By 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.