Politics and art diverge in study of Northern identities

Belfast collective’s Turner Prize win comes amid row over report from commission on flags and culture

The Array Collective are announced as the winner of Turner Prize 2021 for an installation based on an illegal bar roofed with placards and surrounded by flagpoles. Photograph: PA

The Array Collective are announced as the winner of Turner Prize 2021 for an installation based on an illegal bar roofed with placards and surrounded by flagpoles. Photograph: PA

 

When in Lisa McGee’s brilliant TV series Derry Girls an earnest priest asks a group of teenagers corralled into a cross-community school encounter to name some of the things Protestants and Catholics have in common, the first suggestion comes from a boy who says, “Protestants are British and Catholics are Irish”. “That’s actually a difference,” says the priest. “Quite a big difference.” The perpetually vexed question of how northern identities are expressed was aired in several dramatically different ways last week.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Executive Office at Stormont published the 168-page report of a commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition (Fict). Hours later it was announced in Coventry that the Belfast-based artists collective Array had won the Turner Prize for an installation based on an illegal bar roofed with placards and surrounded by flagpoles.

The commission, chaired by Prof Dominic Bryan from Queen’s University, and including several members of the Order of the British Empire, was made up of seven politicians nominated by the main Northern parties and eight people appointed by public competition. Of its 15 members, 14 were men. It consulted widely.

Array consists of 11 artists, mostly women, all of equal status, drawn together by the fact that all are also activists for social change, and by the economic necessity of sharing resources and studio space. The commission was set up under the Stormont House Agreement of 2014 and had a strictly defined remit – the collective’s driving force is the belief that great movements need great visuals.

Challenges remain

The commission struggled diligently with its obdurate themes and has made some sensible suggestions. But the most contentious issues have ended up in a category called “where challenges remain”, meaning the commission, which relied on reaching consensus, was unable to agree to make recommendations. It respectfully proposes that others, including artists, take the work forward.

The Druithaib’s Ball installation is an illegal bar, an imagined haven for feminists, LGBTQ+ activists, anti-capitalists, anti-racists and other radicals – the people who take to the streets to protest that traditional versions of Northern Irishness are too narrow to represent the actual communities that live in the place. The artists speak of “discussing the heavy stuff playfully”. There’s a Síle na Gig that has marched many miles for abortion rights, a banner that mocks the infamous, “prepared for peace, ready for war” loyalist mural with the substituted words “prepared for peas – ready for sausage wars”, and another that simply instructs: “stop ruining everything”.

The other parties at Stormont have long complained that Sinn Féin and the DUP do not so much share power as carve it up between them. There is a bad tradition of horse trading. The Executive Office, despite having held back publication of the Fict report for two years, did not provide the action plan it had promised. Alliance party leader Naomi Long described this as “scandalous” and was one of the first to decry the spending of £800,000 (€938,000) on a report which would now be “orphaned”.

The SDLP said it was “a farce” which exposed the “dysfunction being driven to the heart of government by the DUP-Sinn Féin relationship”. The DUP’s Christopher Stalford accused Sinn Féin of attempting to “remove every trace of Britishness from Northern Ireland”. Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly retaliated, claiming the DUP had blocked implementation of the report because the party “doesn’t do equality and . . . is unwilling to confront the sectarianism”.

The DUP signalled a hardline approach when it nominated Nelson McCausland to the commission. The former minister is a traditionalist, a not an inch man, a no surrenderer. Some loyalists declared the commission an attack on their culture before it even started work. In truth, flags, murals and bonfires are overwhelmingly aspects of working-class unionist culture. The flags protests of 2012 marked the most significant flare up of loyalist rage in the last decade and there are ongoing disputes over paramilitary displays at bonfires. A couple of years ago I asked a leading UDA figure about an illegal Ulster Freedom Fighters flag at a bonfire site. “What flag?” he replied.

Republican areas are rarely festooned with flags now, except those small enclaves dominated by dissidents. There is more cultural confidence. However, there are other contentious practises: memorials to IRA men who died “on active service” are scattered all over the Border region in particular, where republicans murdered many Protestants during the conflict. There is the playground infamously named after an IRA hungerstriker in a mixed religion village. Unionists will not forget Bobby Storey’s huge lockdown funeral.

Mainstream politics

Memorials to people from all backgrounds are routinely vandalised. The academic Edna Longley has written about the malign practise of “remembering at”. The commission’s declared hope that its recommendations can hasten the day when these matters “are no longer contested and contentious, but become a means by which we foster, develop and embed respect” seems forlorn, as does its aspiration to a culture of “lawfulness”. But artists of all disciplines are among those outside of mainstream politics mining the energy that is palpable within the North’s communities for change, reconciliation and human rights.

Another related episode last Wednesday got less attention. It also involved the intersection of art and politics. A loyalist bandsman who had been fined for taking part in a “No surrender lockdown 2020” event had his conviction set aside after he argued that he had no reason to suspect that the march had not been authorised by the Parades Commission. Mark Officer told the court: “I’ve marched in thousands of parades and I have never asked if they are lawful or unlawful. I just lift my instrument and away I go.”

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