Billy Hutchinson 19 November 2015
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.”
Linda Ervine 26 November 2015
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
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
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
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.