre group was launched in the Linen Hall and extracts from Beano’s(Robert Niblock) new work in writing was read. This is called Tartans and is a critical look at the tartan gangs of the sixties and seventies and their evolution into loyalist paramilitary groups of which Beano and Winkie were members
If the women were no longer open to exchanges (they feel that our involvement with them was their cross community project and are open to cross border exchanges) we would have to change direction. At our suggestion the group was expanded to include the two playwrights and other men from the Shankill area whom we knew had an interest in exploring the arts .It is now called Creative Voices. We have had a couple of workshops and are hoping to put on or show some work soon.
One of the group, an ex prisoner who does walking tours of the Shankill area wants to make a film of a dream he had.
. He was sometime in the future and he saw two opposing groups approaching City Hall. They started to taunt each other and soon there were fights and police intervention and teargas. Uproar and mayhem ensued but then he heard a voice, a loud wailing sound coming from the City Hall and there at the top of the building was a muezzin calling his fellow Muslims to prayer. The City Hall had been turned into a mosque. Dreary steeples turned into minarets?
We have been involved with theatre for the marginalised in the North inner-city ofDublinand with the actor and playwright Michael Collins. Traveller Wagon Wheel theatre company is the vehicle through which Traveller culture, history and current issues affecting them is explored.
Michael has written five plays around these themes. His first play was called” It’s a cultural thing or is it.”
This play explored the history of Travellers in the Twentieth century moving from a rural based nomadic economy to the camping site of suburban Dublin. It is done through the eyes of a child.
In the play the child as a young teenager has an epiphany.
He realises that what he takes for granted as the culture of the Traveller, how they live, how they make a living, their education and their relationship to settled people is not a cultural thing of their choosing but imposed upon them because of discrimination.
Like wise, as some brave loyalist men and women set out to explore their culture and identity might they come to a somewhat similar conclusion: That their culture is more than flag waving and marching and that there is something that transcends the confines into which they have been forced? What passes as culture is sometimes customs that have grown up in response to adverse conditions. The skill lies in being able to tell the difference. That is the task we have set ourselves in support of people from the loyalist community who with Creative Voices are involved in the same cultural project.