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Sectarianism or shopping

July 5, 2010

There’s been ‘orchestrated’ trouble in West Belfast, but Drumcree has passed off peacefully this year. Still, it takes me back to more frightening times, the period of the Good Friday Agreement, when the nay-sayers looked like they might carry the day by creating violent, bloody mayhem on the streets of Northern Ireland.

I remember the spring and summer of 1998 rather vividly. Mrs Rab and I had bought our first house — a little ‘mock Victorian railway cottage’ in a town outside Belfast – three up, two down and a postage stamp-sized back garden, which Mrs Rab made lovely.

It was in that house that we had our first baby, I wrote my PhD and some of my current preoccupations began taking shape in my imagination. One incident in particular comes to mind as somewhat seminal to my forming ideas and I return to it time and time again when I’m trying to make sense of everything that has happen in Northern Ireland since and beyond.

It took place on my doorstep in 1998, a year I recall as the best and worst of times. Labour were in office but the Right still in power. The Good Friday Agreement was signed and ratified but the violence ignited by Drumcree threatened to throw us into the abyss. And then there was the Omagh bomb.

Despite all of this there was the ‘peace dividend’, apparent in Belfast’s commercial regeneration and most obvious at that time in the spanking brand new shopping centre on the outskirts of the city. Forestside was tangible evidence of changing times, and better times ahead. It heralded a new era of consumer bliss, with the arrival of Sainsburys and other leading retailers long denied to Northern Ireland, which back in those days was very badly served by the existing supermarkets in terms of fresh herbs, butter nut squash and exotic fruit.

Mrs Rab and I shopped there every week, hopping in the car and happily driving the 20 or so miles, there and back again, because distance is no object when you absolutely must have fresh basil for your home-made pesto.

One evening, just as we were departing on our weekly pilgrimage, we heard a flute band playing, just over the hedge from our house, in the adjacent loyalist estate. It was spring. It was the marching season (which in 1998 seemed to start in mid-February and go through to Christmas day), so neither Mrs Rab nor I thought anything of this as we pulled out of the drive.

We got back at about 8.30 that evening and it was clear that there was now quite a crowd on the other side of the hedge and it was heading off in the direction of the main road, led by the flute band. There was about 100 people, maybe more, and I watched from our backyard as they made their way into our new estate of smart private homes.

It was a rowdy, intimidating and drunken procession, and with growing alarm I noticed it was coming our way.

We got our groceries in as quickly as possible and, as the flute band rounded the corner, I remember standing at the living room window looking out at the assembly and thinking to myself, ‘What the fuck is wrong with these people that they can’t stay at home at night and watch television like everybody else?’

I should mention at this point that our house was in a cul de sac, which meant that the marchers had reached a dead-end. I’ll leave you to make your own analogies about loyalism and cul de sacs but I’ll confess that the confusion and chaos that ensued as the flute band and its followers tried to reverse out of our street filled me full of condescending satisfaction.

But something else struck me that evening and it was this: in comparison to the pacific consumerism that I had slipped all too easily into, the carnivalesque display of communal solidarity outside my window looked like fun. Even if it was an aggressive assertion of territoriality, it looked more meaningful and joyous than my own banal domesticity and bourgeoisification.

Nevertheless, one of the key assumptions underpinning Northern Ireland’s new dispensation is that solipsistic consumerism is preferable to political forms of citizenship and solidarity.

This means that these days the strongest objection to the Orange Order comes from retailers, on the grounds that the 12th July celebrations bring an unwelcome hiatus in shopping and other commercial activity. No one seriously complains about the Orange Order on political grounds anymore. God forbid, for that would put you in breach of liberal multiculturalism’s insistence on the right of all native peoples to their funny vernacular little folkways.

The choice before Northern Ireland is sectarianism or shopping, either back to the bad old days of strife and conflict or forward, pushed by the hand of history into a future defined by the demands of global capitalism, with its political corruption, deepening inequalities and banal culture.

But will identities formed through patterns of conspicuous consumption supersede the old sectarian allegiances in the long run? I doubt it. Sectarianism is fun; it brings people together, even as it divides them from others; and ultimately it doesn’t rely upon landing yourself in massive debt in the quest to fill the yawning sense of absence at the heart of human existence.

Ian and Martin come to terms with their new consumer identities

Jenny over at East Belfast Diary has another view of the commercial redevelopment of Belfast here.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 9:32 pm

    A very thought-provoking post, Rab – and a great photo. Too little research is done into why so many people still live segregated lives when the Life and Times Survey tells us the majority want a shared future. I think your ‘it’s fun’ comment needs to be thought about. Your analysis might also help us to understand why the poorer communities are the most overtly divided and why their ‘community leaders’ seem determined t o keep it that way.

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    July 6, 2010 7:56 am

    Hi Jenny,
    I read your post on EBD about the future of housing with interest. It’s an area I know little about but which strikes me as crucial to what sort of future Northern Ireland embraces. I also thought that your post on this topic highlighted that the ‘home’ referred to in the IKEA slogan in the photo above is a deeply political issue.

    I know that it’s a little provocative to describe sectarianism as ‘fun’ but I suppose what I am trying to draw attention to are the pleasures, satisfactions and compensations that come with unionist and nationalist identities. The way I see it is, all identities offer people a meaningful framework within which to live their lives. Consumerism is another. My own preference is for shopping before sectarianism every time but a sense of self that is determined only by income and consumption lasts only so long as the economic bubble doesn’t burst and it well and truly blow-up recently. Once the money’s gone, so is the satisfaction of being a consumer. Loyalism and republicanism, on the other hand, offer myths, collective identities and interminable, foul enemies that just seem to go on for ever and don’t cost you a cent at the point of delivery.

    I suppose the real question for me is how can socialism compete with such powerful forms of identification? What pleasures, satisfactions and compensations would socialism provide that could be more attractive than those of NI’s sectarian designations? In short, what is a socialist identity?

    I got to thinking about this because Charlie McMenamin over at Excuse Me While I Step Outside-blog had commented elsewhere on the success of environmentalists in establishing ‘green-lifestyles’ – recycling, conserving energy etc as a matter of course. I am sceptical in all sorts of ways of the ‘green-lifestyle’, not least its painless appropriation by capitalism but it does beg a question of the Left – what have we got to offer?

    It’s a question for Labour, especially here in Northern Ireland. In Britain there is very definitely a Labour-tribe. It’s taken I kicking, I suspect, under Blair who cared little for it. But the old Labour clubs are still there and my experience of them is that they offer a range of cultural activities that keep them connected to and rooted in communities.

    I think in their hearts, everyone feels that consumerism is as vacant as all those towering office blocks along the Lagan these days and the ghost estates in the south. People want something more meaningful than that. I think the Left in Ireland has to respond to that.

  3. July 6, 2010 9:28 am

    Beautiful piece Rab.

    It’s left me musing that you’d need the genius of Hanna Barbera to fully capture the full glory of the image of a flute and drum band backing out of a cul de sac without missing a note. 🙂

    This lifestyle issue is important. I don’t want to be a fully time politico. Actually, I can’t – I simply don’t have the concentration or ability to stop doubting myself long enough, or to take my self seriously consistently enough. My mind wanders off to other things. Or Mrs Charlie tells me I’ve got chores to do or the kids need attention or whatever.

    So , though I’d say I’m in the top 10% of ‘engaged’ busybodies in society, offering the world my opinions on most things, I’m still an amateur. It is managers and professionals – plus the occasional full-time, never stop politico – who run most of my world and take most of the decisions. (Guided, of course, by the limits that Capital itself sets on their autonomy).

    I’d like to change this and create a world where more people got to input into decisions on more things. But even I blanch at the idea of doing it full bloody time.

    But once there would have been a lifestyle I could have fallen back into when I got fed up with being a active, engaged, political busybody constantly making decisions: a lifestyle of Clarion Cycling Clubs, Socialist Sunday Schools, Working Mens Libraries, the Co-op and so forth. (I suspect the Orange equivalent includes the flute bands).

    Today, the Left doesn’t have any of that – it is a mere ‘political’ approach. So to be ‘of the Left’ feels narrow, and two dimensional – whereas there is a ‘green lifestyle’, even if most of us who think well of it are a little bit hypocritical about actually living it.

    I’m fed up with covering my two dimensionality with bloody shopping.

  4. Rabelais permalink*
    July 6, 2010 11:16 am

    Thanks Charlie,

    The site of a flute band and loyalist supporters marching into and reversing out of a cul de sac simply defines representation. It makes apparent the thin line that separates horror and comedy. I has to be seen to be believed and even then you’re left asking, ‘What just happened there?’

    However, the Orange Order should be the envy of every serious political project. It’s an organisation that straddles the cultural and political, with deep and durable roots in the community it gives representation to. It’s content (sectarianism) I can’t abide but its form (street celebrations and community solidarity) is something I wish I could bottle, for its an antidote to the vacuous, privatising logic of consumer capitalism.

    I really believe that people want to feel part of something meaningful, something that won’t melt into air (I certainly do). But the preferred neo-liberal model for life and living is transient and atomising, which is great if you’re an evangelic postmodernist, although I don’t know any of those (anymore).

    The problem for the Left is, as you point out, we have other things to do, important stuff like looking after kids and the tomato plants in the back garden, so where do you find the time for politics. I think you’ve made the point before elsewhere that the Left needs a culture or lifestyle, something embedded and practiced as routine, or as Raymond Williams might have put it a ‘structure of feeling’. And maybe that structure of feeling has got incorporate kids and tomato plants and films and music and love and taxes.

    God, I hope there’s room for tomato plants in the socialist future. I’ve tree varieties growing out back at the moment.

  5. July 6, 2010 11:24 am

    Ah: tomato plants.

    Now they come in both green and red, don’t they?

    So perhaps there is hope….

    • Rabelais permalink*
      July 7, 2010 9:01 am

      Alas, Charlie, I’m growing orange and purple varieties, which I’ve just realised are the colours of the Loyal Orders over here. I’ll do better next year.

  6. July 6, 2010 6:55 pm

    This is all very interesting. I recall being part of what felt like a Labour ‘family’ in Hackney in the 1980s, in that much of my spare time was taken up with going to meetings but also socialising with fellow LP members, including going to the Labour club in Dalston. It was at a time when society was very polarised – you were either for or against Thatcherism and that provided some bonding in addition to a very vaguely thought out political viewpoint and some cheap beer.

    But how to replicate that now is very difficult. What I found was missing in the 1980s was the more intellectual component which Charlie refers to, the Clarion clubs and so on. I envied the ex-CP members as they had had some of that. But when I got a proper job and some money in my pocket, I discovered consumerism and started to enjoy shopping too – and always will!

    So I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I do think it’s possible to be part of a network of like-minded people who are involved in political parties, campaigns and meaningful work (don’t write off the day job) and who spend at least some of their spare time on more challenging activities. It was easier in the days when there was more of a structure but it can still be done.

    I think Charlie’s point about not having time to do much is really important. Most of us are in that position and there’s nothing worse than feeling pressured to do more, and it’s counterproductive as it makes people drop out altogether.

  7. July 6, 2010 11:35 pm

    I’m sorry, Rab, but I’m not convinced. I’m not sure we should really envy the Orange Order just because they offer some kind of alternative to conspicuous consumption. The cultural form can’t be abstracted from the sectarian content as an object of fascination or as some kind of moral lesson on how we might lead our lives if we could only develop some and ditch the loyalty cards and the free trade shopping bag. As the song goes:

    “The Protestant Boys are loyal and true
    Though fashions are changed and the loyal are few
    The Protestant Boys are true to the last
    Though cowards belie them when danger has past
    Aye still we stand
    A loyal band
    And reck not the liars whatever they say
    For let the drums rattle
    The summons to battle
    The Protestant Boys must carry the day”.

    Content, comrade. Content!!

  8. Rabelais permalink*
    July 7, 2010 8:50 am

    First verse and chorus of a song you’ll recognise…

    The people’s flag is deepest red,
    It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
    And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
    Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold.

    Then raise the scarlet standard high.
    Within its shade we’ll live and die,
    Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
    We’ll keep the red flag flying here.

    … not so different in form and content to The Protestant Boys.

  9. Rabelais permalink*
    July 7, 2010 8:58 am

    Forgive me for the following rude deconstruction of your last post but the language you use is interesting and I recognise it as something I myself might say.

    You felt like you were part of a Labour ‘family’ back in Hackney in the 8os and then later in your comments you say that you ‘think it’s possible to be part of a network of like-minded people’.

    It’s the shift from ‘family’ to ‘network’ that caught my attention here. I fear the days of brotherhood, sisterhood and comradeship are behind us and what are left with is networks, alliances, coalitions. I can’t help but feel that these are pretty impoverished political forms of organisation when compared to what are enemies are offering.

  10. July 7, 2010 9:26 am

    Speaking of organisation, solidarity and the enemy, I just had a look at Paul Croft’s blog, Views from an Independent Socialist, in which he outlined the kind of popular protests growing all over the world against neo-liberal solutions to the neo-liberal made crisis, in other words the shit we’re all in right now.

    The level and extent of protest is impressive and it emerges from the very communities, networks and alliances Jenny mentions. And, as I replied to Paul, it confirms my conviction that we have the makings of a world-wide, popular uprising. Okay, so it’s very diverse and impossible to define as a collective movement and that might be its ultimate virtue or its downfall. But at least it’s happening for now and stands as a vital corrective to the sophisticated media analysis, “Ah, sure we are where we are. We can’t do anything about it. These cuts are savage but there’s no alternative”. But as the French have shown us for a long time now, there is an alternative and it’s to say “Non!”.

    However, the major contradiction and weakness in socialist analyses of the current crisis is to attack the economic order that created the crisis yet expect that same order to fix it on a fair and equitable basis. As we can see now, that’s not going to happen. The only effective alternative would be anarchist revolution, a complete overthrow of the dominant world order. But somehow I don’t see that happening anytime soon either.

    In the UK at the moment, there’s a certain weary acceptance that things are tough and may get tougher but that we’ll batten down the hatches and get through. But if forecasts are right and we see thousands of lay offs in the public sector over the next year or so, it will be interesting to see the limits of good old British stiff upper lip. Hopefully, the British won’t be as passive as we Irish.

  11. July 7, 2010 9:40 am

    Just a wee correction to my last post. When I say ‘we Irish’, I’m thinking of the situation down south, where the government has embarked on IMF-inspired shock therapy some time before CleggCam Inc got its hands on the coffers at Westminster. Although there has been protest on the streets of Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland, about the economic wreckage left in the wake of the crash, the general population has wallowed in a sense of anger, desperation and powerlessness, lashing out at the masters of their destruction in media phone-ins and letters to the editor. But it’s all water off a fat duck’s back. I think this is worrying and dangerous because it’s the kind of destructive powerlessness that is ripe for home-grown fascism.

    Anyway, Rab, I won’t take up any more space here! I’ll develop this theme later, on my own blog.

  12. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    July 7, 2010 10:00 am

    The London Labour movement of the 1980s wasn’t a haven of comradeship in either its Labour or its CP sub divisions, as I can attest from personal memory of both.

    But it is true that, as with most young people then and now, quite a lot of after-meeting/ pre-meeting/sod-the-meeting-lets-just-stay-here-drinking type socialising went on between lefties of different stripes. ‘Tis the way of the young; I’m not sure people above 35 or those with kids did a lot of that sort of thing even back then.

    What was a bit different, I’d say, is that, especially under the GLC, a conscious attempt was made to bridge the cultural/political divide, an attempt which consciously drew on French and especially Italian experience. So we had lots of (multi) cultural festivals with a leftist tinge and even directly ‘political’ events like, say, the People’s March for Jobs, strove to surround themselves with a ‘cultural’ hinterland of events and fetes etc. So the ‘only partly-political’ people could attend without signing up to listening to all the speakers droning on. This was, IMHO, A Dammed Good Thing.

    This sort of thing still goes on, a bit, of course. It just feels dreadfully formulaic most of the time, in desperate need of updating as a format.

    AA: I think if Irish labour movement is pinning its’ hopes on the non passivity of the British, you may have a long wait. Eventually, of course, we may stage one or two good old fashioned set piece riots a la the Trafalgar Square Poll Tax events – after all ‘negotiation by riot’ is a unacknowledged key tradition of this country. But the other side have learned from those events as well.

    Actually, I recall they learned quite quickly in the 1980s as well. At the time I was living in Brixton. After the first set of Brixton riots in 1981 we got a spanking new state of the art recreation centre built for us as a bribe to stop rioting. After the second set of Brixton riots in 1985 they just built an extension to the police station, adding more cells….

  13. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    July 7, 2010 10:18 am

    Ahem, a clarification. I said:

    “So we had lots of (multi) cultural festivals with a leftist tinge and even directly ‘political’ events like, say, the People’s March for Jobs, strove to surround themselves with a ‘cultural’ hinterland of events and fetes etc. So the ‘only partly-political’ people could attend without signing up to listening to all the speakers droning on. This was, IMHO, A Dammed Good Thing.”

    I fully accept that it is possible that those people who didn’t like the Hank Wangford Band – who seemed to play ever single one of these events – might disagree…

  14. Rabelais permalink*
    July 7, 2010 11:22 am

    Ulster says Non! That has a ring to it I like.

    Paul Crofts is a good bloke – Independent Socialist Councillor in Wellingborough, Northampton (it had it’s own Digger colony, don’t you know) and a can-do kinda guy. I’ll check out his blog later.

    And I look forward to your comments over on Academic Anonymous. See you there later.

    Hank Wangford is still with us. The bio on his home page starts:

    ‘If Daniel O’Donnell is the brightly scrubbed face of British country music then Hank Wangford is its guilty conscience, its dark and troubled grubby soul.’

    Now, I like the sound of him… except, of course, (and I hate to be pedantic) isn’t Daniel O’Donnell Irish. Don’t get me wrong, Britain is welcome to him…

  15. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    July 7, 2010 12:07 pm

    Blimey, the things you learn from Wikipedia once someone stimulates you to look

    1. Hank was really a doctor called Samuel Hutt (I knew this, everyone did at the time)

    2. His Wiki entry claims he is the son of Allen Hutt, lifelong communist, former editor of ‘The Journalist’ and author of ‘Post War History of the Working Class ‘. (I’m inclined to believe this, even tho’ its on Wiki: coming from a CP family would make sense of all that hanging around at lefty events lovingly taking the piss out of being too po-faced political…)

    3. Jake Burn’s (of Stiff Little Fingers) Dad was a fan – so there you go, there’s your Irish connection. No need to drag Mr. O’Donnell across the sea. You can keep him.

    4. But my favourite bit from the Wiki entry goes:
    “The 1984 Edinburgh Festival Fringe saw the Hank and the Wangfords achieve fame (if not fortune) with their show being nominated for the Perrier Award. Fringe Sunday also saw the importation to Edinburgh of the sport of cow-pat flinging. Unfortunately, this required hard cow-pats as an essential part of the process. BBC Radio 1 DJ Andy Kershaw had to put out an appeal for cow-pats[4] which later had to be dried in a microwave oven for them to work successfully”

    The past, eh? It’s a different country….

  16. Rabelais permalink*
    July 7, 2010 1:09 pm

    From the BBC:

    Shops and business in Belfast city centre will again open during the Twelfth of July parade.

    Last year was the first time in a generation businesses had opened.

    Orangefest and Belfast City Centre Management have been working on the initiative in partnership with the Police and other organisations.

    Shops will open at 1230 BST when the parade has passed through the city centre and will close again at 1630 BST an hour before the parade returns.
    Councillor William Humphrey said the decision would “enhance the family-friendly atmosphere”.

    “The County Grand Lodge of Belfast and Orangefest have been working for several years to enhance the family friendly atmosphere to the Twelfth and this has been extremely successful. The colour, pageantry and music of the Twelfth is enjoyed by tens of thousands of people.

    “Last year we went into partnership with all the relevant organisations to ensure that shops and businesses could open for a period on the Twelfth.

    “It was a fantastic success. Once people had enjoyed the parade they were able to visit local shops or restaurants for a few hours before the return parade.”

    So there you have it comrades: ‘family friendly’ because the shops are open. The shops close, it’s a sicken display of sectarianism.

    Full story here:

  17. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    July 7, 2010 2:40 pm

    But Rab,
    Risible as the idea of ‘Orangefest’ is, what hope is there of such sectarianism simply vanishing overnight?

    Do you think they wouldn’t still march and sing The Sash if, somehow, the island was unified overnight?

    Surely the best hope of people of our generation – or even of our children’s generation – can hope for is that, bit by slow bit, the new ‘family friendly’ Organgefest, and its open shops, detoxifies itself to the level of offensiveness which equates to, say, the Lewes Bonfire

    From afar I’d say there’s still a very long way to go to even that modest objective, but you live there and I don’t so I wouldn’t want to presume too much.

  18. Rabelais permalink*
    July 7, 2010 4:03 pm

    I hate to sound like a miserable old git but shopping is not an antidote to sectarianism. I have few problems with Orangeism’s sometimes plebeian form but I am not reconciled to its politics. Just because the traders of Belfast can boast that it’s business as usual this twelfth, does not bring me any comfort. But more than this the notion that the solution to all Northern Ireland’s political maladies lie in opening the place up to the norms and procedures of the global free market, I fear, is a poor foundation upon which to build a sustainable political settlement. But I can’t see that there is very much more to ‘peace and reconciliation’ here than that.

    Now that the shine has come of the neo-liberal project – which make no mistake underpinned the ‘peace dividend’ – and once the cuts begin to bite, I think we’ll find that the dreary steeples can withstand more than the cataclysm of war. They’ll see off economic catastrophe also.

    Oh! And apparently it’s the Reverend Hank Wangford these days.

  19. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    July 7, 2010 6:01 pm

    Yeah, you live in a kind of ‘cold shoulder’ consociationalist statelet.

    The Orange Order and its allied institutions provide the sociological (as opposed to directly political) muscles and sinews of that cold shoulder to their neighbours, I’ve no doubt of that.

    &, yup, the basic post-GFA answer to that problem has been to throw money at it in myriads of ways, some plainly ridiculous (</a), others more defensible like urban regeneration – well, more defensible in principle, if not always in practice. & the hope has always been that, perhaps, just perhaps, eventually, enough money thrown at the problem for long enough might make it – well, not go away as such, but slowly release its poison. (Hence my use of the word 'detoxify' in my previous post).

    Norn Iron really hasn’t, yet, been opened up to a norms of a ‘global free market’. You may have posher shops but you have never been through the dislocation that was Thatcherism. Or you only went through half of it might be a better way of putting it, with the destruction of the former manufacturing base: you were spared the decimation of the old ‘corporatist’ welfare state. Norn Iron has a very large public and voluntary sector compared to Britain – much of it, in reality, funded as a kind of semi-disguised ‘peace dividend’.

    But now there’s no money left to throw at the problem. Or so that nice Mr.Osborne says anyway. & he’s got such a nice way with him I can’t imagine anyone not believing him, can you?

    So I don’t know what’s suppose to happen now, and cold shoulders may turn to hot words may, yet, turn again to hot deeds, who knows?

    But it ain’t the shopping which is keeping those folks wearing sashes out of the warm embrace of the labour tradition is it?

  20. July 8, 2010 3:54 pm

    Back to ‘networks, alliances, coalitions’ – give me them over ‘families’ any day! Their advantage is that they are more inclusive, the disadvantage is that people can walk away from them more easily. If there is to be a popular uprising against neoliberalism, it needs (i) to involve a lot of people who wouldn’t normally get involved in politics and (ii) needs not to alienate others. That’s about presenting a convincing critique and alternative (ideology) in a way that doesn’t make people think you are totally bonkers. The problem with the Labour Left in the 1980s was that we never got over that hurdle. And yes, there were a lot of factions and arguments, but I still enjoyed being part of it. True that it was mainly younger people though.

    And absolutely right that the money is about to run out in NI and what will we do then? I wonder if I’m being ridiculously optimistic in thinking it might prompt a unified protest movement.

    Will check out Paul Crofts.

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