Don’t mention the C-word
The words ‘community’ and ‘communities’ appear 35 times in Richard Haass’s newly published paper on the past, parades and flags. It’s a word Northern Ireland can’t seem to escape
Peter Robinson, First Minister of Northern Ireland; John Hartnett, President, Irish Technology Leadership Group; and Martin McGuiness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, posing with the throne from the television series, Game of Thrones
Late last year I was asked by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Artworks initiative to address a seminar in Belfast’s Ulster Museum on the subject of community. I thought twice – actually three or four times – before saying yes.
My friend and fellow writer Colin Carberry went to a primary school whose yard wall formed part of the Springfield Road peace line. He had a very apt – very Belfast – word for everything that lay on the other side: Narnia. When it comes to community, however, the sensation is rather of having passed Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more, nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty (who sounds as though he has rung in to Radio Ulster’s Nolan), “which is to be master – that’s all.”
A short time before the Hamlyn invitation I had worked on a radio documentary about the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s attempts to “re-image” paramilitary murals, in the course of which I encountered the terms “community worker”, “community practitioner”, “community activist” and “community gatekeeper”.
I think I understand the various shades of meaning contained within them. I think most people in Northern Ireland do too. I think we turn a blind eye, or at best raise a sardonic eyebrow, to what in certain of these instances the word “community” connotes.
I have been ransacking my brain, and I think the first time I heard the word “community” – outside perhaps of the Monopoly board – was in the name Community Relations Commission (a forerunner of the present Community Relations Council), which was formed in the final months of 1969 by the Community Relations (Northern Ireland) Act.
I was eight, but the events of the previous summer had already made a news and current affairs veteran of me.
Employing one of my foremost writer’s skills – counting words – I can tell you that “community” appears 21 times in the text of that Act, fully 20 of them yoked to its partner “relations”, and even the one remaining usage, “harmonious relations throughout the community”, could be described as an instance of elegant variation, although it is worth dwelling for a moment on that particular phrase, “relations throughout the community”.
Compare that to a speech at the most recent British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, by the Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI, on changes in policing since the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Here again (I tell you, I could count words all day long), “community” occurs 21 times – more than any other word bar “policing” itself.
Actually, that is not strictly accurate: “community” appears 12 times; the plural – “communities” – entirely absent from the old Community Relations Act, appears nine times.
It is in the slippage from singular to plural that I think some of my problems with the C-word, or words, originate: “community” is a word of aggregation, “communities” is a word that rather than multiplying, as plurals ought, actually divides.
Again, I think I understand how this change occurred. In order to take the sectarian heat out of our conflict (another C-word in need of examination) the labels Catholic and Protestant were first diluted by the addition of “community” and then effaced almost completely as the Protestant and Catholic communities became just the Two Communities.
But as soon as the Two Communities model was established, the singular form itself was altered: it became the fragment rather than the thing greater than the sum of its parts.
The word has been pulled this way and that ever since, its every new appearance more surprising than the last.
The Protestant Community has recently been rebranded the Protestant Unionist Loyalist community or PUL, a giant golf umbrella of a term – the GutBuster Pro Series Gold 62-incher sounds about right – whose initials remind me, every time I see them, of nothing so much as PiL, Public Image Limited, the group that John Lydon formed when he quit the Sex Pistols and stopped being Rotten: “You never listened to a word that I said . . .”
Although that oft-repeated complaint – no one is listening to us – begs the question: how and through whom do communities speak?
I suspect I am not alone in Northern Ireland in never having found a political party here that I could vote for with enthusiasm or even one that I much liked. Only once, voting for the party I dislike least, have I ended up being in the majority. Mostly I tell myself that I have to vote to be numbered among those who did not choose the inevitable victor, as a reminder that it is incumbent on that victor to represent all of us, irrespective of where we put our Xs or our 1-2-3s.
While making that murals documentary I heard it said repeatedly that murals were not imposed on communities but came from them. Yet travelling around my city I was stuck by the fact that in each area they had a tendency to come from a particular angle. Community, it seems, talks big – often very, very big – but defines a whole lot smaller: not “All of us”, but “All of us who think like us.”