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