Billy Hutchinson 19 November 2015

Billy Hutchinson – leader of the small left-wing Progressive Unionist Party, North Belfast community worker and former UVF prisoner – opened by joking that he was the result of a mixed marriage between a unionist and a socialist. He said his main memory of the Republic when he was growing up was of smuggled goods, particularly a ‘Free State lighter – a metal fabrication with a fabric wick.’ He told the story of meeting a woman in Cork who asked if he was from Dundalk. When he said he was from Northern Ireland, she said she thought Dundalk was in Northern Ireland. This told him that it wasn’t a matter of the Republic being collectively hostile to Northern Ireland – it was more that people were indifferent, or even oblivious, to what went on there.

He called for the continuing building of relationships between North and South: personal, economic and political. This would take place alongside existing East-West relationships (he used the opportunity to express his strong attachment to Yorkshire, and its cricket and rugby league teams). “There are a lot of similarities between North and  South and the more cooperation the better”, he said. “We may be two nations but we are one island. It’s a bit like France and Belgium – it just makes sense to cooperate. This cooperation should be in the context of the links between Dublin and London being stronger than ever.” He said working class people faced the same challenges in the North and the South: poor health facilities, housing and educational opportunities. “From my point of view the people are the same and should be treated the same.”

Read a blog on Billy Hutchinson’s talk by Brian Spencer on Eamonn Mallie’s website

Linda Ervine 26 November 2015

The second talk was given by Linda Ervine, who runs the Turas Irish language programme in East Belfast. People ask her all the time  “How on earth did the Irish language start in East Belfast?”.  A few years ago she took a six week ‘taster’ course in Irish, Scots Gaelic and Ulster-Scots and “fell in love with the Irish language.” She was also intrigued that her grandmother from the Shankill Road had been listed in the 1911 Census as an Irish speaker. She started a class in the East Belfast Mission and 20 people turned up even though it hadn’t been advertised. When she felt discouraged at the beginning she took strength, as a Christian believer, from the thought that “reconciliation is God’s work.” During the 2012-2013 Belfast flags process the numbers coming to classes dropped off, but she was able to keep them going in Bloomfield Presbyterian Church.

There are now 150 people coming to nine classes in the Skainos Centre every week. She believes that Gaelic languages and cultures are a unifying element in the British Isles in that they are spoken in the two parts of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and even Cornwall – 80% of the Gaelic speakers in Scotland are Protestants. She is now constantly in demand as a speaker, estimating that she has addressed nearly 7,000 people about the Irish language, including the PUP, the Orange Order and strongly loyalist housing estates like Ballybeen (where she is running an Irish course). “As long as it’s used as a weapon, the language has no future. But as a bridge it has a bright future.”

Philip Orr 3 December 2015

The third talk was given by Philip Orr, the Carrickfergus-based author, playwright and historian, who talked about Protestant unionist loyalist attitudes to the Easter Rising and the First World War. He said some loyalists were happy that the Easter Rising should be commemorated in Dublin (and might even attend events there), but were concerned about the Rising being commemorated in the centre of Belfast – although he understood that Sinn Fein had assured loyalist organisations that such activity would not happen in the city centre. Orr sees one of his principal tasks as “civilianising the loyalist narrative”.  There is a massive emphasis on the military in the culture of loyalism, and a particular preoccupation with the Battle of the Somme.  That battle had a symbolic resonance beyond the 2,000 young Ulstermen who died on that day:  because the 36th (Ulster) Division (drawn largely from the old UVF)  had such a strongly unionist ethos, a whole community was deeply affected; it became a foundation story for the new Northern Ireland state; and, whereas in 1914 the UVF had smuggled in guns and engaged in sedition to “take on the British to stay British”, at the Somme their sacrifice had been the proof that they were truly British.

Orr said he could not emphasise enough how important the pilgrimages by present day UVF veterans to the Somme and other First World War battlefields were in forming a common culture and strengthening “the spirit of loyalism”.  Meeting people from all over the world on those battlefields satisfied their need to “feel part of something bigger” at a time when their culture often seems “out of kilter” with a rapidly modernising, multi-cultural Britain. It is the equivalent of Sinn Fein’s “ideological framework” of solidarity with the Palestinians, Basques and other freedom fighters. However there was a need to “civilianise the loyalist story”. There are too many parades and military commemorations.  He said what was needed were more discussions, debates and hedge schools to talk about other people’s stories: the people back on the home front, the women, people in trade unions, people in religious life and so on. This will start to happen next year. He said museums being opened to people so they could share their exhibits and hold events would be an important part of this, and praised, in particular, the Ulster Museum and the Glasnevin Cemetery Museum.

Julie-Anne Corr Johnston 10 December 2015

The fourth talk was given by Julie-Anne Corr Johnston, Progressive Unionist Party member of Belfast City Council, and the first openly lesbian unionist politician in Northern Ireland. Julie-Anne told the moving personal story of how her parents’ marriage had broken up (partly because her father was gay); how she had felt different and excluded, and had self-harmed, as a teenager in north Belfast; how she had ‘come out’ as a lesbian, fallen in love and married her partner; and how Billy Hutchinson had met her at a union flag protest and persuaded her to join the PUP. She said it was a myth that all unionists were homophobic: large numbers of unionists in the Oldpark ward had voted for her to become a Belfast City councillor in 2014; and 49% of Ulster Unionist supporters and 45% of DUP supporters had backed marriage equality for same sex couples in a recent poll. She pointed out that marriage equality was approved for the first time by a majority of MLAs at Stormont last month, although the DUP had blocked it by a ‘petition of concern.’

Julie-Anne said 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland “should be moving towards promoting tolerance for a diverse society rather than merely reacting to a divided society.” She said people of her generation (she is 28) were still too focussed on the recent conflict, but hopefully the next generation of young people would be “inspired to work for a multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-national society”. She said smaller parties were now emerging to give people more political choices, pointing out that the PUP membership was now 40% women and UN Resolution 1325 on the special role and needs of women during and after conflict was party policy. She had come into politics through the flag protest because she felt “when the flag came down I felt my identity and sense of belonging as a British person were under attack.  I feel British; that’s who I am, that’s how I was brought up, I don’t know anything else; I identify strongly with Britain as an inclusive, progressive, multi-faith and multi-cultural society. But I am happy with dual nationality in Northern Ireland.” However she had learned that politics was about much more than this, and her work as a constituency representative in a working class area was more concerned with social injustices such as unemployment, poor educational opportunities and poor housing.

Robert Niblock 17 December 2015

The final speaker in the series was Robert ‘Beano’ Niblock, East Belfast-based playwright (‘A Reason to Believe’ and ‘Tartan’) and former UVF prisoner. The session was chaired by Dublin author and playwright Peter Sheridan. Niblock recalled how he gone through the Tartan gangs into the UVF and was first imprisoned in Long Kesh as a 17-year-old in 1973, followed by a 15 year sentence for murder in 1975. During his time in jail – which he called a “mini-Sandhurst where he had “trained as a soldier” – he and others came to the view that violence “wasn’t working for either side.”

In 1996-97, during the Drumcree parades crisis, he had watched boys even younger than he was when he got involved in the loyalist paramilitaries “rioting like me – I thought I should do something to teach them that they were wrong”. He wrote a successful personal ‘testimony’ and then started writing stories, poems and eventually plays. He recalled a discussion forum in Belfast about Martin Lynch’s play ‘Chronicles of Long Kesh’  (which was criticised for making loyalists look like “sectarian, muscle-bound bigots”) at which Danny Morrison told loyalists in the audience: “It’s not Martin’s job to tell your story – your task is to tell the loyalists’ story.”  That provoked him into forming the community-based  theatre company Etcetera.

He said working-class loyalists felt “betrayed, disenfranchised, let down” by politics. Establishment unionist politicans did not represent the loyalist working class (even though they continued to vote for establishment parties) and displayed contempt for them, especially when it came to the arts.  He said it was wrong to suggest that “Prods, for want of a better word, see the arts, and theatre in particular, as belonging to the middle class and the Fenians.” He said he was in discussion with two major Belfast theatres about putting on his play ‘Tartan’.  ‘A Reason to Believe’ – about two former loyalist prisoners dealing with terminal disease – had played to packed houses in Feile an Phobail, the West Belfast Festival. Sinn Fein’s Arts and Culture Minister, Carál ni Chuilίn, had given Etcetera nearly £70,000 to stage it. He is currently writing plays about the charismatic loyalist leader David Ervine and about former UDR women soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Pointing out that 99% of the people who were imprisoned during the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ were working class, he said forgotten working class communities like his “need a voice to get their experience into a wider arena. The arts in these areas open borders rather than close them off.”

Peter Murtagh, an Irish Times journalist, was present at Robert Niblock’s talk and wrote the following article which drew on comments made during the talk about the reluctance of former loyalist paramilitaries to tell their stories publicly, through the arts.

Irish Times Article: Loyalists reluctant to tell their stories, says NI playwright

With thanks to Andy Pollak for these insightful paragraphs.

Read Andy’s Irish Times Article: Good culture has the power to overcome bad politics