Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O’Hanlon: At the root of the row over a loyalist band marching through City Hall is a poisonous form of identity politics which is racing through the civic bloodstream like a virus

The Govan Protestant Boys band marches through Belfast City Hall
The Govan Protestant Boys band marches through Belfast City Hall
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Some say Brexit needs to be sorted out quickly, so that politicians can get back to dealing with ordinary, everyday issues.

Brexit needs to be sorted out for any number of reasons, not least because the whole country is going to go doolally if it isn’t, all presuming that hasn’t happened already; but those urging a return to normality appear to have forgotten what ordinary, everyday issues look like in Northern Ireland.

The video of a loyalist band marching through Belfast City Hall over the weekend is a dispiriting reminder of what used to make the news before everybody became obsessed with the thorny question of how to get a few trays of eggs through customs without sparking an international diplomatic incident.

The Govan Protestant Boys were there to attend a centenary dinner for the George Telford Memorial Loyal Orange Lodge in Clifton Street.

At some point, for reasons best known to themselves, they decided to whip out their flutes and break into a rendition of The Sash, for all the world as if they were on the terraces at Ibrox for an Old Firm derby, rather than guests in a supposedly dignified public space.

Naturally, the spectacle was filmed and posted on social media, like the recent video of the couple singing a UVF anthem at their wedding.

Nothing remains secret for long in the age of the smartphone. An almighty row promptly, predictably, ensued.

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This is what Winston Churchill meant when he talked about “the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging again” as the metaphorical waters of the Great War drained away to reveal a whole new landscape in Europe.

Nobody with an ounce of wit should need to be reminded that there’s a time and place to play Derry’s Walls and a public building in Belfast, which is supposed to be for everyone in the city, regardless of religious, or political, affiliation, isn’t one of them.

City Hall is a neutral venue. The application form for the use of function rooms makes it perfectly clear that permission will not be granted if events “have as their primary purpose the advancement of any political, or religious, cause, or campaign, or are otherwise potentially contentious.” It couldn’t be clearer.

Most groups manage to abide by the letter and spirit of the rules. That includes the dinner held a while ago as part of the ninth International Symposium on Testate Amoebae (it’s something to do with the conservation of peat uplands, apparently).

Next March, there’s also a drinks reception and awards ceremony pencilled in for doctors and nurses involved in organ transplantation.

All these events are held under the assumption that people attending them will know how to behave themselves. Most manage it without difficulty. It’s not hard.

Even if it was, tough. Catholic and nationalist members of staff at City Hall should no more be subjected to loyalist anthems in their place of work than Protestant and unionist members of staff should be forced to listen to a bunch of republican corner boys belting out The Men Behind The Wire.

The Govan Protestant Boys have simply made problems for loyalist groups who might want to avail of the facilities at the City Hall in future.

How do we know that they won’t, in an excess of high spirits, break into a rendition of another loyalist marching song, too?

The Govan Protestant Boys band marches through Belfast City Hall
The Govan Protestant Boys band marches through Belfast City Hall

It’s reminiscent of the “fleg” row which erupted a few years ago. Temperatures were raised. Eventually, a compromise was reached.

This is different. The compromise has already been reached at City Hall. Some people just choose to ignore it because they’d rather engage in sectarian triumphalism.

Brexit is partly to blame for raising tensions and the continuing suspension of Stormont doesn’t help. It goes deeper than that, though.

At the root of these culture wars is a particularly poisonous form of identity politics which is racing through the civic bloodstream like a virus.

Everyone is increasingly forced to identify with certain social, or ethnic, groups and then belligerently parade their opposition to anyone who’s even slightly different.

It’s men vs women. Leave vs Remain. Black vs white. Liberals vs conservatives. It keeps breaking down into ever smaller micro-battles within those groupings, too, so that the things which people have in common are being swamped by what divides them.

As society fragments into these ever-smaller and purer identity groups, they became more stubborn and set in their attitudes. Conflict is inevitable.

It’s not just happening here, but Northern Ireland has a particular susceptibility to this madness, thanks to its history and the presence of plenty of people ready to exploit those divisions for mischief, or attention.

Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson praised the Govan Protestant Boys for “proudly marching through City Hall expressing our culture”. People who say such things are not stupid. Well, some are, but not all of them.

They must know that it’s an unsustainable position to hold, because it leaves them with no credible argument when the other side does the same; but they say it anyway, because it jacks up the stakes in the culture war in which they’re engaged.

The tactic works best by fostering a sense of victimhood in certain groups. The American lawyer and writer Amy Chua wrote a book called Political Tribes, in which she explores some of what this new politics of division rather than unity is doing to her own country.

“When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism,” she says. “When groups feel mistreated and disrespected, they close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, more us-versus-them.” That’s Northern Ireland in a nutshell.

It’s possible to talk about these issues in the abstract, but it’s actually shocking to see it in the raw. The video of the flute band in City Hall has to be seen to be believed.

There, in elegant and ornate Victorian surroundings, drums are beaten and cymbals clashed with fierce abandon, before band members erupt into aggressive chants.

It’s nothing new. Bands have done the same while passing Catholic churches in the past. It’s still shocking to witness it in such a setting.

This is behaviour more suited to an illicit drinking den than Belfast’s main civic building, but it’s to this base level that the culture wars eventually reduce everyone.

It’s identity and music and tradition used, not to bring people together, but as weapons against one’s enemies, real or imagined.

This form of cultural supremacy may come, ultimately, from insecurity, but those who engage in it, whichever side they’re on, can’t be allowed to hide behind a collective identity to avoid awkward questions about their personal behaviour.

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