Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: The truth about the ‘Simply The Best’ wedding video and the pro-IRA chants at Oktoberfest in Londonderry is that they’re different sides of the same coin

If those involved in both incidents don’t look at one another and see their own reflections staring back at them, then something is very wrong, says Eilis O’Hanlon

A wedding at the Loughshore Hotel in Carrickfergus where the married couple sang f**k the Pope and the IRA to Tina Turners 'Simply the best'.
A wedding at the Loughshore Hotel in Carrickfergus where the married couple sang f**k the Pope and the IRA to Tina Turners 'Simply the best'.
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

The running joke in Give My Head Peace is that Catholics and Protestants aren’t as different as they like to imagine. Each stereotypes the other as bigoted, intransigent, unreasonable. Their own faults are barely noticed, let alone acknowledged.

The reaction to the viral video of a wedding in Carrickfergus, in which bride and groom enter the room singing “f*** the Pope and the IRA”, provides another example. It could be a scene from the BBC Northern Ireland sitcom itself.

Why anyone would belt out such a belligerent ditty at an occasion which is meant to be happy, especially in front of children, is a mystery. That’s still no excuse for the torrent of abuse which the couple received online.

The couple have now deleted their social media accounts, which is probably wise. Best just sit tight until the fuss dies down.

Certainly, no one has a monopoly on offensive, or insensitive, behaviour, as the video of pro-IRA chants during a concert at Oktoberfest in Derry’s Guildhall over the weekend shows.

Rousing rebel songs are very much part of nationalist culture. After the hunger strikers’ march in Strabane in August, at which Martina Anderson MEP whipped up the crowd by yelling “tiocfaidh ar la”, there was a concert by the band the Irish Brigade in the town.

The Wolfe Tones have also been entertaining republican-minded music fans since the early 1960s. Both bands specialise in sentimental ballads about IRA men who “gave their lives” for Ireland — though, sadly, not before taking plenty of innocent ones. They’re ideal for the end of an evening in the pub when everyone’s had too much to drink and gets mawkish.

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There are scores of such songs on Spotify, including the charming My Little Armalite by the Irish Brigade. Roll of Honour by the same band, which celebrates the hunger strikers, made the top 40 in the UK a few years ago after it was banned in Scottish football grounds.

Back then, Gregory Campbell called for it to be banned from the airwaves, saying that it was the same as celebrating al Qaida. Was he right?

When the children were small, we had a CD of Irish rebel songs in the car and often drove along with Come Out Ye Black And Tans or The Broad Black Brimmer Of The IRA blaring out of the speakers.

Due to a mishearing by our young daughter, the words “tell them how the IRA made you run like hell away” quickly became “tell them how the IRA made you run like Helen’s Bay”, which is how we sing the line to this day.

There was not the slightest sympathy for the actual IRA in that car and the children appear to all intents and purposes to have grown up without succumbing to sectarianism.

Singing rebel songs, ironically or not, would still have been hard to justify to anyone whose life had been tragically impacted by the Provos, however much the repugnant attitudes in the lyrics are sprinkled with romantic hokum.

Loyalist songs tend to bypass nuance and subtlety completely and head straight for the sectarian uplands. “The Famine is over, why don’t you go home?” goes one beloved of Rangers fans.

Sometimes, they don’t bother writing original music at all, just add words to an existing tune, such as Tina Turner’s Simply The Best, as sung by that now famous couple at their wedding, which salutes the UVF: “So listen, fenians, you won’t get control. The Red Hand of Ulster will never be sold.”

Are they bigots for singing sectarian songs? Or are their nationalist critics the bigots for only condemning Protestants when they’ve all probably done the same thing at some point in their lives?

There are no easy answers. Alongside anthems eulogising the UVF and IRA, YouTube also carries plenty of rap songs which glorify violence against women or the police. They come with warnings, but they’re not banned.

At the recent Mercury Music Awards, one performer even shouted “f*** Boris Johnson” and held up a mock severed head of the Prime Minister. It couldn’t have been more provocative, but, while he got some flak, no one said the venue should have intervened to shut down the event.

Perhaps a period of self-examination by both sides in Northern Ireland is in order, because nobody would surely be comfortable if people were proudly singing in such a crude and derogatory fashion about black or gay people.

The question that needs answered is whether loyalist and republican anthems belong in that category. My own inclination is that they don’t, but openly confess that I’m struggling to explain the difference.

Saying “f*** the IRA” is certainly not sectarian. It’s the bit about the Pope that tips it over the edge, even if many of those brought up as Catholics might agree with the sentiment.

Wondering where to draw that line sends everyone down the proverbial rabbit hole, where it becomes impossible to explain why unionist politicians condemned the man on a GAA bus, who was filmed recently referring to Orange bandswomen as “f***ing huns”, but stay silent about the wedding video. Our view of sectarianism still seems to be coloured by whether it’s ourselves or themuns who are indulging in it.

Scotland’s Lord Justice Clerk was asked in 2015 to rule on whether the ban on Celtic fans singing pro-IRA songs at football grounds breached their human rights. His conclusion was that there was “no blanket ban on singing sectarian songs and the appellants are at liberty to indulge their desire to do so at many alternative venues”. It was only in public that the words could cause offence.

That seems a sensible compromise and revellers attending Oktoberfest, with its mixed audience, would have done well to remember it.

Like the GAA bus, the wedding in Carrickfergus was in a private place, which only became public because it was filmed and later uploaded to the internet. Catholic members of staff at the hotel would understandably have been dismayed, but it’s hard to police private behaviour which, however offensive, does not break any laws.

All the same, if those involved in both incidents don’t look at one another and see their own reflections staring back at them, then something is very wrong.

In a previously unheard interview aired last year, David Ervine, late leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, identified the problem. “We can live as close together as 50 metres apart and, if the trajectory is good, we can hit each other and, if our voices are loud, we can hear each other,” he said. “But we don’t know each other.”

The songs are a symptom of that divide, rather than the cause.

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