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A Crowded Stage, an Empty Room

Connal Parr

The last time I wrote about this subject for the Dublin Review of Books a representative of Northern Ireland’s largest political party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), quoted some of its content at Stormont without acknowledging where it came from. This speaks much about an attitude of control and ignorance Loyalists have always had to contend with from those who purport to represent them most.

On Thursday March 20th, 2014, at a sitting session of the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure, William Humphrey, MLA for North Belfast, enters the fray as part of an official “Inquiry into Inclusion in the Arts of Working-class Communities”. Humphrey had hit the headlines back in October when he stated during a Stormont debate that “The concept of ‘the arts’ is not something which the Protestant working-class community in this city buys into at any great level”. He had been challenged and derided by, among others, local playwrights from this background who had written for decades, one of whom pointed out that when Humphrey’s party had the culture portfolio they did nothing with it. But more on this later.

According to the official Hansard report on the March committee session, Humphrey is recorded as saying the following:

Mr Humphrey: The Chair made the point earlier that, for many people in the community, their culture is something that helps to shape and mould them. They see it as their culture, but not as the arts. That is how I look at it. I think that there is a real problem. I remember being criticised by some in the arts establishment for saying that. Others – many more, I have to say – from across the community contacted me to say that they agreed with me. I have had conversations with playwrights. A while back, I had a conversation with Martin Lynch on the issue. He is one of the most eminent playwrights and he comes from my constituency, as does Gary Mitchell. Gary Mitchell makes the point: “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.

At no point does Humphrey ever acknowledge the source of this material (he seems to suggest that he has had the conversation directly with the playwrights mentioned himself). The reason why these quotes are available is because I transcribed them from the BBC Radio Ulster programme Arts Extra, which featured a discussion on the renowned Billy plays (1982–4), held at the Strule Arts Centre, Omagh, at the end of February 2009. This material was then published under the appropriate title “The Other Side of the Story” in the Dublin Review of Books in August 2013. It appears nowhere else in the public domain. Humphrey continues:

He was referring to a particular play. The key point here is that they feel betrayed rather than portrayed. Martin Lynch hoped to get young people from east Belfast, Sandy Row and the Shankill for his famous play ‘The Titanic Boys’. He could not get those people, so he got people from west Belfast. I am not being critical … This needs to be addressed. We need to get working-class communities involved. Having spoken to Martin Lynch and Gary Mitchell, who comes from Rathcoole, also in my constituency, I know that this is a huge problem. I am speaking on behalf of my constituency, North Belfast, and, I have to say, being honest, from a unionist perspective.

Fast forward to May 1st, as Bobby “Beano” Niblock’s play Tartan opens at the Skainos Centre in East Belfast. The two nights it runs in this venue are sold out, a home crowd willing the success of a voice from within the community. Niblock is telling a story about the rise of the eponymous gangs he was once a part of: the importance of the music of the era (a specific year, 1971), a certain type of rock music which enables a generational break. This is important in Northern Ireland: to sing a different song from your father. I go to the second night, where the eight young actors – some professional, others recruited at audition – bowl on to the stage with enormous energy and violence. Part of you can only burst out laughing – it’s like a Ramones gig, where the banter and vitality makes you smile – that is, until it’s round you in real life. And the East Belfast audience loves the camaraderie: the puerile, edgy retorts mixed in with an old-fashioned sectarianism. Part of the power of this play is that it is completely honest about those it presents. It pulls no punches about the way these young men talk about Catholics. Critically, however, the “Tartan gangs” were a separate phenomenon from the Loyalist paramilitaries, a distinction frequently missed by historians – and memoirists – of the early Troubles. It’s about the music, the humour, and the excitement of being in a gang first. As one write-up captured it, “Tartan gang members were raw, immature, still at school, yet to shave; had long hair, worse short denim jeans and Doc Marten boots. They listened to Radio Luxembourg and chased girls. Some dated Catholic girls and there were one or two Catholic Tartan members.” As the play desperately strives to convey, the paramilitaries follow later and will – unfortunately – exploit this raw energy and lend it fatal direction. “That’s what you’re up against,” as young gang leader TC says at one key point in Tartan, breaking the fourth wall, addressing us all.

To digress briefly, the media’s focus on the play, which board members like myself are careful to watch over, came from some interesting sources. The Belfast Telegraph showed no interest and the News Letter was too excited by Gerry Adams’s arrest to follow up on their coverage of the group’s launch back in August 2013. But aside from an event organised by Index on Censorship (who are due to produce a report) – its representative Julia Farrington even came to see the play in Skainos – the Culture NI website ran a big piece by Jane Hardy based around a meeting she had with Niblock in the MAC Theatre, where the play would end its current run. Initially this provoked an ambivalent, guarded reaction from me. Hardy begins with the mention of the man Bobby Niblock killed in February 1975, an action for which he served seventeen years in jail. “It doesn’t seem relevant,” was his response to her. I wondered about this. I wondered, why is this journalist still talking about this incident? He served his time and is not the same person he was then. How many ex-combatants are walking around in Northern Ireland, in everyday life or even in government, as people in the local media – and woefully confused voices on the British left – seem to have moved on from everything they did? Yet, it quickly became clear that this is part and parcel of it all. It’s the journey which brought Niblock from there to where he is now. The whole point is that he can write; that it is a way of transcending his former identity and that there’s been a development. “Writing these plays isn’t redemptive, that’s too big a word. But therapeutic, yes,” he says to Jane Hardy. Similarly, given the current involvement of Loyalists in violent protest – even in recent months where people think they can solve problems in the form of threats and petrol bombs – any work which can displace such aggression and get it off the streets is worthwhile.

The other focus came from the Irish News. Extraordinarily, Sinn Féin’s Jim Gibney devoted his entire column to Tartan. He had also spoken with Bobby Niblock, pointing out that the latter’s first attempt at writing was “motivated by fear of what might happen to teenage Protestants were they to get involved in the violence of the first Drumcree stand-off”. Gibney was identifying an ongoing theme here, of young men from a particular part of the North’s society who are unaware of how their early involvement in acts of violence will have ramifications for them later in life. A criminal record follows you around; it will come back to haunt you when it comes to getting a job. This is something young Protestant men currently involved in rioting on the Newtownards Road, East Belfast, and elsewhere will understand only when it’s too late. Tartan speaks directly to this group and echoes their current predicament. Gibney writes enthusiastically about the whole endeavour, funnily enough, in a paper whose readers would once have had most to fear from the Tartan gangs. He’s keen to appear to be reaching out, but there is real sincerity. It would have been easy for him – an original member of the infamous “H-Block Committee”, commonly held to be an Adams-automaton – to misrepresent the play. But he does the opposite, and that his analysis would feature in the newspaper most closely entwined with the communal mind of the Northern Catholic population is something deserving of real respect. He praises Niblock personally as “a new literary talent with a particular story to tell about life in working-class loyalist areas amid the conflict”. “Like us all,” Gibney believes, “he is a product of the violent times he lived through and he has turned his difficult experience into creative expression.”

In Skainos the audience laughed throughout, pausing only when the UVF recruiting sergeant Dicky (played by the great Belfast actor Jimmy Doran) makes his appearance at the end of the first half to ask the boys to swap the stone for the gun. It’s a symbolic but critical choice: the stone will – as Dicky spits – “come back to you”, but the gun will send a more permanent message. The power of these scenes – along with the episode where the group swears in to the UVF – derives from the fact we know its author and those around him have lived this experience and were once presented with exactly these situations in their young lives. In a fantastic bit of doubling Doran plays both the UVF recruiter and the RUC detective who physically mishandles these young men, emphasising the generational aspect. He is ably assisted by his bitter sidekick Bobby (played by Paddy Jenkins – another of the professional actors whose comic timing ensures the east Belfast audience laughed at everything he says, just because he says it a certain way). The cast, crew, well-wishers and associates are invited to an after-party in the H & W Welders pub, an old haunt for the yard which is (virtually) no more. I have a few but must be up the next day for the symposium Index on Censorship has organised at the Belfast campus of the University of Ulster. I am due to talk about the play and the company which has produced it, Et Cetera – on whose board I serve – and lead one of the breakout sessions under the title, “Why do Loyalist voices continue to be under-represented in contemporary Northern Ireland theatre?”

Saturday, May 3rd, May Day, a labour spirit of declining influence not just in Northern Ireland but across the western world. The drums and sounds of a few hundred marchers accompany some of the sessions. The aforementioned playwright Martin Lynch gives the opening “provocation” talk entitled “The day I censored that bastard Merle Haggard”. It’s about how he expanded out as a writer and a human being from his days in the Official IRA/Workers’ Party, when he once stopped a Belfast venue from playing Merle Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee, a right-wing anthem for Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority.

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don’t take no trips on LSD
We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.

At the time in the 1970s Lynch warned those on the premises who played this song – regarded as a bit of a joke now, even by its author – every week in this particular haunt that his associates were angered by its sentiments. Sure enough when it was played the next week he marched up and ordered them to stop playing the song. “What an arsehole I was,” Lynch admitted humbly. He adds that he believes that the issue of class continues to be paramount everywhere, and that the conference is asking the wrong question and that those with no way of practising or accessing art and culture are as tragic a loss as the writer imprisoned in China or Turkey. Other interesting contributions from Kenan Malik, Daniel Jewesbury and Jo Egan follow in a panel discussion chaired by BBC’s Marie Louise Muir exploring the topic of internal community censorship.

Then it’s time for the breakout sessions. There are four and all run concurrently, so the attendees – of which there are between thirty and forty – have to choose which one they will attend and contribute to. One of the other sessions, facilitated by my good friend Dr Katy Radford, is entitled “Same Old Tune – How and to what extent are the blood and thunder bands legitimate forms of artistic expression?” The others concern the “two community model” and “freedom of expression and the law”. I arrive in the room of the breakout and find one person, a talented young postgraduate student who is working on Northern Irish Loyalism herself at Queen’s University Belfast, the institution I am also associated with. No one else shows up. This young woman is fuming: “The question is why are Loyalist voices underrepresented, and then they show why. They don’t give a fuck.” We have an important conversation in which I say, “Remember this day when your own work comes out. Remember what you’re up against when you decide to look at this subject.”

I go outside the University of Ulster building, in York Street next to Royal Avenue, and latch on to the end of the May Day parade, which snakes off to the front of St Anne’s Cathedral. I see Martin Lynch there, who has also peeled away from the Index event. There too is his brother Seamus, a lifelong trade unionist and once a Workers’ Party local government representative during a legendary period on Belfast City Council. This seems poignant because the “Stickies” – Official Republicans who earned their name from the adhesive lilies they sold, contrasting to the Provisional supporters’ use of pins – are well-documented as having been among the first to reach out to the Protestant working class and Loyalists when the Troubles began. I also see my fellow Et Cetera board director Chris Hudson, who has always had good relations with this crowd. I applaud him on his foreword to the play’s programme and as we dander back along Donegall Street in our respective directions we discuss Tartan – its strengths and weaknesses – which Chris saw the night before me on its opening in Skainos. You can read a good script; it can gain its requisite funding; it can have a good director and great actors associated with it; but you never can tell how it will turn out. And ultimately we are so very pleased by what we’ve seen and proud of its playwright, who we know has been aching to tell this particular story. Chris heads off to the Titanic restaurant – in what other city in the world would you find an establishment named after a boat which tragically sank killing hundreds? – while I take a deep breath and head back to the Index conference.

I see the postgraduate who turned up to my session. “Surprised you decided to come back,” she says drily. “Don’t worry,” I reply. We gather on the stage for the final plenary, which is meant to be a conventional summing-up by those leading the breakouts. The others dutifully summarise what happened at theirs, and when I am handed the microphone I report whatI have experienced. I make it seem funny at first, and then challenge this audience straight up. They had been asked to make a choice about what they wanted to engage with that day, and they had all – to a man and woman – decided not to consider a Loyalist voice. I was initially apprehensive about leading a breakout which used the word in its title as I am aware of the importance of language in Northern Ireland. “Loyalism” is a tainted, damaged word. I can see it switch people off: the shutters go down and you’ve lost people. I was convinced by the symposium’s organiser to use the word in the title, and in the end I was glad as it meant that people were forced to choose – snap-like – a subject they wanted to engage with. And their refusal to consider this subject said something both about them and the way Loyalists are regarded by a certain bracket of people. And while these comfortable characters at the University of Ulster debate whether or not Jamie Bryson and Michael Stone were “performance artists” or not, I tell them: “Here is a Loyalist, Bobby Niblock, who genuinely is an artist. He has written a play. Like any other it has its strengths and weaknesses, but at times it storms it – and it gives you the kind of entertainment and jolt, as well as a new way of looking on the world, you would want from any night in the theatre. And you passed over talking about this today and the group he represents to go and talk about everything else.” They were ignored, which is exactly what Loyalists say defines their experience in post-Troubles Northern Ireland. To end I state that tickets have been selling well for the shows (two nights apiece) in the Spectrum Centre (on the Shankill Road) and the MAC, but not – according to Tartan’s producer William Mitchell – in Cultúrlann, West Belfast. I urge that they put their presence – conspicuous by its complete absence in the breakout session – to good use and go and buy a ticket for the Cultúrlann shows.

As you can imagine, this sends the thirty plus attendees reeling somewhat. In fairness it must be said that a number approached me afterwards to say, “You shook me there, you were right – I did ignore that voice.” Some people, however, can reject this wholesale. One man says he has nothing to be sorry for, and if indeed the tickets were going so well, what was the problem? I repeat that tickets have been going well for the MAC nights but poorly in Cultúrlann, and that he might consider going there (if I were a betting man I’d say this chap had no intention of doing any such thing – ever – in his life). But my favourite was an old lady from the Shankill Road who I have seen before at various events in the city. She had been involved in the writing of the Shankill community play Crimea Square, a fine endeavour. She thinks I am taking it all too “personally” and says she would have come to the Loyalist theatre session, but wanted to go to another one. I assure her I was not taking it remotely personally. I am not a Loyalist, so could never conceivably do so. In fact my name quite clearly marks me in the opposing community. But I was intrigued to find out which discussion she had ended up attending, on choice. And of course, this lady from a strongly working class Loyalist area, who had been involved in the writing of a play, had chosen to go to the “Blood and Thunder” flute band panel! “That’s what you’re up against.”

The self-imposed aspect of the problem is arguably the most severe. One of the greatest of Belfast playwrights, Owen McCafferty, had responded to William Humphrey’s claims back in October 2013 that “citizens are responsible themselves for going to investigate” theatre and art. Even more seriously, some within Loyalism incorrectly claim that no theatrical voice has ever existed within the Protestant working class before – that they’re at a kind of Year Zero. This unfortunate mythologising, however, defies fact. My own work has concentrated on a number of playwrights to emerge from this exact background: Sam Thompson, John Boyd, Stewart Parker, Graham Reid, Christina Reid, Marie Jones and Gary Mitchell, to name the most prominent, all came from solidly working class Protestant parts of Belfast and its surrounding estates. It is essential, therefore, to make the important distinction between “Loyalist” voices and “Protestant working class” voices. So when the Loyalists involved in the Et Cetera group complain about the lack of a Protestant working class influence, they are really talking about something else: their own lack of influence as Loyalists. And whereas the Protestant working class has always produced dramatists, Loyalists are behind their Republican counterparts in not availing of the theatre to tell their stories. And unlike Republicans, their ex-prisoners are shunned and stigmatised in their own communities.

So a venture which promoted a rare creative voice from within a much-maligned group was ignored again. That day Loyalists were, as someone in the crowd coined, “the Empty Room”. The one major complaint Loyalists have about anything is that their views – what they want and aspire to – is simply ignored, if not outright traduced. John Hewitt recalibrated: “This is our country also…; / and we shall not be outcast on the world.” So what do we do about these people, the Loyalists? Ignoring them is indeed an option: “Fuck ’em.” Maybe we could do that. But then, see, the same people who believe in that approach tend to complain very loudly – and, it must be said, articulately – when this same group blocks roads over controversial decisions about removing British symbols. It disrupts them having a nice meal in an expensive Belfast restaurant, and aren’t they such idiots getting all excited over a piece of cloth? Flag-fixated morons, and they speak funny too: “Fleg”! They don’t even speak properly, mustn’t have had a proper education! This is how to lose a group and push it to the margins. Continue building an underclass. Ridicule, dismiss and patronise.

Tartan ended its current run at the MAC Theatre on May 11th, closing Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. I have heard stories from those who went out to the two nights on the Falls Road at Cultúrlann (on May 4th and 5th), one of which apparently saw two drunks wandering in to see the show and interact: “I fuckin’ knew the Tartan, you weren’t even fuckin’ born boys!” These men were apparently ejected at the interval, though the lady I spoke to believed they should have been allowed to stay as they were “Brechtian” and part of the experience (the actors assured me however that it’s not so easy acting with winos). The audiences were, of course, smaller on the Falls – it was still the anniversary of Bobby Sands’s death, as well as the aftermath of the furore surrounding Gerry Adams’s arrest – but they were much better than expected. It wasn’t what you’d call a booking audience so the majority of those who saw the play paid on the door. And people need to know that the Loyalists involved in Et Cetera were determined to take the play to this Catholic working class area. Skainos and the Spectrum Centre (on the Shankill Road) were home fixtures. To take the show to the Falls Road showed real guts and was something this company wanted to do as a point of principle. The final nights in the MAC had their own dynamic. The better acoustics rendered the dialogue more audible, but while the laughter was considerably less pronounced, the weightier scenes in the second half, which is noticeably stronger than the first, seemed more powerful than they did in East Belfast. Again the experienced actors – such as Matthew McElhinney, Doran and Jenkins – lifted those around them, and there was a celebratory but inquisitive vibe after. What next?

With characteristic good timing (his new play Demented opens this month at the Lyric), Gary Mitchell swooped in to the pages of the provincial media last week. As a dramatist who has written numerous plays – staged throughout the United Kingdom, Ireland, Europe and the United States – Mitchell is one of a number of writers who debunks the myth that the Protestant working class has no theatrical lineage or relationship with the arts. Needless to say, DUP MLA William Humphrey wouldn’t have heard of any of Mitchell’s plays because he admitted to rarely setting foot in any theatre. Unlike his party colleague East Belfast MLA Sammy Douglas, Humphrey showed absolutely no interest in the Et Cetera group when it was launched and does not appear to know it even exists. Theatrical institutions like the Lyric and the MAC, Humphrey had argued last autumn, were to blame for the problem of Protestant working class disconnect from the arts, offering little “tangible benefit to the people in Ballygomartin, Ballymurphy or Ballymacarrett”. At the time Gary Mitchell countered that he had written “about forty” plays since his emergence in the early 1990s, and that when Humphrey’s party had the culture portfolio – with Nelson McCausland as minister – “nothing happened”. In truth it is organisations like the DUP which now offer little tangible benefit to the people in Protestant working class areas. They do not even know about the playwrights who have emerged, to international acclaim, from the background they claim to monopolise. It may simply be a question of losing control.

Mitchell confirmed last week that he found himself an outsider in his community when he excelled at school. So he decided to self-destruct:

I got this idea in my head that I could be bottom of the class in every subject if I really tried hard, and believe me coming bottom in some of the subjects was very difficult because they got really low scores. But I managed it, and I became popular. I realised that learning things was a bad idea, and being dumb was a good idea. Being stupid was the smart thing to do.

Just the previous month the usual degree of righteous hurly-burly accompanied the findings of the latest Peace Monitoring Report which revealed that the working class Protestant male faced the grimmest educational prospects in Northern Ireland, right at the bottom of the attainment table only just in front of Irish travellers and Gypsy/Roma. But of course nothing is ever done really. Except more reports. Endless, endless reports – and no action. Mitchell declared that those working class Protestants entitled to free school meals with some of the lowest scores in the UK “are bluffing. They’re smarter than that. Protestant working class boys are doing exactly what I did. They are hiding their intelligence.” Mitchell urged those from outside to avoid mockery at the same time as encouraging those from within to try and “see how the rest of the world sees it. It’s like looking in the mirror. If you’re not happy with it, change it.” As someone who held up the mirror to his group, perhaps the last major dramatist to do so from a Protestant working class background, he has long been aware of the power of those paramilitaries who recruit from disillusioned adolescence.

If you have this idea that you can look inside your own community, at people who seem to be running the community, where the law is doled out by people rather than the police or the justice system, then you would be inclined to lean towards that type of thinking. For young, working-class Protestants – what other role models do they have?

Tartan ultimately confirms that those who will emerge as the chief benefactors in sweepingn up these young men will be the paramilitary groups – those who do give them a stake and sense of worth, who can harness and direct their energy. It suggests this because one day, over forty years ago, they fulfilled this very role for the author of the play. These seniors who should have known better helped him swap stone for gun, ushered him away from T. Rex and chasing girls towards bombs and bullets. It is, of course, a universal story and completely generational. Old men get young men to fight and die in their wars. The play, and this man’s voice, is completely on the side of that most disenchanted part of the population, with the poorest educational prospects and the grimmest lives in store. In a culture which always sees things in terms of groups, this play represents them.
19/05/2014

Connal Parr was awarded his PhD from Queen’s University Belfast in December 2013 and has published articles in Irish Political Studies, Fortnight and the detail. He is a board member of Etcetera Theatre Company, established in September 2012 to stage plays and generate artistic initiative in working class Protestant areas.

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