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


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.”

There was for instance, in west Belfast not a mural quite, but a painted billboard that explicitly attacked the SDLP, Sinn Féin’s main rival for nationalist votes, which is fair enough, you might say – this is politics – but you would hope that such attacks would come with a right of reply in the same medium. The SDLP currently accounts for 13.5 per cent of the vote in West Belfast. It actually gained a seat from Sinn Féin in the 2011 Belfast City Council election. In other words, while it is not the political force it once was, the SDLP is not without its supporters. If all voices carried equal weight then might you not expect, say, one mural in every 10 to reflect a more social democratic point of view?

Gunmen and George Best
As for the east of the city, the current most conspicuous muralists are the UVF, whose members number a few hundred and whose closest aligned political party currently holds two of the 711 contestable seats across council, Assembly, Westminster and European elections. It hardly seems a mandate for painting yet more gunmen over a mural of George Best.

By the way, what I would love to see, given it is now being filmed in our midst, its cast practically a community – with as many members, from what I have seen of it, as the UVF – are some Game of Thrones-related murals: “You Are Now Entering the Free Cities”; “No Starks Here”; and not forgetting of course (for the re-imaging stage) Greyjoy cultural icons.

This would have to be a two-way process. We would give them wall space and they would give us two places on the writing team. Shortly after which we could expect the appearance in the script of a special envoy, who, an episode or two later, would broker a seven-way powersharing deal. Westeros would rise to number eight on the Condé-Nast list of weekend-break destinations, even allowing for tension around a few emotive dates, the Red Wedding anniversary chief among them.

It would be a lot less dramatic, but in being transformed from a series to a process it would never, ever end.

Mutual respect
Back in the real world (sic) of Orange civi-rights camps and concerned residents groups and pop-up peace lines, our own process, with its checks and safeguards, its language of mutual respect, though again proceeding from laudable intentions, has – between the periodic bouts of negotiations – encouraged in the Two Communities a particular form of active complacency, if that is not an oxymoron, whereby it sometimes seems as much energy is expended on vigilance against criticism or perceived slight as on genuine self-reflection.

I still like the critic Edna Longley’s line from back around the time of the Belfast Agreement that a bit more parity of disesteem would not have gone amiss.

Never mind the season’s finale talks marathons, stretching yourself should always mean more than reaching out to “the other side”.

I can’t help thinking, for instance, that one of the greatest institutions in our city, 225 years old last year, was founded as the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge. Out of this Linen Hall Library, as it came to be known, grew the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, through whose efforts the city’s first museum was built, by public subscription, 183 years ago. That museum became in time the Old Museum, which became the Old Museum Arts Centre, or OMAC, whose DNA is present in our own, recently-opened Metropolitan Arts Centre (aka the Mac) on St Anne’s Square.

There is implicit in the names of both those original societies a desire for self- (dare I say communal-?) improvement. And before anyone cries “privileged elite”, a contemporary described the Linen Hall’s founders as “worthy plebeians” or “sans-culottes”, for which it’s hard to think of an equivalent in today’s idiom, although “ordinary working people” comes close.

What, you wonder, will be the legacies of our own era? What are we doing, or bringing into being, today that will benefit the citizens of 2238? Do we want to better ourselves or just to feel better about ourselves?

And when will we learn that it doesn’t have to have “community” in front of it to benefit the community? (Thinking of libraries, didn’t “public” used to serve us all very well?)

But still the creep of community grows: the night before the Artworks seminar, Radio Ulster’s evening news carried an item about hands-free phones in which the presenter referred to the “driving community”. We do that here: bulk out our sentences, make adjectives out of nouns, make community the ever-present thing itself . . . and I write that as someone who has expended a lot of ink in the past trying to refute the Two Communities model by arguing for recognition of the many other communities that exist – the Traveller community, the gay and lesbian community, the Polish community, the Chinese community, the Manchester United supporting community, the anybody but United community, the community of those who want to tear their hair out when they have to fill in the box on the census that asks them what their perceived community is.

Enough already. Less ink, less bulk: we need greater precision. We need to keep testing the language to ensure it is right for the moment in which we find ourselves.

I spent a part of last semester as writer in residence at St Mike’s College at the University of Toronto, and a part of it catching up with family in Canada. Over Thanksgiving weekend I helped my uncle and my cousin’s husband change a set of car brakes, or rather I stood in the presence – and occasionally, I am sure, irritatingly, right in the light – of my uncle and my cousin’s husband while they changed the brakes.

My uncle, working-class Belfast by birth, was a park warden in Ontario until he retired. My cousin’s husband is an English lecturer – an English lecturer, he would be quick to add, from Regina in Saskatchewan, where, he said people took pride in being able to fix things themselves.

My uncle’s garage was as baffling to me as five aisles of B&Q, without the product descriptions, but it was my cousin’s husband who brought most of the tools required for this task, along with handwritten instructions.

Before I make this sound like an episode of The Waltons, I should add that when things got particularly tricky they had recourse to two iPads and a mobile phone, which my cousin’s husband used to phone his father – in Regina – the man by whom the handwritten instructions had been dictated.

Between them they jacked up the car, removed the lugs from the wheel, lifted the wheel off, took out the bolts holding the brake calliper in place, separated the calliper into its two constituent parts, one of which they attached by bungee rope to the undercarriage while they removed the brake pads and finally the brake rotor.

Knowing how to look
I could go on at great length. I could go on, as my uncle and my cousin’s husband went on, for three hours. What I did for those three hours, apart from talk, was marvel (I was reminded of a passage in Don DeLillo’s Underworld in which an old priest tells the young central character apropos the parts of a shoe: “you didn’t see the thing because you don’t know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don’t know the names . . .”); talked, marvelled, and occasionally passed a wire brush.

Part of the talk I maintained, indeed, was about all those wonderful lost job titles that you find in old censuses and street directories, of which I was sure Wire-Brush-Passer must be one.

That same weekend, as it happens, Paul McCartney was talking to Miranda Sawyer in the Observer about a track on his new album called On My Way to Work:

“The specific work I was thinking of was my first job, as a second man on a lorry. The second man helps the driver unload when you get to the destination; the driver is the first man . . . So, that was one of my jobs. I was also a coil winder in a factory.”

The world has changed too completely for those trades and minutely demarcated job titles of Paul McCartney’s youth to return. This part of the world has changed beyond all rhe better – if not, yet, the best – since the authors of the 1969 Act attempted to regulate and improve relations between people here, but in the same way that euphemisms can in time become more offensive than the words they are intended to shield us from, so I think it is time we threw off the veils of our once protective communities, became nouns again if you like, personal pronouns, even, and saw if there wasn’t a more enabling way for us all to reconnect. There are enough dirty political words here, let’s take the C-word back, keep that for the very best.

Crazy world
Louis MacNeice wrote what ought to be adopted as Northern Ireland’s national lyric – as opposed to anthem – Snow: “World is suddener than we fancy it. World is crazier and” – these are the words at which we should all get to our feet and link hands – “more of it than we think incorrigibly plural.”

Around the time that I received the invitation to speak at the Artworks seminar – the Monday after that business with the brakes, to be exact – I happened to be reading another of his poems, the book-length Autumn Journal, written in 1938, published in 1939. Come to think of it, it might have been because I was reading Autumn Journal at that moment that I said yes, for which, I appreciate, you might never find it in you to forgive Louis MacNeice. But in canto XII of the poem – the Journal’s virtual midpoint – he writes:

All that I would like is to be human,

having a share
In a civilized, articulate and

Community where the mind is given

its due
But the body not mistrusted.

To which I would add only: who wouldn’t want to live in that community?

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