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Our subject for the day is culture. I found myself musing on this a little after listening to Talk Back on Radio Ulster, but I’ll come to that in a second. Close observers of the North will be aware that Big Ian has nominated Edwin Poots, leader of Lisburn council, to be minister of culture in the new Executive. That would be the same Lisburn council that made a big stink about allowing the civic reception room to be used for civil partnerships as well as straight weddings, so there’s perhaps an indication of how likely the new minister is to smile on sponsorship for Gay Pride this year. Shadowing him will be the chair of the Assembly culture committee, Sinn Féin Nua’s Barry McElduff, a loyal and articulate Gerryite apparatchik who has never shown much indication of being well versed in the arts.
Maybe these two will surprise us, but I have a sneaking feeling that local columnist Newton Emerson is onto something. Newt has been having a bit of a chortle about how the minister’s reports to the committee will be the modern equivalent of the Socratic dialogues. Which reminds me of a story that’s nearly too good to be true but actually did happen. Right at the start of the Troubles the RUC carried out a raid on the Falls Road, and one of the incriminating items they seized was a copy of Plato’s Republic. This on the grounds that they had been ordered to confiscate any republican literature they found.
On Monday Dunseith did a feature on the future of the Long Kesh site, and proposals to put up an H-Block museum. The Provos’ Paul Butler went on and fulminated on behalf of the museum proposal, while Jeffrey Boy Donaldson fulminated for the DUP on how this would glorify terrorism.
Tuesday saw a variation on this theme, when Drew Nelson of the Orange Order popped up to demand an apology from Gerry Adams for the torching of Orange halls in rural areas. That is, Grizzly should personally apologise to the Orange Order for every hall burning in the past 30 years. Bro Nelson was on shaky ground and he knew it, starting out with the accusation that the Provos had done the burnings as a matter of policy, then retreating to the proposition that Provo agitation against Orange marches had created the atmosphere that made the burnings possible. One thing he absolutely wouldn’t entertain was the idea that the Orange might have borne some responsibility for the hostility towards them from Catholics. Nonetheless, Bro Nelson was determined to get his apology from Grizzly. PSF Assembly member John O’Dowd was brought on to argue against Nelson, and did so quite trenchantly.
This seems to be the pattern now. There was a lot of hot air during the election campaign about socio-economic issues coming to the fore. Actually, there is next to no difference between the parties on socio-economic issues – or there appears to be very little, as none of the four big parties has taken issue with the Programme for Government, or even seen fit to demand its publication. Instead we get furious arguments about the above issues, or the Acht Gaeilge, or how many days of the year the Union Jack gets flown above government buildings.
For unionism, this is par for the course. Unionists have long been famed for their inability to let a minor symbolic issue pass them by. To take one recent example, in Ballymena the borough’s lone PSF councillor Monica Digney failed to stand when the mayor entered the council chamber. The prudent DUP group then decided to spend ratepayers’ money on a judicial review to determine whether councillors were legally obliged to stand on the mayor’s entrance.
When it comes to the Provos, I am slightly more cynical. Many of their demands, for example around the Irish language, are entirely supportable in and of themselves, and I’m not questioning for a moment the sincerity of people who are seriously involved around those campaigns. But I have a nagging feeling that a stepping up of the sound and fury around cultural issues serves the very useful purpose of covering their lack of radicalism elsewhere. When the big issues aren’t controversial, one tends to find controversy springing up over what in other times would count as smaller issues.