Politics and art diverge in the study of Nordic identities

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When, in Lisa McGee’s brilliant TV series Derry Girls, a serious priest asks a group of teens gathered in a cross-community school meeting to name some of the things Protestants and Catholics have in common, the first suggestion comes from a boy who says “Protestants are British and Catholics are Irish”. “It’s actually a difference,” said the priest. “A big difference.” The perennially controversial question of how to express Nordic identities has come up in several radically different ways over the past week.

On Wednesday afternoon, Stormont’s executive office released a 168-page report from a commission on flags, identity, culture and tradition (Fict). Hours later, it was announced in Coventry that Belfast-based artist collective Array had won the Turner Prize for an installation based on an illegal bar covered in signs and surrounded by flag poles.

The commission, chaired by Professor Dominic Bryan of Queen’s University, and comprising several members of the Order of the British Empire, was made up of seven politicians nominated by the main northern parties and eight people nominated by open competition. Of its 15 members, 14 were men. He consulted widely.

Array is made up of 11 artists, mostly women, all of equal status, united by the fact that all are equally activists for social change, and by the economic need to share resources and studio space. The commission was created under the Stormont House agreement of 2014 and had a strictly defined mandate – the driving force behind the collective is the belief that great movements need great visuals.

Challenges remain

The commission diligently struggled with its stubborn themes and made some sane suggestions. But the more controversial issues ended up in a category called ‘where challenges remain’, meaning that the committee, which relied on consensus building, was unable to agree. to make recommendations. He respectfully suggests that others, including artists, move the work forward.

The Druithaib’s Ball installation is an illegal bar, an imaginary haven for feminists, LGBTQ + activists, anti-capitalists, anti-racists and other radicals – people who take to the streets to protest that traditional versions of Irish North are too narrow to represent the actual communities that live in the place. The artists talk about “discussing heavy stuff in a playful way”. There is a Síle na Gig that has come many miles for the right to abortion, a banner that mocks the infamous Loyalist fresco “prepared for peace, ready for war” with the substituted words “prepared for.” peas – ready for the sausage war ”, and another who just asks,“ stop messing it up ”.

Stormont’s other parties have long complained that Sinn Féin and DUP do not share power so much as they do among themselves. There is a bad tradition in the horse trade. The executive board, despite delaying the release of the Fict report for two years, failed to deliver the action plan it had promised. Alliance party leader Naomi Long called it ‘scandalous’ and was one of the first to denounce the £ 800,000 (€ 938,000) spending on a report that is now said to be ‘orphan’.

The SDLP said it was a “farce” that exposed the “dysfunction brought to the heart of government by the DUP-Sinn Féin relationship”. Christopher Stalford of the DUP accused Sinn Féin of trying to “remove all traces of Britishness from Northern Ireland”. Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly fired back, saying the DUP blocked implementation of the report because the party “doesn’t tie the knot and. . . does not want to face sectarianism ”.

The DUP signaled an uncompromising approach when it appointed Nelson McCausland to the commission. The former minister is a traditionalist, a man with no thumb, a man without surrender. Some loyalists have said the commission was an attack on their culture before it even began to operate. In truth, flags, murals and bonfires are largely aspects of working class union culture. The 2012 flag protests marked the largest outbreak of loyalist rage in the past decade and there are ongoing disputes over paramilitary displays at bonfires. A few years ago, I interviewed a UDA figure about an illegal Ulster Freedom Fighters flag on a bonfire site. “What flag? ” he has answered.

Republican areas are rarely festooned with flags now, with the exception of those small enclaves dominated by dissidents. There is more cultural trust. However, there are other controversial practices: Memorials to IRA men who died “in active service” are scattered throughout the border region in particular, where Republicans murdered scores of Protestants during the conflict. There’s the infamous playground named after an IRA hunger striker in a mixed faith village. Unionists will not forget Bobby Storey’s massive containment funeral.

Dominant politics

Memorials to people from all walks of life are regularly vandalized. Academic Edna Longley has written on the malignant practice of “remembering”. The commission’s stated hope that its recommendations can hasten the day when these issues “are no longer contested and contentious, but become a means by which we encourage, develop and anchor respect” seems futile, as does its aspiration for a culture. of “legality”. But artists of all disciplines are among those outside mainstream politics who harness the palpable energy within northern communities for change, reconciliation and human rights.

Another related episode last Wednesday received less attention. It also involved the intersection of art and politics. A loyalist musician who was fined for participating in a ‘No Lockdown 2020’ event had his conviction overturned after arguing that he had no reason to suspect the march had failed been authorized by the Parades Commission. Mark Officer told the court: “I have been on thousands of parades and never asked if they were legal or illegal. I just lift my instrument and go.


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