Three-way Sectarianism: only two colours.

By Willie Drennan

willie drennan

Ulster Scots / traditional musician

Editor of The Ulster Folk




Until we face up to the fact that sectarianism in Northern Ireland is three-way and not just two-way I don’t think there is any chance of moving beyond our sectarian divisions. The Orange and Green varieties are well documented but the third strand of bigotry doesn’t even have a colour: that’s because the media is part of this more sophisticated form of social division and they don’t want a colour.

Belfast is the focal point for all things sectarian in Northern   Ireland and all three strands flourish in our capital city where the arts and the media strive to maintain dominance in defence of the status quo. In most societies progressive journalists and practitioners of the arts challenge the abuses of power in government and are at the forefront of social change.  They form the type of alternative community that I would have felt part of while living in other countries. That’s not really happening here as someone at the top must have realised that if you can’t beat them [the artists] pretend to join them so that you can get them on board and control them.


Funding for the arts in Northern Ireland surely exceeds such funding in most other countries, if not all other countries, as all-Ireland, European and American funding has all donated in an attempt to compensate for The Troubles. Much of this has been constructive and has initiated positive projects but has come at a big price: artsy media types have realised that if you want a nice secure pensionable career you need to bow down, join the club and support the system. The end result is no voice for serious positive social reform, never mind voice of revolution. No, no mad ‘comic’ Russell Brand-type revolutionaries this side of the Irish Sea as yet.

There really is too much of a good thing going on here and too much to lose for those wrapped up all securely in the ‘system’: with its mastery of control over those subservient to it. The interconnectedness and the interdependence of government and all its related agencies, forums and quangos; university, media and the arts, is sophisticated: not fully understood by most and denied by those who participate. But as always there are the dissenters. The dissenters in this case are of course the Protestant/loyalist working class who like to take their culture on to the streets and upset the apple cart.


The arts community in Belfast have been doing an excellent job of making sure there is not a dissenter about the place: making sure they don’t get through the stage entrance of theatre until they’ve learned to conform. Their friends in the media have also done well to expose the sectarianism and bigotry of those that they would regard as under-class dissenters, but there is still the power of social media to contend with.

Social media and particularly Twitter, which offers an international soapbox for anyone to stand upon and preach, is the current global battlefield for combatants of ideology. It is possibly Northern Ireland’s greatest opportunity to create a new society of tolerance and mutual understanding: the greatest obstacle to the dominance of the status quo. This platform for the dissenting voice is indeed a serious threat to the status quo’s comfort zone and hence the grand entrance of politically driven parody and satire on social media’s centre-stage.

Parody and satire of the stand-up comic can be a very positive tool for change as it often brilliantly exposes the abuses of power of the ruling classes: even if I personally consider it a predictable art-form designed for those conditioned to laugh along in solidarity with the crowd. [I gave up on stand-up comedy when Barry’s in Portrush put the Laughing Sailor up from 3d to a tanner].


What seems to be currently happening in Northern   Ireland is that the colourless type of sectarian bigotry has developed an on-line masquerade ball and behind their masks of anonymity they attack those that they don’t agree with.  Some of them are masterful artists and when they expose abuse of power by elected politicians, and genuine cases of sectarianism, it all seems like fair play. But, when they regularly hurl ‘comic’ abuse at the cultural traditions and identity of a section of the working class: fixating on commentary from extreme elements associated with, but not representative of, that identity; they are in fact cementing sectarian division.

It is as if bigotry is all one sided. It is as if the exceptionally prolific marching band tradition doesn’t exist primarily as a rich art-form and unique cultural expression:  as opposed to its normal portrayal as simply being uniformed bigotry that’s primarily out to offend others.

Who are these masked comics? Who pays these professional artisans? What motivates their enthusiasm for vitriolic attack when they wake up every morning? Perhaps they feel they can embarrass those of Protestant working class backgrounds:  con them to jump ship; crawl aboard the status quo’s luxury liner, sell their soul and join the in-crowd?


Whoever they are, they and their bourgeois artsy media friends do merit their very own sectarian colour. Until that transpires we will not be able to have a meaningful debate on how we can come to terms with our complex colourful sectarianism.






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18 Responses to Three-way Sectarianism: only two colours.

  1. Willie, you need to name names. You can’t just launch a swedge without telling us what you’re talking about, and who. Because I agree with some of what you say and I don’t agree with some more, but I can’t be sure who or what it is you’re actually giving out about. Who are these powerful arts types who laugh at the culture of the working men? I ask because I’m an artist and I would be very sad if what I say and do we’re characterised in this way. So please, don’t hide behind generalities and vagueness, tell us more clearly what it is that riles you.

    • Name names? I would need to write a book. I tried to articulate that this is about the whole system and I’ve outlined who the various elements of the ‘system’ are. Naming individuals is irrelevant. Anyone who is totally dependent on public funding for their livelihood is part of that system.
      It is about the arts and culture of the Protestant /loyalist / Ulster Scots working class having no place in that system unless it conforms.
      As for the key-board satirists, they don’t use their names so I can’t name them. Using satire to ridicule the identity of others is a totally legitimate. art-form. But it is still a form of sectarianism.

  2. John Mooney says:

    Art should not be phoney.
    As Roy Walker used to say on “Catchphrase” ….”say what you see”.
    Does Art have some kinda responsibility in the Post Conflict World ?..I say No.
    Comedy has been mentioned but for those of us of a certain vintage, the current crop of comedians are not that different from James Young in the 1960s…Young was basically a liberal unionist figure who told us “wud ya stop the fighting” at the end of his show.
    Its not that much different from O’Kane, Murphy and McGarry on the “Blame Game” where the jokes must be balanced.
    That is Art by Order of the BBC.
    The great thing about the sarcasm directed at Orange Parades and broader culture is that it is completely unbalanced….it is honest Art and goes straight to the heart of the matter.
    Art has been less than honest in dealing with some absurdities here. Anyone else remember Mo Mowlam visiting Long Kesh to appease prisoners. It fell to the Guardian (not a local artist) to produce a cartoon that said it all. “More Tea Mr Mad Dog?”.
    Was it truthful or was it reconcilatory.
    The two dont always co-exist.
    There is for example you tube footage from the RTE Late Late Show where Fintan O’Toole has a discussion about this with the folk group “The Wolfe Tones” which specialises in “rebel songs”.
    A conference in March 2011 organised by the British-Irish Studies Institute….posed the question that artists had a duty to put out positive messages about Belfast.
    A full report on that Conference appears on my Blog “Keeping an Eye on the Czar of Russia” but was evident that over successive sessions …historians, poets, dramatists, novelists etc lined up to say with increasing degrees of horror….that Art is not to be compromised…even when paid for by public bodies such as the Arts Council.
    No Artists should sing, paint, write and rhyme what THEY see and what THEY believe.
    So should a Blogger.
    …John Mooney (Fitzjames Horse)

    • I agree with what you have said. Art should be truthful, but you don’t seem to address my main point. The truthful expression of local artists confirms to me that sectarianism and bigotry has three strands in Northern Ireland.

  3. I’m not getting it then. Are you saying that, for example, the Ulster Orchestra are part of the problem? One of the Arts Council’s bigger clients. Or the Ulster Scots Agency, who failed to get proper permissions for the public money they were spending? Are you talking about something specific, or just having a moan? Is this just about LAD? What about East Belfast Festival, that receives public funding. I think you’re just having a go at ‘things’ without really knowing much about them.

    • No, you’re not getting it. I’m speaking from a wealth of experience and making my comments after much consideration. All of the above that you mention clearly fit into the problem.
      Try this. Loyalist marching bands surely have the largest membership of any performing arts organisation in Northern Ireland. How many of their members do you know that are directly employed by BBC, Arts Council, Belfast Telegraph etc? How many of their members are in publicly paid positions as organisers of any of the major arts festivals/events in Belfast? Or how many even sit on the boards of publicly funded arts events -including the East Belfast Arts Festival that you mentioned?
      I’m trying to explain that we can’t exclude and ridicule the artistic expression of a huge part of our working-class and expect to tackle bigotry.
      You mention the Ulster Scots Agency.That’s a whole other story for another day.
      On a separate note Daniel, what type of art are you engaged in?

  4. IJP says:

    I can’t help but think this is a broader issue than art. I have suggested in the past that there are in fact three pillars in Northern Ireland society (thus opening up the potential for three-way bigotry). I’ll return to this subject…

  5. Gordon Ramsey says:

    Very perceptive article. The class sectarianism that pervades Queen’s, the mainstream media and the middle-class world of which they are a part is difficult to combat, precisely because it is sectarianism masquerading as tolerance. I expect you will get a lot of bafflement in response to this article – as the American socialist Upton Sinclair famously said, “its very hard to get someone to understand something when their salary depends upon them not understanding it”.

  6. Paddy Mullan says:

    You’re really saying something and not saying something at the same time. Unfortunately the marching culture does not do itself any favours. It maintains division by it’s continual association with loyalist paramilitarism and anti-catholicism. The loyalist culture now seems to just continually whinge about what it’s not getting in comparison to the other side who get everything. Change the record as everything it complains about is actual mythology like the awful music it subjects the rest of us to it is based on. When loyalism steps out of the No Surrender mindset it might start to be taken seriously.

  7. John Mooney says:

    The Centre Ground …the third tribe…can be as bigoted as the other two tribes and with a sense of Entitlement. If the Troubles began with votes counted on one bank of the River Foyle counting as more than the other side, it is not progress if 50,000 votes cast 25 miles from Belfast are more valid than another Tribe.
    If we got rid of University seats in 1969 and ridicule the Bishops Bench in the House of Lords so surely the third tribe cant demand that university dons and churchmen are given a say in politics.
    Surveys are conducted and it is claimed young people in East and West Belfast dont vote because they are disenfranchised. We call them an Underclass. Is it that much different from people …an Overclass…in South Belfast….joining political parties which only exist on paper…they disenfranchise themselves.
    Art….can that really be different?
    Is Art produced by moderates in some way “better” than Art produced by the more obvious bigots?
    Are Republican murals and Orange Bands less worthy of Subsidy than Proms in the Park?
    Should artists be licensed…as in Francos Spain and Stalins USSR?
    Or have we already gone too far and encouraged a writers group in the Bogside or a drama group in Gilnahirk that they have the same right to subsidy as professional writers and the professional theatre?
    No….if Art is to have any integrity….it cant be produced for a prevailing political narrative in Society.
    If The Political-Academic World has integrity, it will not try and influence what is produced.

  8. David Campton says:

    This analysis has much to commend it… The third strand of sectarianism, or class prejudice, is an important component of the problems here. In the past it was disguised because the middle/upper classes were uniformly unionist, though it never prevented their distaste for and manipulation of working class unionism, the precursor of modern loyalism. Part of the problem with addressing this now, however, is that any defense of loyalist culture, can be perceived as a defence of some of its indefensible excesses. There can be an aspect of inverse prejudice in this as well eg claiming that paramilitary murals and flag burning on bonfires is an integral part of loyalist culture and that the theatre never reflects loyalist life (turning a blind eye to the work of Gary Mitchell, David English etc perhaps because they don’t necessarily show loyalism in a positive light). The power brokers in any society, including the arts world, will rarely let the powerless in voluntarily, unless you confirm their own positions and prejudices. But the development of indigenous arts vehicles that celebrate excellence, eg Feile an phobail, East Belfast Arts festival can go a long way to changing the balance of cultural power.

    • Your points are constructive and I take them on board. I agree that loyalism, like all other cultures has “indefensible excesses” – such as the burning of other flags and symbols on bonfires, and perhaps I should have clarified that for the record.
      I also agree that festivals like Feile an Phobail and East Belfast Arts “celebrate excellence” and it would be inappropriate to hurl abuse at them. The ‘Twelfth’ however is by far the largest cultural festival, which is predominantly a Protestant working class affair, and it does seem appropriate to hurl serious abuse at that.
      I appreciate that many people despise the music and its political and religious connection and they have every right to express their views. We really do need to acknowledge this intolerance in our society however and have an honest, rational debate about it.

  9. Hugh Odling-Smee says:

    ‘In most societies progressive journalists and practitioners of the arts challenge the abuses of power in government and are at the forefront of social change’ – This is a massive assumption. Some journalists and artists in other societies will do this, but most won’t. Why would NI be different? I think there are issues with the relationships between power, patronage and artists in NI, but I think there are anywhere. (See the controversy, or lack of it, of BP’s sponsorship of The Tate).

    However I think this piece is really about LadFlag/Fleg, which is hardly a product of the subsidised arts sector, seems to have no direct political support, so I don’t think linking the two is relevant.

    Loyalism/Unionism/Protestantism has a rich theatrical heritage, and just because it has had difficult things to say about it’s own community, it shouldn’t be dismissed. Think of this artistic production. Brassneck Theatre Company, from West Belfast, produced Basra Boy by Belfast playwright Rosemary Jenkinson in Feile an Phobail and the East Belfast Arts Festival in 2012. It’s about a young flute band member whose best friend goes to fight in Iraq, and the effect that it has on him. It wasn’t a ‘celebration’ of loyalism, it was a three dimensional work of art, which explored ideas and challenged those who watched it. Isn’t that what art is?

    • My piece is not just about LadFleg, or I would have stated that that was the case. I do acknowledge that this is probably the most active and professional social media site for political parody and I therefore do wonder what the motivation is, and how this is financed. This remains however a small contributor to the overall mindset and therefore only one element of my overall point.
      I also agree that artistic expression should address the nasty aspects of any culture, including our own. I really do believe though that there is a serious imbalance and it’s not just ‘perception’.
      While some of this may be down to sheer intolerance and prejudice I would suspect that for many in the arts world it’s just about going with the flow of what is currently trendy.
      There is no easy solution to this imbalance, which I believe encourages the re-digging of old trenches, but an essential first first step would be to acknowledge the existence of imbalance.

  10. Roddy Cowie says:

    Sometimes I think our society is split as many ways as the Giant’s Causeway. Every pillar has reasons to look down on most of its neighbours, or to slate them for looking down on it. It can be a giddying experience walking out of a room where people think you’re one of a superior group because of your education, into a street where they despise you for obvious and utter lack of fashion sense, into a meeting where they despise you even more for being a member of a group which they are convinced looks down on them.
    Obviously class is part of that picture. So is involvement in the arts (theorists are calling that ‘cultural capital’). So is access (who you know). So is right of birth – as incomers like me well know. And on, and on.
    All credit to Willie Drennan for pushing the issue into view. I think it is worth trying to understand. But maybe the best response would be to practice catching ourselves on when we find ourselves looking for a reason to look down on another person or group. The only sure thing is that they’ll find a reason to retaliate in kind.
    And yes, I know that people who think they don’t look down on other people think that that makes them superior, and other people look down on them for that. But since I’m going to be looked down on anyway, I’d rather that is was for that reason than most.

  11. David Campton says:

    OOops wrote David English (a friend) earlier, when I meant David Ireland (the playwright)… major Freudian slip…

  12. Iain says:

    I think Willie has hit the nail on the Head. I am a member of a loyalist flute band, by that admission most of you will have already formulated a opinion of the sort of person I am. You don’t know, you don’t know my life and yet you have already pigeoned holed me. You don’t even know the history of the band I belong to, that doesn’t matter, I am part of a loyalist band end of discussion. How many of you are interested or even care that the band I belong to is one of the oldest bands in Ireland, being 130 odd years old, or since as wille has already stated, we get no support from the art council, we have to raise the 20+ grand ourselves to pay for our uniforms and instruments. Our flutes alone cost £400 a peice, if our reason for existence is solely to incite hatred, surly there are cheaper ways. We carry no paramilitary standards ( or standards that can be interpreted as paramilitary standards) we have shared stages with traditional irish music groups, irish dancer’s, been involved in a long term cross community project designed to improve relationships in the mixed community in Belfast we come from, but that doesn’t matter, we are a loyalist flute band end of discussion, and what of myself, I am a member of a loyalist flute band, only one sort of person joins a flute band, he must be sectarian ( actually I have been involved in cross community work for over 20 years) I must be a right wing bnp supporter ( actually I consider myself to be left of Centre, I hesitate to use the term socialist as to me its a very middle class, bourgeois term), I must be uneducated ( in fairness I did leave school without any qualifications, but then I am dyslexic, but have since been able to attain both a degree in politics and a post grad in youth and community work). Perhaps you think that I am the exception to the rule, I can assure you that im not, im not unique, band members come from all works of life and social background. I will say this, you can lampoon us, ridicule us, attacks us, it doesn’t matter, I am proud to be a member of a loyalist flute band, I am proud to walk the 12th and I will pass on that pride to my son

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