Silly rules and regulations are just a sign of the times
This has always been a place with too many rules. Just this week, I had another reminder that the old spirit of ‘thou shalt not' still prevails.
I'd gone to the Ulster Museum to take a look at this year's Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) exhibition. As usual, the good, the indifferent, the twee and the plain dreadful were crushed in together, cheek-by-jowl.
But apart from the extraordinary range of art, the thing that jumped out at me about this show was the number of large ‘please do not touch' signs. One installation, which resembled a deconstructed shower curtain, even had two ‘don't touch' signs attached to it.
I know that it's important to protect delicate sculptures, but by making such heavy weather of it you patronise visitors. They feel they are implicitly accused of being ham-fisted yokels who don't know how to behave in a gallery.
These signs also distract badly from the visitor's encounter with the artwork itself. It's hard to engage when you've got a bossy sign cluttering up your field of vision. When I've visited art galleries across Europe I've never come across this level of curatorial control-freakery.
But it's not really about the art. It's about the culture behind it. The whole country is groaning under the weight of rules and regulations, many of them arbitrary and pointless.
You notice it, in particular, when you return from abroad. As soon as you enter the terminal building at Belfast International, you encounter a thicket of official signs telling you what you must and must not do, where to stand, where not to stand.
Northern Ireland: the spiritual home of the bossy municipal official. You do expect a certain amount of cattle-herding at airports — it's the nature of modern air travel — but it's telling that we outdo them all when it comes to petty officiousness.
Rules, rules and more rules are the lifeblood of local councils. Even where you can see the sense of them, there's something spirit-sapping about being surrounded by so many.
Take Belfast City Council's ban on public drinking. Fair enough, I don't want to be tripping over a horizontal tramp reeking of Buckfast when I take my dog for a walk in Botanic Gardens.
But does that also mean I can't have a glass of Prosecco as part of a picnic on a sunny afternoon in the park? That's the trouble with an excess of rigid regulations: everyone is treated with suspicion and there's no room for flexibility.
Maybe I should just take the route of the Buckfast drinkers and tip my fizzy wine into an innocent-looking Coke bottle. Afterwards, I could lurch into the RUA show and fiddle with the sculptures.
But it's Stormont, of course, that's the mothership of bureaucracy. There legislation moves at the pace of a geriatric snail.
Instead of acting collectively, decisively, and with the urgency appropriate to our current state of economic crisis, members regularly indulge themselves with endless discussions about the most obscure topics.
On one occasion earlier this year, there was a lengthy exchange about the merits or otherwise of docking dogs' tails. The question was raised whether, when wagging their tails, dogs were at risk of banging this sensitive part of their anatomy on walls or other hard surfaces.
Time for compulsory tail-guards for all Ulster dogs, perhaps, with a £50 fine for non-compliance? You know, I wouldn't be entirely surprised.
It's inevitable that the wheels of democracy turn slowly, but some evidence that they are indeed in motion, however imperceptibly, would be welcome. Otherwise, the impression remains that they are up on blocks, quietly rusting away, until they eventually fall off.
We've been this way for so long that it's hard to imagine when, or how, we started being so desperately rules-bound. But I suspect that it is, at least in part, an inheritance of the straight-laced Calvinism of the Ulster Scots, an outworking of the rigorous, puritan work ethic that is suspicious of excess and likes to see everything trimmed, neat and under control.
Back at the RUA show, my frustration with the intrusive signage was compounded when I asked to see the gallery catalogue. (Most large-scale exhibitions have their own catalogues for visitors to browse.)
There wasn't one, an assistant informed me. I would have to pay £10 for a catalogue. But I just want to look up a couple of paintings, I protested.
Eventually, the assistant grudgingly relented, telling me I could look at a catalogue “for a moment”.
Rigid rules? Petty strictures? Welcome to Northern Ireland.