Sunday, July 12, 2009

Am I offended? Well no, not really

Having moved to East Belfast, and with the Twelfth celebrations tomorrow, I got ready to be offended.

The problem I have with the Union Jack has very little to do with its use as a national and territorial signifier in Northern Ireland. It’s more that, for me, it has associations with the British far right, particularly the National Front in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I don’t have the same instinctively negative reaction to the Scottish or Welsh flags, or indeed to the Irish tricolour.

Of course I object strongly to some of the other flags and emblems that are more specific to NI. Painting kerbstones or lampposts to mark your territory is only slightly up the evolutionary scale from a dog pissing on them. Paramilitary flags and murals ought to be more frightening than they are - if we live here we’ve got used to them, and for tourists they provide a frisson of danger and some neat photos. However, in some areas a new breed of mural is evident, celebrating history in a more positive way, and some of the arches constructed for the Twelfth are, equally, works of art.

Some may say I have the luxury of deciding whether or not to take offence. I agree. I’m not a Catholic and I’m not working class. I’m not the target of these elaborate ‘keep out’ signs – basically, I’m not after a house in these areas. I’m not a threat. So from my admittedly privileged position, I decided this afternoon to take a short drive around Belfast, to see just how offended I could get.

First stop was the Strandtown end of the Belmont Road. Here, the flags and bunting end abruptly at either side of the shops (one end illustrated), with a presumably accidental break in the bunting at the Gourmet Burger Bank. I’ve eaten out at Strandtown twice in the last couple of weeks and have not only failed to be offended, but have wondered why the flags don’t extend further up the Belmont Road. It was my first demonstration of how the demarcation lines appear to have gained new logic this year, no doubt due to much discussion and negotiation.

The next tale of the unexpected was the lower end of the Newtownards Road, where the flags and bunting end at the junction with Albertbridge Road – and there’s not a sign of a territorial mark at the Connswater Shopping Centre, no doubt because it’s bad for business. Of course, beyond that on the way into the city it’s a free for all, which is what you’d expect, and you know what you’re getting if you go down there. Driving West, I found the same pattern on the Shankill Road – a few flags at the top, and bunting downhill from the junction with the Ballygomartin Road until just past the Leisure Centre. Once off the main road, very few houses had put out flags including in the Lower Shankill Estate (unlike the bottom end of the Ravenhill Road back in the East where most of the action was in the side streets).

My final stop was the Limestone Road interface, where I expected to find the usually demarcation line clearly marked. This was the biggest surprise of the trip – no flags at all (see pictures). I was gobsmacked. Finally I found one right at the Shore Road end, but you’d have to work very hard to be offended in the North Belfast Sinn Féin office this week.

Of course I didn’t cover all the possible areas of contention, but I was pleasantly surprised at the focus and discipline of the displays, and ended up feeling a little sorry for those for whom displaying flags is important. Perhaps this is my new East Belfast tolerance, perhaps things have changed this year, or perhaps I can afford not to care.

But why has this happened? It’s not that all sectarian tension in Belfast has disappeared, although the main problems this year seem to be in rural Co. Antrim. Is it because public money has been put into encouraging a more family friendly celebration of the Twelfth? Or because the Assembly, for all its faults, continues to function? Certainly the splits in middle class unionism don’t seem to be having any adverse effect. Or perhaps the tourist oriented ‘Orangefest’ idea is catching on?

It could be any or all of these things, and of course it’s better than rioting and the city closing down for a long weekend. But Catholic unionists still can’t join the Orange Order, nor can any Protestant who is married to a Catholic. Although most parades are not contentious, there are still several examples of the Orange Order persisting in wanting to march where they are not welcome, when changing their route would be a more effective peace-making gesture. If the future of the Twelfth really is as an Orange festival for all, and flags are to become an expression of personal identity rather than a threatening territorial marker, then there’s still more work to be done.

P.S. I may not have been offended, but clearly some people were

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The story of a house

Today I had the opportunity to see what our house looked like before it was renovated. No, not by getting a bulldozer along to start again, but because next door was up for sale, unmodernised.

The daughter of the people who used to live there let me in to have a look around, and it was fascinating. Our house has had huge amounts of work done, like an ageing film star but to much more practical effect. What’s interesting about seeing an earlier version is that it was actually quite big even then, and a generation ago would have been regarded as perfectly suitable for a family of, say, four or five.

As the house was exactly the same as ours, rather than the mirror image of a semi-d, it was easy to see how changes had been made. The original kitchen has become our downstairs toilet and utility room, and the utility room door originally led to the back garden. On returning home, I noticed that the outline of the old larder was still there, opposite our washing machine.

Upstairs, we now know that one small bedroom was removed to provide a big landing, where we’re going to keep our books – and I’d previously said to Nick that if we were running a B&B then that’s where we’d have put in an extra room. Two other bedrooms have been knocked together for our bedroom and en suite, and again it was intriguing to see how it was done.

A young couple with children have bought the house next door, and it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. But I feel privileged to have seen it laid out as it would have been the day the first occupants moved in, and to have gained such insight into the design of our new home as a result.