1990s >> 1999 >> no-1142-october-1999

The Trouble With Culture

The buzz word in Northern Ireland now is “culture” or—its Sinn Fein synonym—”parity of esteem”. Used in conjunction with Protestant or Catholic, directly or in one of their many substitute forms, it masks bigotry and intransigence.

Back in the early 1970s I used to have to telephone a work contact fairly frequently in London. My contact was a typical Londoner, blissfully unaware of such vital matters as the Orange Order and such significant events as the Twelfth of July. It was possible for such ignorance to prevail in those days. As we discussed some unfinished matter he suggested that he would phone me the following Tuesday for further information. I told him the office would be closed then and, thinking he was missing something, he inquired, “Why?” “The Glorious Twelfth!” I replied, alluding to the fact that the 12th and 13th of July are national holidays in Northern Ireland.

He was interested, convinced now that he was being cheated: “The Glorious Twelfth! You mean the start of the Shooting Season? That’s not till August!” I explained that the shooting season was a fairly continuous process here and, to his further enquiries, I explained that the “Twelfth” was in commemoration of the battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Nineteen-sixty!” he exclaimed, displaying an appalling sense of history, “and what the fuck has nineteen-sixty got to do with now?

In the years since, I recall that conversation as my wife and I, like all other civilised people who can get away, set out on our annual July pilgrimage from the Mecca of Orangeism. Whatever 1690 meant for most of the small population of Ireland then, it has proved a bad year for succeeding generations, irrespective of their religion or, indeed, their politics.

The mad month of July
What’s it got to do with now? Every year its anniversary brings bitterness, anger and trouble of one sort or another. Friend and foe accept the sobriquet, “the mad month” for July. Catholics, from among that endangered species of Catholics and Protestants who live together as neighbours in working class areas, frequently affirm that their neighbours stop speaking to them for a month from the 1st of July.

The Orange Order itself is made up largely of members of the working class who are Protestants. In the past it was officered first by the landed aristocracy and large farmers and later by the industrial bosses and their senior hirelings. Now, since what the Order has to offer the ruling class, in terms of bigotry and political divisiveness, is superfluous to the political requirements of capitalism, the extravagant titles of Worshipful Masters and Grand Masters is an additional sop to the working class membership.

If you substitute religion for race or patriotism—and all are ignorance-based fictions that be-devil the human race—then the Order bears a striking resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan. Like the KKK the Orange Order are Biblically Christian based. Again, like the KKK, the Order can find Biblical quotations within the hotchpotch of Bible contradictions to justify naked hatred benignly presented as genuine love. Orangeism, insofar as it contains a philosophy beyond aggressive primitive anti-Catholic godism, is a blatantly right-wing doctrine that has historically rendered invaluable service to landlordism and, subsequently, to local capitalism.

In July 1999 it hung like a sword of Damocles over the head of Trimble and those other Unionist leaders who have been forced to realise that, unless an accommodation is achieved with nationalists and republicans, the future of Northern Ireland as a separate political entity will be gravely endangered.

Of course the Orange Order and those non-Trimble and anti-Trimble unionists with which it has made common ground, are perfectly right. Trimble, in signing up to what has become known as the Good Friday Agreement, has sold out on traditional Unionism. Similarly, the political lunatics of the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, waiting in the wings for a resumption of the death or glory days, are right: within the terms of the Agreement, the Provisional IRA and its political front, Sinn Fein, have also sold out.

In fact the negotiations that led up to the Good Friday Agreement were a concentrated process of auctioning off opposing principles by the contending parties for as much as they could get in return in the form of political kudos. What each has lost is the baggage of history; what each has gained is a snout in the power trough and an opportunity to draw Northern Ireland into the political realities of the 20th century.

The Unionists and Republicans who have remained opposed to the Good Friday Agreement want to stay true to their principles and what each calls its culture. There is no virtue, however, in such absurd loyalty; in essence, it is the retention of the opposing cultures that are sustained on the anger and bitterness that plants the bomb, pulls the trigger and creates lifestyles within ghettos of the most squalid ignorance.

The Orange Order, the most dominant element of the anti-Trimble camp—despite Trimble himself being an Orangeman—demonstrates this intransigent resolve to stay in the past. Every year the Order organises over three thousand parades in a season of some four months. Many of these are within Protestant enclaves but many are aggressively-staged marches on main roads that offer offence to some on ideological grounds and to others because they appear to be organised in such a way as to cause maximum disruption and inconvenience.

The zealots add a new dimension to the peculiar oddities of worshipping their God who, according to the Orange Order, is considerably mollified by the sight of men marching under banners to the sound of raucous music, with drawn swords and halberds and a piece of orange bunting around their necks. This God is a Protestant fundamentalist, circa 1690, who is not displeased by the insult or abuse offered by his worshippers to their neighbours.

Though Republican “culture”, despite Sinn Fein and its armed wing, the IRA, being sectarian organisations, is not overtly anti-Protestant, its disgusting orgies of flag waving and absurd patriotic posturings in Catholic areas is equal to that of the Orange Order in giving the maximum offence to Protestants and, especially, to those Protestants who are Orangemen.

Opposing capitalist interests
Ulster Unionism was the political expression of the interests of a small minority of very wealthy and influential local capitalists who, in the early part of the present century, felt threatened by the burgeoning pressure of Sinn Fein. This organisation, which inherited the popular mantle of Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party, affirmed it to be “the first duty of the Irish nation to accord protection” to its nascent capitalist class—which Sinn Fein defined as Irish manufacturers in contradistinction to “English and other foreign capitalists”.

“Home Rule”, as aspired to by Irish constitutional nationalists and, initially, by Sinn Fein—prepared at its inception in 1905 to accept the British “King, Lords and Commons for Ireland”—was the political articulation of an emerging, southern capitalist class which was, incidentally, mainly Catholic. Weak and inefficient, its urgent political need was a native government that could legislate protective measures that would discriminate in its favour.

Needless-to-say, this aspiration offered a direct threat to the well-entrenched capitalists of north-east Ulster—who were, again incidentally, Protestants. The economic basis for conflict was laid and the protagonists on both sides would trawl the sewers of history in their promotion of opposing bigotries.

Neither Orange bigotry nor Irish nationalism (ultimately just another form of bigotry) were born out of this conflict but, aided by the wealth of the capitalists they served and the still-virulent post-Reformation hatreds within Christianity, both strains of evil cast a long shadow over the politics of the two states that emerged from the conflict.

The opposing bigotries that now represent politics in Northern Ireland are a meaningless left-over from the past, the traditions, as Marx says, of the dead generations that weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

The reality of the Northern Ireland political scene today is that, despite a publicly-expressed desire for peace, and a more reluctant desire for reconciliation—if that is what is needed to concretise peace—the Trimble Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Fein remain prisoners of the past. Trimble is threatened by his dissidents and the Orange Order vociferously protesting about threats to their “birthright” and their “culture”; convinced that the clock of history can be reverted to the glory days of Unionist absolutism.

Similarly, Sinn Fein has those erstwhile comrades who claim the Provisionals are reneging on their principles and abandoning their Republican culture. The SDLP, too, has its problems; if it moves to accommodate Trimble it becomes electorally threatened by a more politically vigorous and now respectable Sinn Fein.

The day of decision as to whether the opposing parties can agree to co-operate in the government of Northern Ireland gets nearer but the question of whether the area is governed by a coalition of local politicians or remains directly controlled by the Westminster government will have little effect on the caprice of capitalism. The idea, fostered by the SDLP leader, John Hume and hotly promoted by local business, that foreign capitalists are lining up to pour investment into the province if the peace process proceeds is pure fiction. Certainly a peaceful environment is within the criteria required by marauding international capital but it is but one ingredient in the profit equation.

Experience should have shown us, both from local and outside examples, that under capitalism peace does not automatically mean prosperity. But the absence of killing, maiming and intimidation can bring an improvement to the quality of working class life in Northern Ireland and, especially, it can help the victims of capitalism to focus on the real cause of their problems.


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