It would flatter me to say that I had a layman’s grasp of economics, so what follows is a genuine inquiry. Where does the money go?
Let me elaborate.
The MTV Europe Music Awards, hosted by Belfast in 2011, are reported to have generated approximately £22m for the region – £25 for every £1 of public money spent on the event. Meanwhile, the filming of Home Box Office’s (HBO) Game of Thrones in Northern Ireland is estimated to have pumped £65m into the local economy, a substantial return on the £6.05m Northern Ireland Screen Fund (supported by Invest NI) paid in grants to HBO to help with the costs of the first two series.
Yesterday we learnt that the G8 summit is estimated to bring £40m into the region’s economy.
Add all that up and you have a total of £130m. Where does it go? Does a large chunk of it end up in the pockets of corporations like the Hastings Hotel Group, which according to its 2012 accounts has more than tripled its profits?
Hastings controls six hotels in Northern Ireland, including the Europa and Culloden. How much of its profits went on local wages? How much of that does Hastings spend on local produce? Is there anyway of knowing?
According to the BBC, Hasting’s shareholders received a dividend in 2012 of £368,000 up from £276,000 in 2011. Are we giving grants to big corporations so that the shareholders of large companies can enjoy a pay day?
I wonder how much of the money actually finds its way to working class areas were work is scarce, wages are low and welfare is being cut?
Given that we know that wealth does not trickle down – a notion categorically discredited by the fact that inequality has grown in recent decades – what is the mechanism by which the dividend being enjoyed by some in Northern Ireland can be distributed to the many, and in particular those in most need? That is a pressing question in Northern Ireland given its recent history of bloody sectarian violence and the potential for conflict to be exacerbated by depravation. As Matt Baggott, Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable, argues in an interview published in today’s Independent: “We need a lot more focused work in those difficult disadvantaged neighbourhoods where paramilitarism has its roots, to try and improve the life particularly of young people, and deal with the angst felt by working class Protestants and republicans. That has yet to happen.”
So where does the money go and how do we find out?
If you tend to think of the creative industries as having a homogenising effect on a city, you might want to think again. Angela McRobbie has outlined a set of characteristics that distinguish the urban cultural industries of London, Berlin and Glasgow, and in so doing encourages us to appreciate the specificity of these industries. London, she describes as aggressive, competitive and hierarchical. Berlin as open, vibrant and critically engaged. Glasgow as having a strong working class ethos, political consciousness and, on occasions, anti-commercial in its approach. These of course are generalisations but they got me thinking: what is the potential character of Belfast as a centre for urban cultural industry?
In the lecture (below) McRobbie references Richard Florida’s outline of the the desirable criteria for the development of a successful creative sector – talent, technology and tolerance. Surely Belfast isn’t short of talent, and technology isn’t beyond the city’s reach but can it boast an atmosphere of tolerance? By tolerance, McRobbie points out, Florida is referring to a strong liberal civic culture that provides a context for diverse lifestyles. By any measure Belfast fails the tolerance test. It has shown that it can attract media corporations that want to use Northern Ireland as a location but whether it can appeal to Florida’s ‘creative class’ in the long term and encourage them to settle in such an illiberal part of the world, is a moot point.
Anyway, you can listen to Angela McRobbie’s lecture in full below. Her main theme is to think through the role young creative graduates play in producing employment in this post-industrial era when work is scarce. Highlighting the importance of subcultural entrepreneurs who grew out of the post-punk, DIY culture of the late 1970s and early 1980s, McRobbie argues that this generation developed a homegrown labour market through creative enterprises such as music and fashion as a response to the high unemployment at that time. Despite its vibrancy and talent, the producers of this subcultural economy couldn’t access sufficient capital and their incomes were paltry. As a consequence they were ripe for exploitation by the corporate world. Eventually the specialist talent of these ‘urban cottage industries’ gave way (or transmorgrified into) a second wave of cultural ‘multi-taskers’. McRobbie sees the ‘creatives’ that graduated into this new environment as being required to be mobile and networked, seeking employment in an informalised labour market. This has lead, she argues, to the crystalisation of new forms of exclusion as there is no protection against nepotism and corruption, and this in turn has given rise to a new urban hierarchy, while depoliticising work.
So our homework for this week is to discuss how we might re-politicise work for those chasing positions in the creative industries.
There is nothing that confirms middle class people in all their self-regarding sanctimony than the doings of working class people. As Stephanie Lawler* argues pretty persuasively, middle class identities are forged to a large extent through their disgust at working-class existence and by comparing their own good taste, high morals, work ethic and spending power with the assumed absence of such qualities among the lower orders.
You can see this very clearly in the response of ‘middle Ulster’ to the loyalist flag protests.
They ridicule working class Protestant accents (#flegs). They point to the apparent fecklessness of protesters, complaining about how ‘these people’ are stopping ‘us’ hard-working folk from getting home at night. And then, for me, the pièce de résistance: in an attempt to bolster a flagging economy, a campaign of conspicuous consumption in support of retailers, restauranteurs and pub owners in Belfast city centre affected by the protests.
‘Middle Ulster’ conceives of loyalists as lacking economic literacy (can’t they see what they are doing to the Northern Ireland brand?), political immaturity (can’t they see the harm they’re doing to themselves and their own communities?) and atavism (they’re stuck in the past and backward looking). Conversely, ‘middle Ulster’ self-associates with a hard-headed understanding of the economic realities that face Northern Ireland in tough times, looking boldly to the future with a strategy of… what exactly? Business as usual? Keep calm and carry on?
Loyalism, for its part, seems to have taken on the character of a downtrodden ethnic minority. It demands recognition of its identity. It complains about its lack of cultural and political representation and alleges abuse at the hands of the police. These grievances are not unique to loyalism. They are shared by just about every other marginalised and minority group in society.
But loyalism’s lament is peculiar and perhaps harder for many to sympathise with because it once enjoyed relative power and privilege, and assumed superiority over others. But that has all ebbed away. The British empire is gone. The industries that once integrated Belfast into that empire are idle. The United Kingdom is being reformed and may disappear altogether soon. Everything that gave political and economic substance to loyalism is disintegrated and working class Protestants are left with nothing to do but demonstrate their Britishness in purely symbolic terms.
If you need an illustration of just how much the ground around loyalism has changed then look at the Titanic visitors’ centre in Belfast. Shipbuilding was once the material expression of Ulster Protestant power, confidence and prestige. Today its legacy is claimed by the same post-industrial business class (and their customers) who are currently berating loyalists for injuring the Northern Irish brand.
For me this poses some serious questions for those who have been condemning loyalist protesters and pouring scorn upon them. They might want to consider whether their behaviour and rhetoric simply confirms working class loyalism’s sense of injustice and its alienation from a peace process that seems to have left it behind? They might want to ask themselves why they said so little when the bankers trashed the economy but are now very agitated at loyalism’s disruption of Northern Ireland’s economic life? They might also want to reflect upon the emptiness of their slogan #TakeBackTheCity given the advanced privatisation of public spaces and services in Belfast. In this context, criticising loyalists for public protests, while urging the police to aggressively clear them away sets a dangerous precedent.
Loyalists need to look at themselves also. They should ask whether they would be better served by a politics that demands redistribution rather than simple recognition? What’s the point in making a stand on the issue of identity when austerity, imposed by the rich, is laying waste to your community? After all working class Protestants have grievances that are surely more substantial than the absence of the beloved flags and emblems, but trying to remedy them will require that they reach beyond their own areas to form alliances with working class Catholic communities faced with the same economically grim circumstances.
*Lawler, S. (2005), ‘Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities’, Sociological Review, 53: 3, pp. 429–46.
It is interesting how the flag protests are being framed in the media. So much of the coverage and comment has focused on the dreadful impact of road blocks on retail and the damage being done to the Northern Ireland ‘brand’. It seems that what we are being presented with is a conflict, not between the old foes of unionism and nationalism this time, but one between the apparently incomprehensible, atavistic behaviour of loyalist protestors and the commercial interests of a thoroughly modern Northern Ireland. This is illustrated beautifully on the front-page of today’s Belfast Telegraph (22 December 2012) that carries a story about how shoppers have defied the flag protesters and brought some “Festive cheer at last for retailers’.
This framing of the dispute as being between bad old politics and virtuous consumerism is an example of the ‘propaganda of of peace’.
Two very clever blokes, Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker (quite the most charming gentleman of my acquaintance), wrote a book about this a couple of years ago, entitled (not unsurprisingly) The Propaganda of Peace. The book looked at a broad range of media and cultural representations of Northern Ireland during the peace process and argued that just as people sometimes need to be persuaded to go to war, in Northern Ireland the public need to be persuaded that peace is possible. As you might expect, the media played a key role in this, with films, television dramas and comedies, newspapers, museum exhibitions coming behind a message extolling the virtues of peace.
McLaughlin and Baker argue that essentially there are two ‘narratives’ within the propaganda of peace. The first promotes peace and reconciliation (and there’s not much wrong with that) but the second is concerned with Northern Ireland’s interpellation as a constituent of neo-liberal capitalism after years spent relying on subventions from the British exchequer.
The two narratives are crystalised in the picture below of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness seated in the entrance to IKEA on the outskirts of Belfast on its opening day in December 2007. It’s an image of once sworn enemies now united beneath the banner of a global consumer brand, which in effect presents peace and capitalist enterprise as somehow underscoring one another.
The problem with the propaganda of peace is that it can brook no political convictions or allegiances. In global capitalism the only legitimate expression of human identity is through consumption. As Eric Hobsbawm has argued, ‘Free-market theory effectively claims that there is no need for politics because the sovereignty of the consumer should prevail over everything else.’ Similarly, David Harvey, points out that this is ‘a world in which the neo-liberal ethic of intense, possessive individualism, and its political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialization.’
This is one reason why loyalism’s politics and fierce sense of community is a problem in the new Northern Ireland, where commercial and consumer interests trump every other form of human organisation. In the neo-liberal world that Northern Ireland sleep-walked into undercover of the peace process, collective cultural identities are fine, as long as they can be configured as ‘lifestyle-choices’ or packaged as examples of heritage for the consumption of tourists. Seen in these terms, why should loyalism be reconciled with the peace process?
Which brings me back to the point I was making in the last post, if the peace process is to succeed in any meaningful sense then we need to start talking about the quality of the peace that is being proposed. Do we want a peace that privileges vacuous consumer identities or one that provides people with meaningful contexts within which to experience and live their lives?