The routing (for the time being) of the St James’ hoods

This is by way of an update to our previous coverage of the hoods terrorising the St James’ area of west Belfast. I can inform readers at this point that the Sons of Anarchy have been scattered to the four winds. (Although not, I think, the Four Winds estate, which wouldn’t be prepared for that sort of thing.) After that humiliating affair of the jammed gun, the dissident ÓNH went back to the area in force and cleared the rats out. They also rather self-importantly informed residents they were giving them their area back. Quite how this will play out with local residents, who may be fearing that they’ve now exchanged one gang of hoods for another, remains to be seen.

This is something rather significant in terms of dissident politics, if there’s a shift away from harebrained bomb plots and towards populist vigilantism. The vigilante strain is most obvious with the existence of Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) in Derry, taking physical action against head shops and the like; there are also one or two areas where the INLA seem to have cornered the market in punishment beatings. Of course, it all depends which dissidents you’re talking about; there are about six or seven small armed groups running arounds, some of which are still deeply committed to harebrained bomb plots.

At any rate, for the moment the ÓNH seems to be the group with the wind in its sails, or at least the ability to actually do something. It’s said to have attracted some ex-Provos with a bit of ability. There’s a rumoured link-up with the arrestingly-named “Real Sinn Féin”, the Limerick-based group who split from RSF earlier this year after the failure of their coup attempt against the Dalton-Ó Brádaigh leadership. And the St James’ action has led to the texts page of the current Andersonstown News being full of messages lauding the ÓNH and contrasting them favourably to the Provos’ inability to deal with the den of criminality that west Belfast is rapidly becoming.

This of course poses something of a conundrum for the area’s uncrowned monarch, as Gerry has oscillated between issuing bad-tempered pronunciamentos about how the dissidents should butt out, to making statesmanlike gestures of offering to talk to them and explain the errors of their ways. Either way, Gerry may at this point be feeling as if he’s caught in that scene from Jason and the Argonauts where the zombie soldiers spring up from scattered dragons’ teeth. No sooner do you think you’ve seen the back of republicans, than they pop up somewhere else.

Also, there’s some of the usual sabre-rattling going on on the loyalist side. Andre Shoukri, former head honcho of the UDA in north Belfast, was released from chokey a little while ago and has been making noises about taking his territory back. In response, UDA pharoah Hard Bap was moved to publicise the names of Andre’s twelve-strong gang and advise Andre that, on reflection, he might like to take the ferry to Scotland, just as his mate Johnny had done before him. Ah, boys. Peace process or no, some folks still remain unreconstructed, and not in an endearing way.

When communalism meets the retail sector


In order to give this blog’s leftist readers a bit of a break from matters religious, I’d like to put forward a little industrial affairs conundrum for you to ponder. The question is, who is the bully and who the bullied?

So, last Friday the Asda store on Belfast’s Shore Road sacked one of its checkout workers, William Hunter, for apparently – the story is a bit garbled – telling a driver to play the Sash. It may have been off the cuff for all I know, but wisecracking about the venerable old loyalist song can be harmful to your employment, especially the north’s laws about providing a neutral working environment. The rules, by the way, are not there for no reason – in days of old, some Belfast City Council sites were so heavily festooned with Union Jacks, portraits of the Queen and Rangers FC paraphernalia that they more closely resembled Orange halls than cleaning depots. The story about the man who turned up to a job interview in an orange sash may be apocryphal, but it’s still very plausible.

So anyway, Mr Hunter gets the sack. There then follows four days of protests involving the store being picketed by up to 200 loyalists at any given time. Billy Hutchinson, the former loyalist killer turned politician turned community organiser in our local version of the Big Society, was at the forefront, and so energetic in denouncing Asda for their treatment of Mr Hunter that you would almost think there was an election coming up. Hutchie held forth about how Mr Hunter was a dead nice and well-liked man and not at all sectarian, which makes sense when you consider that Mr Hunter has previous that might cause Hutchie to have some empathy for him.

And so it was that on Tuesday Asda reinstated their errant worker after getting an expression of regret out of him. Presumably Asda’s corporate mind was concentrated by the possibility of an Orange/loyalist boycott.

So my question for the industrial relations experts out there is, who do you support in this scenario? Or do you walk briskly in the other direction with your hands in your pockets and whistling a merry tune? Just be sure you don’t whistle the Sash.

And while we’re on cultural symbolism, out in Tyrone the farmboys are giving the post boxes a makeover.

The Pup loses its bark

Dawn Purvis’ resignation as PUP leader – indeed, even resigning her membership of the party – is quite the bombshell. This of course follows the public execution of Red Hand Commando member Bobby Moffett on the Shankill Road in broad daylight last Friday, presumably by members of the UVF, and an outbreak of mass intimidation in the area that led the PUP to issue a statement saying that people should be able to attend Moffett’s funeral without fear of reprisal. When you think of it, that’s a pretty shocking statement for a political party to address to its supporters.

Dawn’s announcement is surprising and it’s unsurprising. It’s surprising in that, though it was well trailed that Dawn was fed up having to make statements explaining the actions of the UVF, the late David Ervine had pulled the resignation threat once too often. It went like this: the UVF would do something outrageous, Ervine would say that if it was proved the UVF was responsible then he would walk away, then some time later Ervine would announce that the outrageous action had not been sanctioned by the UVF leadership and therefore he wouldn’t need to walk away after all. Strangely, however many times he did this, the local media never called him out on it.

On the other hand, Dawn exemplified in her own person one of the biggest faultlines in the Pup. The main reason it continued to exist even in a small form was that it was conscious of the problem that afflicted the late and unlamented UDP – a party that was never really more than the UDA in suits, that the UDA couldn’t even persuade its own members to take seriously, and that fell prey to the divisions in its famously factionalised paramilitary parent group. The rather more cohesive and disciplined UVF leadership put some effort into their party, gifting it a populist programme to stand on, as well as consciously building up a party cadre outside the ranks of the UVF – starting with prisoners’ wives and extending outwards to other elements of the loyalist community sector. So at a PUP public meeting you would see plenty of scary-looking UVF men, but also lots of working-class women who were formidable in their own right. Hence the recurrent tension in the PUP between the straightforward paramilitary element and the community sector element, who had overlapping but not identical interests. Of course, this contradiction was itself the result of the UVF leadership’s outward push in the mid-1990s.

Thus Dawn, somebody rooted in and appealing to that sort of community group populism. And thus the rather bizarre situation of the UVF’s political wing being led by somebody claiming to be a socialist and feminist. Obviously, something had to give at some point, especially since the UVF includes within its ranks some folks who are evidently too dense to realise that, under the rules of the peace process, you can get away with having some guns not decommissioned, but actually using them is very bad form. And, when push came to shove, Dawn simply not having the street cred of someone like Ervine or Billy Hutchinson who could bang a few heads together.

Politically, it’s hard to see this meaning anything other than the end of the Pup. They have a few outposts in various places – Shughie Smyth remains a Shankill councillor, and you find them popping up in odd places like Kilcooley – but, as of the last Assembly election, Dawn’s vote in East Belfast, centred around the lower Newtownards Road, represented the overwhelming majority of the party’s tally. Indeed, not only did she surprise most observers by retaining David Ervine’s seat, she actually improved on his vote. Of her 3045 votes, how many were a straight vote for the UVF? The other PUP votes in 2007 – Andrew Park’s 410 in South Belfast and Elaine Martin’s 367 in North Down – should be sobering for those remaining in the Pup, even if they do manage to fill the leadership vacancy. As for Dawn, you wouldn’t want to lay too much money on her retaining her Stormont seat as an independent, although stranger things have happened lately in East Belfast. PUP voters, as a rule, hate the DUP with a vengeance and won’t be too impressed with a Tory-aligned UUP, so the net effect will be to see a layer of people who tend to be pretty apathetic anyway drifting back into abstention.

And so, this point in the long decline of the PUP sees the virtual end of a period when the paramilitaries could claim some sort of political voice. Let’s not of course sentimentalise a politics that was essentially incoherent populism resting on sectarian militias, and whose proclaimed leftism was very much subordinate to the tribal drums. Nonetheless, Dawn Purvis – one of the few women in a leadership role in local politics, the only unionist MLA to oppose the 11+ and one of only two Stormont MLAs (along with Alliance’s Anna Lo) to favour the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to the north – could claim to be a distinctive voice, and maybe loyalism’s best chance to develop some sort of vaguely working-class politics. That she couldn’t square the circle tells you something about the limitations of loyalism as a political entity.

For some context, check out Alan’s interview with Dawn from last year.

I can haz populist grandstanding?

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As our newly-installed finance minister, Sammy the Streaker is supposed to be the man holding the north’s purse strings. However, in a stunning display of béalbochtachas, Sammy has been doing the rounds of the media telling us that there’s no purse and only one string. Not that that’s prevented him striking populist poses.

His latest move is to announce that bonuses won’t be paid in the senior civil service this year. This sweeping gesture affects a grand total of £220 people, and is projected to save the public funds a grand total of (insert Dr Evil pose) one million pounds. The publicity this has generated for Sammy is cheap at the price – he’s even got a welcome from the NIPSA leadership, who with rose-tinted specs only see Sammy accepting their arguments against the bonus culture at the top. In any case, the senior civil service can console themselves with a 3.5% pay rise, while the office grunts still haven’t had an opening offer. Those guys would probably be happy to forgo a £50 non-consolidated bonus in exchange for a few quid on the scales, but in recent years governments have found it too convenient to use non-con bonuses and spine point progressions as a substitute for revalorising the scales. It may be that, while ditching bonuses at the top makes for cheap headlines, it would be too costly to ditch them at the lower grades.

Nor is there any sign of Sammy making any move on the grunts’ equal pay claim. You will recall that the then finance minister, Peter Robinson, committed to pay this just before he buggered off to assume the premiership. His successor, Nigel Dodds, kept saying that he was committed in principle to pay up, while setting in motion various procrastinating consultations and making dark noises about how he couldn’t really afford to settle unless the Brits agreed to pony up. Sammy is continuing with the dark noises. Actually, the money to settle the claim is there. What the Executive won’t say is that, while they can afford to pay the claim, they can’t afford to keep paying the grunts at a higher rate in coming years, especially with the likely knock-on effect once you get above the AA/AO grades. Hence the DUP’s zeal for reducing headcount, which however they still haven’t addressed in a thought-out way.

One possible problem, and this is something that Peter Robinson will be well aware of, is that the civil service is the second-largest employer in the north. Civil servants all have votes, and tend to use them. Their families also have votes. And lots and lots of them live in East Belfast, which could be a fascinating three-way fight between Robin Newton, Reg Empey and Naomi Long at the next election, with the TUV as the joker in the pack. It’s a bit of a dead stymie, and even the Stormont Executive can’t procrastinate forever.

On the other hand, attitudes are not nearly so parsimonious when it comes to the north’s biggest employer, the peace industry. I couldn’t help noticing Roy Garland’s column in today’s Irish News [subs required], arguing that, Conflict Transformation Initiative notwithstanding, not nearly enough money is flowing into loyalist areas. Roy wants the doubloons to flow freely, so that civic-minded loyalists can regenerate their areas.

You know, I’m getting kind of tired of saying this, and Roy Garland is an intelligent man who shouldn’t need to be told. Working-class Protestant areas in Belfast, Derry and elsewhere are in dire need of regeneration. You only have to walk down the Newtownards Road, which used to be a thriving commercial thoroughfare but is now nearly derelict, to know that’s the case. The fact that the regeneration isn’t really taking off, despite money being ploughed into those areas, surely calls into question the architecture of regeneration. To put it bluntly, if Taughmonagh is a hellhole, are you going to make it any less so by giving lots of money to Jackie McDonald?

I would suggest not. But then, the peace industry is virtually beyond criticism. And that’s a situation that does nobody much good, except those on the payroll.

Democratic Unionist party reptile

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There’s been a story doing the rounds the last week or so that David Cameron invited Jeremy Clarkson to advise him on transport policy. Now, I saw this in the Daily Star, so the relevant health warnings apply, but given Dave the Haircut’s love of celebs and his weakness for dopey populist stunts, it seems all too plausible. If we’re to believe this, Clarkson – who’s no fan of Dave’s green agenda – told the Tories to piss off, which at least reflects well on him.

Over here, of course, we don’t need Clarkson. We have Sammy Wilson, whose career this blog has covered in exhaustive detail. In days of old, Sammy used to be a sort of common-or-garden East Belfast spide, only distinguished from his DUP comrades by the occasional urge to get back to nature. More recently, though, Sammy’s been carving out a populist niche for himself, channelling Clarkson but also mixing in a big dollop of Richard Littlejohn and a tincture of Jim Davidson. And it seems to have worked for him – having gained notoriety as the environment minister who didn’t believe in global warming, he’s lately been promoted to finance. (His replacement at environment is Edwin Poots, who does believe in global warming, but doesn’t believe in evolution.) But now we have Sammy streaking back into the headlines with his thoughts on racism:

Earlier, Mr Wilson had said when there was “any attempt to have an honest debate” on the issue of immigration “the people involved in that were accused of being racist”.

He said racism charges coincided with appeals for money from some groups.

And again:

“What I had said was that first of all when there was any attempt to have an honest debate on the issue of immigration, immediately the people who were involved in that were accused of being racist.

“Secondly these charges of racism then were always coincided with the holding out of the hand for more money for the organisations which were dealing with the issue.

“From that point of view organisations like NICEM needed to keep raising this issue because that was one way of perpetuating their own existence.”

Patrick Yu of NICEM, who Mark Devenport was talking to, was not impressed, and frankly neither am I. As Patrick points out, when the police are saying that racist incidents are rising year on year, Sammy is giving the impression that the whole issue is a self-serving con job designed to raise funds for the “racism industry”, the same way the environmental movement invented global warming.

Sammy, of course, has form on this issue, and his ongoing spat with Patrick Yu dates from his call for “local people” to be given precedence in the jobs market, something that Sammy surely knows is extremely illegal under both British and EU law. But does Sammy, as the Greens’ Steven Agnew suggested with his “I offend therefore I am” quip, simply suffer from a form of political Tourette’s, like the red mist that descends over Iris Robinson whenever homosexuals are mentioned?

I don’t think so. Sammy knows the DUP base as well as anyone, and he knows that you really can’t be too reactionary. What with DUP voters’ disquiet at the New Dispensation at Stormont, and the threat of Jim Allister’s Prodiban insurgency, a bit of tub-thumping rhetoric can’t hurt Sammy’s re-election prospects in East Antrim. To take a small example, last Saturday saw Belfast’s annual Gay Pride parade, bringing a much-needed splash of colour to the city centre. As usual, we have had punters from what would be the DUP’s traditional base – this guy is a good example – wondering loudly why the Department for Culture, Arts and Leisure (whose minister is DUP member and born-again fundamentalist Nelson McCausland) was funding the sodomites’ street party. Nelson, I suppose, could have burbled on a bit about equality legislation and Section 75, but it doesn’t work nearly as well as Sammy popping up to give us his stream of consciousness.

There is, however, one aspect of what Sammy said that repays inspection. That is this contention:

Mr Wilson said the “anti-racism industry” brought in millions of pounds and employed “scores of people”.

“Of course they have to justify their existence and now and again I think they take an unfair shot at politicians and when they do they can’t expect people to remain silent,” he added.

Let’s leave aside the hint of self-pity at the end? Is there an enormous “racism industry” in the north? Patrick Yu doesn’t think so, arguing that three-quarters of ethnic minority groups are entirely voluntary. And Stormont MLA Anna Lo (Alliance, South Belfast) comments that “Few specifically anti-racism groups receive funding – most ethnic minority organisations are support agencies providing information and assistance to their own communities all year round but of course they need to speak up against racism when racist incidents occur, hurting people in their communities. It is irresponsible of Mr Wilson to say claims of racism coincided with appeals for money from some groups – this can undermine the role of these groups.”

It’s important to unpick this. There are the ethnic minority groups like NICEM or the Chinese Welfare Association, who mostly do work serving ethnic minorities and can’t really be described as campaigning anti-racism groups. They have been getting some money, and the flow has increased in the last couple of years, but it’s really quite small beer in terms of our funded community sector. There is also the Equality Commission, a large, powerful and well-funded quango that isn’t exactly bashful about pressing its divers agendas. But racism is only part of the Commission’s remit, and has to fight for space with sectarianism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia, being nasty to people in wheelchairs and whatever else the Commission is pursuing at the moment. And there is also the Anti-Racism Network, a small group of leftwing activists who’ve got a bit of media attention by regularly taking offence on behalf of ethnic minorities, but I hardly think Barbara Muldoon qualifies as an “industry”. I know Sammy draws heavily on the Daily Mail for his polemics, but Belfast is not London and we don’t have any anti-racist entrepreneurs of the Lee Jasper variety.

There is, of course, a strong argument for taking a hatchet to the north’s grantocracy. But, in picking (inaccurately) on ethnic minorities, Sammy is missing the elephant in the room – the north’s biggest employer, the peace industry. Now, the peace industry covers a lot of ground, and there are some good people there doing useful work, but an awful lot of it consists of republicans and loyalists who have been kept quiet by being put on the payroll. If you ever have to go to an economic regeneration meeting in Belfast, you’ll immediately notice that many of the people in the room are UDA men, and despite the fact that you know they’re UDA men, they invariably introduce themselves as representing some community development project that’s in urgent need of funding. It’s like the fucking Muppet Show sometimes.

Indeed, such is the influence of peace money that the splits in the UDA during the peace process have mostly been about money – in Johnny Adair’s case, we’re talking about control of criminal empires, but bribes like the Conflict Transformation Initiative have played their part too. One thinks back to 2006, when the South-East Antrim UDA seceded from the main group. Some observers presented this as being a split between the “good” mainstream UDA and a hardline faction wedded to the old ways, citing as evidence how the Shoukri brothers, on being run out of North Belfast, had been given asylum in Carrickfergus. But it soon became plain that Tommy Millions and his mates were looking to negotiate a conflict transformation subsidy of their own, while dispensing with Hard Bap’s mediation.

I suspect there’s something similar going on with the recent secession of the UDA’s North Antrim and Derry fiefdom. This was the occasion for a show of force by the Derry UDA a couple of weeks back, and it seems likely that the recent irruption of racism in Derry is connected. I am of course not privy to what the Mexican is thinking, but your best bet is that he’s looking to go into business for himself.

Yes, if you wanted to slash the grantocracy, there are plenty of obvious targets. In the grand scheme of things, the relatively small amount going to our ethnic communities does no harm. Since there’s all this money sloshing about the community sector, I don’t begrudge the Chinese and the Poles getting a little cash for translation services. Nor do I begrudge Patrick Yu doing what he does, advocating for vulnerable minorities. It’s the peace industry that is really asking for a bonfire of the grants. But such is our political system that the peace industry is not only untouchable, it’s virtually unmentionable. And attacking the vulnerable while ignoring the abuses of the powerful is, I’m afraid, par for the course for Sammy.

Doing it the old-fashioned way in North Antrim

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As everybody’s favourite festival draws to a close, there’s been the regular riot in Ardoyne. It’s at least a reminder that the New Dispensation has not magicked away all the old tensions. There’s also the regular question of just how long the Provos can continue to keep a lid on the Ardoyne youth. From the way Gerry Kelly was cussing out the dissident groups – and the idea that the riot was orchestrated by dissidents beggars belief – one might expect another ostentatious anti-dissident campaign. Worth watching the headlines in the Andytown News, then. I’ll just say that being praised by Nelson McCausland and Frankie Gallagher is not going to do Munster much good with the youth.

There’s also the heroic effort of the modernising faction in the Orange Order – and when we say Drew Nelson is a moderniser, it should be clear we’re talking about those willing to drag Orangeism kicking and screaming into the eighteenth century – there is the effort to rebrand the Twelfth as something more in keeping with the brave new society we’re supposed to be building, something that might appeal to tourists, or at the very least not have the broad masses doing a runner for Donegal in the second week of each July. Changing the name to “Orangefest” is just the start. There is supposed to less public drunkenness and less loutish behaviour from march followers and kick-the-Pope bands. The Eleventh Night is supposed to be marked by eco-friendly “beacons” instead of enormous bonfires made of pallets, tree branches and discarded furniture, and adorned with sectarian slogans; the lighting of the bonfires is tied to “family fun days” with face-painting and bouncy castles. There are not supposed to be paramilitary flags on display. There are even designated “flagship marches” to function as examples of Best Practice.

Sadly, Drew and his brethren are having a hard time of it. To a large extent, it’s an existential question – if the Orange Order isn’t defined by anti-Catholicism, what is it? How is it possible to have a Twelfth of July that isn’t sectarian? You don’t have to be a mad republican to ask this question – actually, many of those who would celebrate the Twelfth would recognise its validity. That’s why, despite financial inducements being offered for beacons, many loyalists prefer the traditional bonfires, and the bacchanalian celebrations attached to them.

It’s also the time of year for intimidation. As if it wasn’t enough to have many of our ethnic communities fleeing their homes in South Belfast, we then had the threat against those who remain. Scuttlebutt links the threat to the UYM, the UDA’s youth wing, which surely puts something of a question mark over Jackie McDonald’s new touchy-feely anti-racist UDA.

Anyway, it’s Catholics rather than ethnic minorities who are the bread-and-butter targets, and this year it’s North Antrim that’s looking particularly hairy. This, I think, has to do with demographic shift, or what North Belfast unionists like to call “encroachment”. By this we mean Catholics moving into previously solidly Protestant areas, something that sends lots of unionists, even the self-proclaimed moderates, into a frenzy. This political imperative is what lies behind the housing crisis in North Belfast, as Catholic estates are bursting at the seams while Protestant estates – into which no Catholic may move – are increasingly empty, in some cases to the point of being derelict.

It seems that something similar is going on in North Antrim. When I heard there had been an attack on a GAA hall in Ahoghill, I was amazed at the idea that there was a GAA hall in Ahoghill. These little villages – Ahoghill, Cullybackey, Dervock – were katholikenrein until quite recently, but the appearance of visible Catholics, bringing churches and GAA clubs with them… well, that’s the sort of thing that winds up your rural loyalist who’s used to living in a cosy Prods-only environment. And this is just the time of year when loyalist passions run high.

In the interests of balance, it must be said that the area has also witnessed a number of sectarian attacks by Catholics, notably in Dunloy and Rasharkin. But the dynamic is not the same. The semi-regular arson attacks on rural Orange halls have been going on for quite a number of years, and some Orangemen would have you believe they are all personally masterminded by Gerry Adams, but my take is that the culprits are young folks who might describe themselves as republicans, but are basically lumpen Celtic supporters acting under the influence of alcohol. The intimidation of Catholics in North Antrim villages where the Catholic presence is recent fits a different pattern, and is of a piece with the tensions in Crumlin, a town where demographic shift has been very rapid. When demographic shift happens in an area, one of two things happens: either the Catholics are driven out and the status quo ante is restored, or the Catholics establish themselves and the Prods start to move out, to East Belfast or North Down or similar areas where it’s all Prods as far as the eye can see.

So it doesn’t look good for the Orange modernisers. Not only are they in an institution famously resistant to modernisation, but the ugly realities of sectarianism will keep reasserting themselves. That they reassert themselves at this time of year is hardly a coincidence. And Orange and unionist leaders proclaiming “Nothing to do with us, honest guv,” is not going to butter many parsnips.

Paramilitary boss doesn’t want to be confused with racist spides

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I nearly fell off my chair whilst reading the Irish News this morning. The front page splashed on these comments from UDA emperor Jackie McDonald:

A leading loyalist last night blamed far right BNP and Combat 18 supporters for a spate of attacks on Romanian families who have been forced to flee their homes in Belfast.

UDA leader Jackie McDonald, who denied that loyalist paramilitaries were connected to violence against Romanians living in the south of the city, said he believed the attackers came from outside the area.

Well, the question there is which area. They came from outside the university area, yeah. But it’s accepted by most people that they came from the Village, an area where Jackie has some influence.

And he warned the BNP against trying to recruit young men in loyalist areas of south Belfast amid reports that the right-wing group was planning to stage a rally in the Sandy Row area this weekend.

McDonald, who has offered to support the Romanians, said the attacks had to be “condemned outright”.

“There can be no justification for it but there is no way the UDA was involved and it is dangerous to attach these attacks to loyalist paramilitary groups,” he said.

It seems that what is exercising Hard Bap is the possibility that the UDA’s good name might be besmirched by commentators linking it with the BNP. Which sort of says something about Nick Griffin’s push for respectability.

Inside the paper is Newton Emerson’s column, much of which is a dig at the Socialist Party, although it’s a relatively good-natured dig. But what I wanted to quote was Newt’s opening:

It is difficult to know how anyone can be a British patriot and a Nazi, given how British patriotism is defined by the defeat of the Nazis. It is particularly difficult to know how anyone can be a south Belfast loyalist and a Nazi, given the loyalist propensity for decking south Belfast in Israeli flags. But however grotesque, stupid and violent the cause or effect, you can guarantee that some people will try to exploit it.

UPRG spokesman Frankie Gallagher, for example, reckons neo-Nazis would not be attacking Roma families if he was properly funded to take youth groups to Poland. Yes, Frankie wants to take the Nazis into Poland. Will they be packing their Israeli flags for that?

Ah yes, the wonders of the UDA’s political thought. I’m sure some conflict resolution money could be found for this valuable work…

Jings an’ crivvens!

There’s a mural in Derry bearing the likenesses of Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa, which I must say is a little hard on poor old MLK. But the big news is that, Mount Rushmore style, another saintly figure has had his face added to the mural. Yes, it’s St John Hume. Many of John’s comrades in the SDLP might raise an eyebrow at the thought of John as a living saint, but trying to battle the irresistible force of Derry civic boosterism might have taxed King Canute.

What’s more interesting in the world of murals is what the Prods have been up to. There are a few optimistic souls who reckon that loyalist areas of Belfast could be made attractive for tourists. One of the things that’s stood in their way has been the fact that much of loyalist Belfast is adorned with murals of balaclava-wearing gunmen. All right, some of the renderings are so inept that the gunmen look more like the Black and White Minstrels, but you get the drift. Anyway, there’s been a bit of a drive underway, backed by the grantocracy, to replace paramilitary-themed murals with murals depicting Protestant culture.

I don’t know, Protestant culture. I hope this doesn’t come across as a sectarian point, but Belfast Presbyterianism has never been very keen on culture. Imposing public buildings, yes. Anything that looks a bit arty-farty, no. And the best efforts of the Ulster Scots fraternity haven’t changed things much. Maybe it has something to do with Prods hanging stubbornly on to their barbaric practice of giving their children the Broons Annual for Christmas.

Another problem is that a lot of your culturally significant Belfast Prods either a) weren’t very unionist or b) got the hell out of Belfast at an early age and never came back. Often both. So, for instance, Van the Man has been very resistant to moves to turn him into an icon of Protestant culture. No, it’s best to wait until your icons are safely dead. That might explain the rash of George Best murals, when the guy never came here when he was alive, and was given to opining on the need for an all-Ireland football team, a particular bugbear of the loyalist proletariat. But now that Bestie has shuffled off this mortal coil, all is forgiven.

What prompted these thought was the PUP’s unveiling of a mural of CS Lewis, another unlikely hero. All right, so Lewis was an East Belfast Prod, a significant populariser of Christian thought and the author of the world-famous Narnia novels. But the overwhelming impression I always had of Lewis – except that he would have made a good villain in Inspector Morse – was that he wasn’t very attached to his roots. His youthful atheism may, in fact, have had something to do with intense exposure to dour Belfast Protestantism. Surprised by joy, forsooth.

(Although, I must say, I rather enjoyed The Screwtape Letters. Theology goes so much better with a little humour.)

This all strikes me as a little desperate. Assuming that copyright issues can be resolved, wouldn’t it be an idea to have murals of more authentic representatives of Prod culture – say, the Broons and Oor Wullie?

Subsidising sectarianism

A little snippet of GUBU from the Irish News:

A ‘BLOOD and thunder’ band with links to the youth wing of the UVF is among dozens of loyalist bands to receive funding from the Ulster-Scots Agency and the National Lottery.

Sixty-five flute, accordion and pipe bands were given funds totalling more than £166,100 last year.

More than £4,600 of lottery money went to Pride of Ardoyne, which takes part in a contentious parade past the Ardoyne shops in north Belfast each year.

The funding, administered through the Arts Council, was for new instruments.

The band marches with a banner bearing an emblem of the Young Citizens Volunteers – the UVF’s youth wing – and the names of two former band members, UVF man Sam Rockett, who was killed by the UDA during the 2000 loyalist feud, and William Hanna, killed by the British army in 1978.

A spokesman for the Arts Council said that although it “monitors the artistic quality of applicants and is aware of its obligations under ‘Good Relations’ and Section 75 legislation, we are not proscriptive on grounds of an applicant’s political or religious background”.

“We respect their organisational independence, at the same time actively encouraging applicants to develop and expand their audiences and to break down barriers in society, in line with the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

Among the bands given funding by the Ulster-Scots Agency was Mourne Young Defenders Flute Band which received £1,800 for musical tuition and a further £1,219 for an ‘Ulster-Scots summer school’ run by its members.

Mourne took part in the 2006 Love Ulster parade in Dublin which ended in clash-es with gardai and republican protesters. The band was set up in memory of Alan Johnston, an Orangeman and UDR member who was killed at his workplace in Kilkeel, Co Down, by the IRA in 1988.

The Arts Council gave about £102,500 to 24 bands, mostly for musical tuition.

The Ulster-Scots Agency gave about £56,500 to 38 bands for instruments.

The Big Lottery Fund gave £6,980 to three bands under its Awards for All scheme.

The figures were released in response to an assembly question from Sinn Fein MLA Paul Butler.

A spokeswoman for the Ulster-Scots Agency said that to receive funding bands must show that:

– they have good administration and a plan to attract new members

– the project is “financially viable”

– the project has “an Ulster-Scots element”.

A spokeswoman for the Big Lottery Fund said its scheme helped “organisations to run projects which will bring people together and increase community activity”.

“We continue to proactively promote the programme through outreach and development work and continue to target all sections of the Northern Ireland community,” she said.

UDA stands down funny hat

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So what are we to make of yesterday’s announcement by Uncle Andy and Big Mervyn that they are giving up the bad old ways and becoming nice, law-abiding, peaceful people?

My first reaction to the UDA’s standing down of the UFF is deep scepticism. It’s well known that the “UFF” has never been anything more than a cover name for the UDA – although the pretence that they were separate organisations allowed the Brits to keep the UDA legal for twenty-odd years – so it is not clear to me that the retirement of the UFF should be taken any more seriously than the UDA’s order some time ago standing down the “Red Hand Defenders”. Note that the very public leadership of this illegal organisation has stressed that it will be ploughing resources into its new legal front, the UDU, which just confirms that the UDA has more hats than Jamiroquai.

I was also entertained by the thundering speech from UDA emperor Jackie McDonald accompanying this declaration of peace. Emperor Jackie ruled out decommissioning on the grounds that the UDA’s guns were “the people’s guns”, and 99% of the people wouldn’t hear of decommissioning. This seems to be a peculiar usage of the word “people” to refer to members and supporters of the UDA. What we have instead, echoing the UVF’s move of earlier this year, is the notion of guns being “put beyond use”, which seems to mean that they will be taken off the local units and put under the supervision of the very trustworthy leadership of the UDA.

The UDA also promises to give up criminality, which would be significant if it happens, but I’ll believe that when I see it. During the course of the peace process, the Brits have handed over huge sums of money to the UDA but still haven’t been able to wean them off drug dealing, pimping and extortion. It remains to be seen whether your UDA brigadier who drives around his fiefdom in a pimped-up Lexus while wearing more gold than Mr T will so easily become a flat-cap-wearing community activist.

Emperor Jackie had another thing to say, that substantial votes were out there for UDA-sponsored candidates if the organisation mobilised its base in a serious way. I think not. Jackie should know that UDA-sponsored candidates have been running for election since 1973 with minimal success. This is not unconnected to the UDA’s wholly parasitic role in working-class loyalist communities.

The leopard does not change its spots so easily. In fact, our local media, usually frenetic in its insistence that the peace process is moving forward apace, has been quite sceptical of this announcement, which is a sure sign that nobody lends it much credence at all.

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