Want to be a real ‘Rebel’? Join the nonviolent revolution

Green Party Councillor John Barry considers the right response to sectarianism at cultural events

In the wake of the controversy over sectarian songs and chants at the Ardoyne Fleadh, there have been calls for the whole event to be ended, or at least public funds withdrawn. A key principle for the Green Party is to reject sectarianism wherever it arises, and we have no hesitation in doing so in this instance. But those calling for the withdrawal of funds may need to look a little more closely at the issue; withdraw funding from all events at which there is evidence of sectarianism, and who shall ‘scape whipping? If we collectively decide to withdraw funds from events at which there are sectarian songs or chants, then we must have the debate openly, and we must apply the decision consistently. Otherwise you are not against sectarianism, just the sectarianism that emanates from ‘their’ side.

Here’s the denomination test: switch the names around, and then see how the argument holds up. Let’s imagine a Loyalist band stood up at a cultural event and sang anti-Irish or anti-Catholic songs. If you would argue for public funds to be withdrawn from the organisation that set up the event, then you can legitimately argue for withdrawing funds from the Fleadh. And vice-versa. Now we’re on the right grounds for the discussion of the next step – whether withdrawing funding is the right response. For the record, I’d say no: to try to close the whole festival down on the basis of the bad behaviour at one of the events would be over the top, and probably counterproductive. Discipline those who need disciplined, tighten procedures, and make sure you do it better next year.

It is also about the tone and intent behind the words said. The use of strong and bad language – one could say violent language – in how they said it, is as important to understand as what they said. In the atmosphere of, lets be honest here, drink, bravado, and the single identity context of their performance, they were clearly appealing to the republican crowd in expressing anti-British Army and anti-Orange Order, traditional Irish Republican views. And this means what they said is also about violence. It is about violence most obviously in that what they said was an expression of support for the IRA and their campaign.

Let us be clear on this too: there is nothing wrong with peaceful and nonviolent expressions of a desire for a united Ireland, or alternatively, nonviolent expressions of the desire to maintain the union. The key issue is not necessarily the content of one’s political views, its how they are expressed and how they are connected or not to violence.

But the overt violence of the ‘armed struggle’ isn’t the end of the matter: those singing the ‘Rebel’ songs will need to take a good hard look at themselves for an altogether subtler form of violence, one that goes too often unnoticed, precisely because it is virtually a matter of routine.

‘Rebel’ songs? There’s nothing rebellious about singing those predictable, familiar old sentiments in such a setting. You want to be a real ‘rebel’? Do something to make your own followers think; challenge them rather than leading them in the old routine. Sing songs that challenge the familiar script, that shake up their certainties, interrupt the chanting of the old creed.

You think ‘Rebels’ should show solidarity with the downtrodden and dispossessed? Then how about the dispossessed of, for example, East Belfast – those who have seen the shipyards and engineering works shut down, those who have seen hours cut, contracts rewritten as temporary or zero-hour, benefits tightened, dole queues getting longer? Those who have seen the middle classes shun them without offering any positive alternatives? Those mocked for their lack of education, when all the best teachers have gone down the Gold Coast or across the water? Or are you content to recycle the mindless stereotype that they are all ‘mindless bigots’?

‘Rebel’? How about having the courage to rebel against the violence of your own side, and stand up for the other – for ‘Others’ of all kinds, not just those politically acceptable in ‘your community’? Come to that, how about having the courage to create a new community beyond ‘sides’ and ‘sideism’, one based not on the old creed, but on the basis of learning to live as non-violently as possible with all our neighbours, regardless of ‘identity’? If we could all do that, we might just have a full scale, nonviolent revolution on our hands.

17 September 2014

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