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The Other Side of the Story

Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty wrote in The Irish Times the other day of their engagement as community workers acting, as it were, “out of area” in North Belfast, with former loyalist paramilitary and more recently Progressive Unionist Party activist Billy Hutchinson. Hutchinson told them of his involvement with an initiative exploring loyalist culture and identity and introduced them to two playwrights, Robert Niblock and William Mitchell, who had become involved in setting up a theatre company, Etcetera, dedicated to putting on plays about the Protestant working class experience.

Now Connal Parr, a board member of Etcetera and a previous contributor to the drb (http://www.drb.ie/reviews/getting-beyond-no) writes:

At the same time as a vibrant community arts festival drew to a close in West Belfast earlier this month, some Loyalists saw fit to rip up the paving stones from the streets of the city centre and hurl them at their own police force. Just over a week earlier on July 31st the theatre group Etcetera, of which I am a board member, launched officially at the Linen Hall Library. Though the time of year was tricky there was a good turnout and representation from artistic, political, community and academic sectors, as well as a large Southern contingent.

Fellow board member the Reverend Chris Hudson – a bit of an actor in his own right, and lest we forget a good Dub – spoke movingly of the plays of Sean O’Casey as well as the power of art to change outlook. While he continues to oppose everything the Provisional IRA stood for politically – and did so back in 1981 with others on the Irish left such as Jim Kemmy – Chris talked of how Steve McQueen’s film Hunger (2008) enabled him to understand for the first time the individual human suffering of Blanketmen during the prison protest. Best known as a trade unionist and the conduit between the UVF and the Irish government in the early 1990s – a dialogue which facilitated the organisation’s 1994 ceasefire – Chris is aware, like myself, of a specific problem relating to a part of the population which considers itself apart from both the arts and broader society.

Moves to found Etcetera accelerated after a panel discussion accompanying a performance of Martin Lynch’s 2009 play Chronicles of Long Kesh. Loyalists complained that their prison experience was not as adequately depicted as the Republican equivalent. Lynch quite rightly replied that if Loyalists were unhappy with how he presented their experience they should go and do justice to it themselves. At a BBC Radio Ulster discussion in Omagh the following month, Gary Mitchell – who has often been feted for his work in the Republic – was asked what he thought of the same play. He confessed to not having seen it, adding that this was reflective of “the Protestant working class perspective ‑ the fact that they don’t go to the theatre. They feel very much betrayed rather than portrayed by the arts in general, and that’s why even I don’t know the plays that you’re talking about because I don’t look for them. Most people in my community don’t anymore.”

Though a large number of writers, especially playwrights, have emerged from a Protestant working class background since the post-war era, almost no major voice has emerged since Mitchell (from Rathcoole) twenty years ago, and the problems resound through the theatrical and creative professions. Lynch, originally from the nationalist New Lodge area of North Belfast, said during last month’s launch that for his recent play The Titanic Boys he sent out advertisements and “would love to have cast” what he called a Protestant story “with lads from the Shankill Road and Sandy Row”. But he received no response and ended up producing the play with talented young actors from West Belfast.

A small minority says the foundation of a group such as Etcetera confirms Northern Ireland’s sectarianism. My feeling is that such detractors are usually from affluent, even rarefied, backgrounds and haven’t a clue about life in Belfast and its ground-level realities. They seem to believe people will magically “come to their senses” one day if we just carry on with the way things are, and that the place is not really that divided thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, which made us all equal and solved our problems. This attitude recalls the objections to Sam Thompson’s Over the Bridge, which ran to capacity houses – and predominantly working class audiences – in January 1960. The line, essentially, of those who tried to prevent Over the Bridge ever seeing the light of day was that there was no sectarianism in the shipyards. And their heirs tell us there is no sectarianism in contemporary Northern Ireland. Division can only be overcome by confronting its existence, as Sam Thompson did,. As Gary Mitchell has said in reference to the most disillusioned and extreme, “you’re never ever going to touch them or change the way that they think if you constantly say ‘but we’re all Irish’, or ‘we’re all human beings”’. It becomes necessary to explore “what makes us different and therefore what adds to the conflict”. Rage emanating from Loyalist areas must not be swept under the carpet only to reawaken with even more intensity at a later stage. It would be as if a campaign was launched which pretended that the connected education crisis afflicts all parts of Northern society. But there is manifestly not the same problem in Catholic areas, where large numbers leave school with A-Levels and go on to higher education, for the simple reason that education – much like the arts – is looked on differently and with higher regard there than in working class Protestant areas.

Some have been here before. WJ McCormack accused Gerry Dawe and Edna Longley of producing “a sectarian sociology of art” in their editing of a 1985 book called Across A Roaring Hill: The Protestant Imagination in Ireland (after a John Hewitt poem), which prompted the following riposte from Dawe: “Ireland, the place where we live, is a sectarian place and we are all sucked into its perversity from childhood. There is no use pretending that we can stand above it all in some kind of pristine, theologically immaculate and admirable order, disdainful of the sick world with which the poor ordinary misfortunates must cope as best they can. The imagination dries up in such thin air and as for the critical intelligence, it thrives on reality too, not the ideal.”

These sentiments are as true now as they were in the mid-1980s: Northern Irish society remains highly segregated. But whether it is the current febrile discourse, a forgotten literary heritage, or a simple lack of confidence, the Protestant working class feels the theatre – and more generally the arts – is not for them.

Etcetera was founded to remedy this, providing an outlet for specific, underrepresented stories and striving to redress the perception of a community which feels itself outside the very uneasy tent of the current dispensation. With Chris and myself, the board is comprised of playwright Marie Jones, Billy Hutchinson, William Mitchell, and writer Bobby Niblock. The latter three are ex-UVF members but – as I have said in the press coverage of the group – it is about time Niblock became known for what he has created since his release from prison and not for what he did in the 1970s. He has gone on that inward journey of self-examination that all serious writers must. The stigma of the Loyalist prisoner background is particularly hard to shake for those who brought the group into being. In the Linen Hall, Danny Morrison praised the advent of Etcetera and pointed out that cultural activity became in the early 1990s a way of displacing the physical force tradition within Republicanism, and thus a way of winding the violence down.

The work of Etcetera will not be easy. There are many on both sides in Northern Ireland who want us to remain rooted in a violent past; who continue to do very well and derive some kind of affirmation from the deadlock. Akin to Oscar Matzerath – the stunted protagonist of Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum – they are the embodiment of a mentality incapable of any kind of growth. The key thing is that Niblock can really write. The dialogue crackled during extracts from his play Tartan, which were performed by a set of gifted young and established actors at last month’s launch event. This is the group’s first play and one we are raising money to stage in the near future.

Loyalists have not reached any level of confidence to tell their stories. When they do, this will come, as in the rest of Ireland, with the ability to challenge their own mythologies. But it has to emerge from a secure starting point and the development of a willingness to move forward from the current inarticulacy.

13/8/13

Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty in The Irish Times