No offence to George Best, but Loyalists could be doing with a few more heroes

Opinion: Could the Protestant people of the North be a little uncomfortable with culture?

George Best with Swedish former Miss World Mary Stavin, publicising their fitness routine for lovers, “It Takes Two To Shape Up And Dance.”

George Best with Swedish former Miss World Mary Stavin, publicising their fitness routine for lovers, “It Takes Two To Shape Up And Dance.”


Relax. This column does have something to do with George Best. But it will not relate – or only fleetingly in this sentence – that enormously tedious, too-often-told anecdote that ends with the words: “Where did it all go wrong, George?” Our subject is the iconographic use of George Best and the difficulty of locating Northern Irish heroes acceptable to the loyalist “community”.

Depressing news from east Belfast triggers this conversation. Last week it emerged that a mural depicting the footballer had been replaced by the image of some loyalist gunman. Various councillors and community activists turned up to wring their hands at the media. Given the degree of violence during this summer’s marching season, the decision does indeed seem particularly regrettable.

Travel round Northern Ireland for a spell and you could deduce that Mr Best was the only famous person ever to emerge from that curious statelet. The more accessible of Belfast’s two airports (the one that’s not practically in bloody Donegal) is named for George. The usual tea towels and key fobs are available. On the anniversary of his death, Ulster Bank issued £5 million in commemorative notes. One could forgive the residents of Inverwood Court – location of the controversial Best palimpsest – for feeling a bit sick looking at the blasted man.

But what alternatives did these folk have?

Let’s not pretend that sectarianism is not at work here. George Best never came across as a particularly political man. I do remember, following a characteristically bibulous appearance on the Terry Wogan show, his remarking that he had always preferred Gloria Hunniford to Terry, but that could well have had more to do with Gloria being Northern Irish than with the religion of her birth. For the most part, he kept his mouth shut on the national question. Nonetheless, his Protestantism was never in doubt. There was no suggestion that any suspect papist energies would seep through the gable and infect blameless non-conformists within.

Higher culture
Now we come to another sensitive issue. It would be wrong to argue that the Protestant people of the northeast are exactly hostile to higher culture. But it could tentatively be suggested that the suspicion of pretension in those societies has done little to promote interest in avant garde dance, imagist poetry or the wilder corners of conceptual art.

Anecdotal reports of life in HM Prison Maze suggest that, while Republicans were studying for degrees in literature or learning the intricacies of common law, their enemies in neighbouring blocks were lifting weights and administering misspelled, improvised tattoos. Of course we should not draw conclusions about all loyalists from the behaviour of those in prison. But it has always seemed that a randomly selected nationalist is just that teeny tiny bit more likely to appreciate the arts than any randomly selected unionist.

Seamus Heaney
All of which is to clarify that, even if the much-missed Seamus Heaney had not come from a Catholic background, he would be unlikely to find himself on a gable in certain eastern corners of Belfast. More to the point, you are not likely to find Louis MacNeice or C S Lewis there either. When did they ever score with three Miss Worlds in the same evening?

No, if we’re not going to plaster hoodlums on the walls of housing estates, then it really has to be sports stars. Golf is too middle class. The admirable athlete Mary Peters, though deserving, is just a bit too nice to accommodate triumphalist gestures. The irascible, demanding, unmistakably Protestant Alex Higgins suits quite nicely. But snooker is still something of a fringe activity, is it not?

The sad fact is that only footballers satisfactorily meet the criteria for celebration on the triangular gap beneath loyalist roofs. And, with apologies to Danny Blanchflower, only George Best achieved supernova status.

It should be otherwise. It’s not as if the Northern Irish Prod is short of distinguished role models. Let’s rule out Van Morrison just to make him even more annoyed than he usually seems. Edward Carson and Ian Paisley don’t really appeal outside niche audiences. But Field Marshal Alan Brooke, a Fermanagh man, was one of Churchill’s ablest generals. Ruby Murray, the hugely popular singer and rhyming slang for “curry”, was raised in Belfast.

On my inclusive, fantasy gable I am, however, going to set aside space for a scientist. The brilliant John Stewart Bell, who devised the mind-expanding theorem that bears his name, is one nearly irresistible candidate. But the winner, after a photo finish, is declared to be the great astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell. She is a groundbreaker. Still very much with us, she can come and enjoy her lovely mural. No, it’ll never happen. But maybe we could name the other airport after her.

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