Learning to love Godless communists and pimping the past: that’s the game
Last week saw the visit of senior Chinese politician Liu Yandong to Northern Ireland. She was fawned over by local politicians who previously would have denounced her as a Godless communist. The ecstatic reception, they’ll say, was worth it because she announced that China was committed to Northern Ireland, which I presume means that it’ll throw some much need money and work this way.
China’s human rights abuses are well known and one wonders how this sits in the conscience of Northern Ireland’s politicians who once campaigned in the name of civil rights, or civil and religious liberty.
Of course, it’s not the first or only ‘special relationship’ that the ‘new’ Northern Ireland has sought to forge on the global stage. The other isn’t any more dignified. The U.S. played a key role in the peace process, but while it was extolling and supporting peace and reconciliation here, it was exporting war and strife elsewhere.
However, the Chinese delegation weren’t the only show in town last week. Another high-profile event was the centenary commemorations for the sinking of Titanic – a maritime disaster from 100 years ago, turned into a splendid marketing opportunity for Belfast. (Well, if we can’t exploit a human tragedy for shameless commercial purposes then all those poor people will have died for nothing!)
The legacy of the ship is a potentially lucrative heritage industry in Northern Ireland. So to coincide with the the commemorations came the opening of the Titanic Visitor’s Centre in Belfast – ‘the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience’ the web-site boasts. I haven’t seen it yet but for some reason I imagine The Poseidon Adventure presented in Disneyland.
If disregarding human rights and making a buck out of disaster makes you queasy, then, calm yourself, for this is Northern Ireland’s ‘peace dividend’: the pay-off for ending the ‘Troubles’.
The peace process was never just about bringing political antagonists to the negotiating table and establishing a political accord between them. It was also about incorporating Northern Ireland within the global free-market after years of subvention from the British exchequer. It was about making Northern Ireland fit for business.
But while many had to be dragged kicking and screaming towards a settlement, most sleepwalked into the dirty world of global capitalism. We fretted and argued over cross-border bodies and prisoner releases, but we never once queried the new economic order we were being ushered into. And now here we are, begging from the Chinese, trading in tragedy and hoping for a walk-on part in Game of Thrones.
In today’s Irish Times (19 April 2012), David Adams highlights China’s human rights record and argues that Northern Ireland should have nothing to do with the Chinese government. He writes: ‘I realise Northern Ireland’s political leaders must try to attract foreign investment. But surely to God, whatever our needs, there has to be a limit to who we’re prepared to deal with.’
I sympathise with Adams, but the truth is this: there are no limits to the people you’ll strike a deal with during the reign of the global free-market. There is no political integrity or moral compass to refer to. You make allies for economically and politically expedient reasons and then turn around and bomb them into the Stone-Age when the relationship serves no further purpose. That’s the game.
When the U.S. slips from the world’s pole position all those wall murals recalling Irish-America and the descendants of Ulster folk who became presidents will be economically redundant. Instead gable walls will remember the opening of the first Chinese take-away in ‘our town’ and the ‘historic’ links established on that momentous occasion. Festivals and celebrations of Chinese culture will spring up and take root as the tumbleweeds are allowed to blow through the Ulster American Folk Park as it falls into disuse. Do you doubt that Northern Ireland is capable of such crassness?
Depressingly there is little space in Northern Ireland to consider how we might do things differently. We’re small and we’re insignificant, and we’ll go along with whatever the bigger kids in the play ground are doing. We’ll snuggle up to the ‘free’ U.S. and ‘communist’ China, and deny the contradiction. Meanwhile, we’ll sanitize and pimp our history for wealthy tourists.
But I don’t want to despair. I’m sure I’m not the only person in Northern Ireland who finds the hypocrisy, the deceit, the denial and relativism sickening. And I know that there are people beyond Northern Ireland who feel the same. But, locally, we need spaces to forge a politics that can speak truth to power. A politics that is outward looking and internationalist; that isn’t communal and mired in anachronistic nationalist antagonisms. Neither should it accept the the imperial assumptions of globalisation that treat us all like quaint natives.
Crucially it has to be a politics that doesn’t assume that capitalism is immutable; or that the markets exist beyond the realms of human intervention and agency – like God or the weather. It has to be a politics that looks to democratise rather than privatise.
I rarely hear these arguments in the mainstream media or espoused by the established political parties and I certainly never, ever hear them in the context of the ‘wee six’. Would it be too much to ask for a journal, a conference, a meeting place, a forum, a party, an alternative…?