Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture Ideology and Colonialism

By Sullivan, John | Capital & Class, Autumn 2001 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture Ideology and Colonialism


Sullivan, John, Capital & Class


David Miller (ed) Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture Ideology and Colonialism Longman, London, 1998. pp. 315 ISBN 0-582-30287-0 (pbk) L17.99

Reviewed by John Sullivan

Some of the articles collected here employ conventional political analysis, but the most interesting ones focus on the representation of the conflict in the media and in academic discourse. David Miller's contribution `Colonialism and Academic Representation of the Troubles' describes the role of the Northern Ireland academic establishment in stifling critical research, and supporting the official picture of the British government as a well-meaning mediator, with no responsibility for the violence. Mike Tomlinson's `Walking Backwards into the Sunset' details the role of state intelligence agencies in sectarian killings, especially their collusion with the uDA.

One of the most interesting essays, Desmond Bell's `Representing History' moves from a description of the Tower Museum in Derry to cast a sharp light on the heritage industry.The museum, opened in 1992, shows divergent unionist and Catholic traditions as worthy of mutual respect, in a way which was once considered impolite, or even dangerous. Now, the dominant ideology maintains that the existence of two communities need not produce mutual hostility. The government lavishes resources on this and similar projects, and growing nationalist moderation suggests that they are getting value for money. Derry municipal council, dominated by the Catholic middle class, is pleased with the project, not only for the tourist revenue it brings, but because it grants it a status hitherto denied.

Of course, much of the history is fake: a social construction, which takes elements of reality and adapts them to fit changing official needs. Bell points out that the Cultural Traditions' approach risks setting the cultures in stone, so that the possibility of common citizenship and united endeavour vanishes. As all traditions are considered of equal worth, it is as valid for loyalists to exercise their traditional right to march through a Catholic area, terrorising the residents, as for others to learn Gaelic or traditional dancing. If you were bewildered to hear the Orangemen at the Garvachy Road `stand off justify themselves in language lifted from a Cultural Studies seminar, Bell's article will make things clearer.

Bell's piece is nicely complemented by Bill Rolston's `What's Wrong with Multicultualism?', which puts 'heritage' in a wider social context. Multiculturalism, long dominant in mainland Britain, assumes that conflict is caused by individual psychology. If people can see other traditions as valid, strife will cease. In England that means replacing Norman Tebbit's bigotry with an inclusive approach, where those following in the tradition of John Major's spin doctors will continue to cycle to evensong in the rain, but will also enjoy the Notting Hill carnival, and where white school teachers instruct black children in 'their' Rastafarian tradition.

Liam O'Dowd examines the `New Unionism', an ingenious creation of a group of intellectuals close to David Trimble, which tries to separate Unionist supremacy from religion, while leaving everything else unchanged.

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