Belfast Telegraph

Paramilitaries score an own goal by replacing George Best mural with gunman

The UVF's absurd comparison with Martin Luther King is the latest in a long line of mawkish self-mythologising, writes Henry McDonald

By Henry McDonald

Here is a brief, potted history of some of the most notorious own goals in modern history. In 1888, the Football League recorded its very first own goal, when Aston Villa's Gershom Cox scored for rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers.

In 1967 Gary Sprake, the Leeds United goalkeeper, scored an own goal in his team's clash with Liverpool, while trying in vain to throw the ball to his defender.

In 1994, Andres Escobar scored an own goal that helped send Colombia out of the World Cup finals in the United States. (Ten days later, Escobar was dead; murdered on his return to Bogota.)

And then, in September 2013, George Best is given the Red Hand card – and is dismissed from a wall in the Sydenham area by the east Belfast battalion of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Escobar is widely believed to have been shot for his mistake on the field; the killing an act of spiteful revenge, possibly by football-obsessed drug cartels.

The UVF's own goal in the east has led to them proverbially shooting off another foot.

With the final removal of the mural in homage to Best and its substitution with a masked gunman we are – surely – in the realm of you-couldn't-make-it-up territory.

In terms of political-PR own goals, the erasing of Best for yet more menacing, militaristic UVF street art is up there in the post-ceasefire era with the picketing of Holy Cross Primary School and the triggering of the 2000 UDA-UVF feud, which many on the Shankill Road will tell you did more damage to the morale of the loyalist heartland than countless IRA bombs.

If any evidence was needed to illustrate how far detached this particular loyalist unit has become from the hopes and aspirations of their own community, the Best mural controversy is a paradigm case.

It also provides an illuminating insight into the perverse psychology of paramilitarism, with its fixations on wannabe-martyrdom, military bombast as well as a pompous sense of self-importance. What has displaced Best is, in fact, a perfect example of what the Czech writer and exile Milan Kundera coined 'totalitarian kitsch'.

The ridiculous, mawkish coupling of an armed and masked thug with the words of a peacemaker like Martin Luther King Jr points to a severe lack of irony in the brains behind this act of moral vandalism.

For Kundera, the deployment of kitsch in communist Czechoslovakia (1948-1989) was in the full service of a regime without any moral legitimacy, especially after the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

Instead, the post-1968 communist leadership bathed itself in kitsch projects and language, from kissing babies to organising world cultural festivals, where the theme of children-as-our-future was central to everything.

For homegrown paramilitaries, mawkish murals and commemorations provide the chance to re-write history and alter reality.

So, the spraying of betting shops with sub-machine-gun fire and the close-quarter of killings of taxi drivers by 'combatants' firing into the back of a victim's head from the back seat are repackaged in kitsch fashion as some kind of continuation of the sacrifices of the Somme, or even the journey of Black Americans towards freedom and equality.

In mainstream republicanism, kitsch equals mawkish quotes mined from the Bobby Sands archive, promising us a future based on "the laughter of our children" as revenge – somehow – for what went before (no matter how ethereal and intangible the phrase might sound).

This irony-deficient mentality – think of the children who never got to laugh much thanks to being caught up in car-bombs, or having gunmen shoot wildly through their front doors – leads down absurd alleys where, for instance, bathetic Irish-Americans raise money for 'the cause' by selling hunger strike plates and spoons.

The gunman who substituted Best (a flawed icon but one who never hid his failings, as well as his genius, behind any mask) has a specific target in his gunsights: the up-and-coming generation. Those whose lives were mainly spent in the Troubles will not buy into the kitsch fantasy he embodies.

They were too touched by reality.

But his impact may yet mark younger people coming up through a malestrom of flag and marching-related violence; those who can be manipulated into thinking that he is on a morally equivalent plane than the man quoted beside him are the masked man's quarry.

On the other side of the line, schoolchildren are being fed the fiction that the Provisional IRA's armed campaign from 1969-1997 was somehow the logical extension of the civil rights movement; that shooting school bus drivers and blowing up pubs was a necessary step towards parity of esteem and respect for culture, rather than a failed experiment in destroying an entire state.

The only antidote to this is for historical truth to prevail and for irony to be preserved in public discourse across Northern Ireland. The purveyors of totalitarian kitsch in Kundera's native land ultimately failed because a few distinct voices cried out, often in an ironic tone, just as the boy who spotted the emperor had no clothes.


Henry McDonald is co-author (with Jim Cusack) of UVF - The Endgame

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