Give my head politics

The ‘peace process’ starkly changed Northern Ireland’s media portrayal but Stephen Baker and Greg McLaughlin ask did these developments assist a depoliticisation that may leave people vulnerable to the renewed conservative onslaught.

Symbols in Northern Ireland have always been politically loaded. In December 2007, Northern Ireland’s newly elected First and Deputy First Ministers, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, attended their first public engagement: the opening of a new IKEA superstore on the outskirts of Belfast. Pictured sitting together on a red leather sofa, these once implacable enemies looked relaxed in each other’s company and happy to endorse the arrival of this global consumer brand. It was an image that served as a powerful symbol of Northern Ireland’s political transformation and the economic optimism that accompanied it.
No one imagined then that just three years later Northern Ireland’s executive, still in its relative infancy, would be contemplating an austerity budget in response to an economic crisis. It certainly never occurred to the mainstream media; their fulsome support for the peace process was underscored by an uncritical endorsement of a ‘peace dividend’ that promised to lift Northern Ireland from the miserable condition of a ‘workhouse economy’ and make it a serious player in the global free market.

Good news for business

From the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) referendum, in early 1998, local newspapers were focusing on the peace dividend to come: inward investment, regeneration and prosperity. The theme and tone of a Belfast Telegraph headline declaring ‘US President Bill Clinton is set to pump more than £100m into Northern Ireland’s economy to help turn political agreement into peace’ was regularly repeated. Business leaders acclaimed Virgin boss Richard Branson’s visit to Belfast in support of the ‘Yes’ campaign as if his very appearance personified the entrepreneurial spirit that would herald in the ‘peace dividend.’ The resounding Yes vote was celebrated in the media without qualification but it was a headline in the business section of the Irish News that pointed to some of the vested interests in a positive result: ‘Property pleased by yes’.

Projecting a new era

The peace dividend, then, seemed tangible and obvious to the news media: a booming propertymarket, urban regeneration projects and the arrival of retail giants like IKEA. It also provided a new narrative for writers of film and television drama as well as official propaganda. The offbeat comedy film, An Everlasting Piece made in 2000 but set in the 1980s tells a story of reconciliation delivered on the wings of capitalist enterprise. Catholic and Protestant barbers, Colm and George, work in a grim mental hospital, surely an analogy for ‘troubles’ era Northern Ireland. The hospital is staffed by dour Protestants, while the inmates are mainly Catholic. It is a depressing representation of the public sector and Colm and George resolve to escape from it by bidding for a franchise to sell wigs. Among their customers are loyalist and republican ex-paramilitaries, as well as British soldiers, whose contagious hair loss seems to represent their loss of power in the new Northern Ireland. In the penultimate scene of the film, Belfast City Hall is picturesquely illuminated by Christmas lights as the camera finds George and Colm among the happy patrons of a busy, city centre bar, celebrating their business success. The scene sums up a wider post-GFA narrative of entrepreneurship as the basis of cross-community accord and social invigoration.
The romantic comedies With or Without You (1999), The Most Fertile Man in Ireland (1999) and Wild About Harry (2000) also transformed Belfast’s once dire, on-screen image. As media analyst Martin McLoone commented such films display the iconography of ‘an affluent middle class with its culture of high-spend consumerism and metropolitan aspirations’.

Official propaganda

The British government also played an important role in changing Northern Ireland’s image, by developing the idea of the region as a desirable investment opportunity in the global market. In 1994 the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) commissioned what was the latest in a line of short films to advertise its anti-terrorist, confidential telephone service. Produced in the period of the peace process and called A New Era, it displayed a perceptible shift in emphasis from previous advertisements, transforming before our eyes the traditional symbols of conflict and division into images of peace and prosperity. A paramilitary gun morphs into a starting pistol for the Belfast marathon; a baseball bat is used for baseball, not for paramilitary punishment beatings; security bollards turn into flower displays; and a police cordon turns into ceremonial tape for the opening of a new urban motorway. After the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, the NIO commissioned a further series of films that moved away from the anti-terrorist message altogether. Scored with some of the bestknown songs of Van Morrison these were broadcast during the summer of 1995 and appeared to have no specific purpose except to show off Northern Ireland as a delightful destination for tourists and investors.

From hood to good

Another remarkable transformation came at this time in the portrayal of paramilitaries. In the early 1990s, when the prospect of an end to the violence looked within sight, the NIO confidential phone line advertisements underwent a significant shift.
In previous versions the paramilitaries had been depicted as hooded, violent parasites, preying upon their own communities. But by 1993, they were being portrayed as men with a role to play in the peace process if only they would abandon their commitment to violence. As representations of official thinking the NIO advertisements seemed to prompt a new permissiveness with regards to media representation of former combatants. This was illustrated in the BBC’s commissioning of the local situation comedy, Give My Head Peace. First broadcast as a pilot episode in 1995 under the name, Two Ceasefires and a Wedding, the sitcom portrayed loyalist and republican paramilitary-types as a comically dysfunctional family but a family none the less.
The new role for former combatants as ‘family men’ was given a more serious inflection in films such as The Boxer (1998) and The Mighty Celt (2005). They deal with the return of former combatants to their communities after periods in prison or on-the-run. In each case the men wish to rekindle old romances with women they knew in the past, a measure of the transformation that they have undergone, giving up violent political convictions for romance, family life and home. However, in both films the romantic ambitions of the protagonists are challenged by former comrades who remain committed to violent politics. In this way The Boxer and The Mighty Celt reduce the political transformation underway in Northern Ireland during the peace process to a struggle between domestic, homely virtues and malicious politics.
The same theme emerges in the films Some Mother’s Son (1996) and Titanic Town (1998), in which mothers are drawn reluctantly into political activism. In Some Mothers Son, Kathleen becomes involved in a political campaign when her imprisoned son joins the 1981 hunger strike. But as he falls critically ill, she rails against the politicking by both sides in the dispute and retreats from the political frontline; only then has she the power to take her son off the strike and save his life. Similarly in Titanic Town, Bernie becomes a peace campaigner when the violence in her neighbourhood threatens her family but in the end she is repelled by the duplicitous nature of government officials and republicans. All these films seem to depict politics as the preserve of the belligerent and the double-dealing, with the implicit message that so called ordinary, decent people stay at home and don’t get involved. Home, in this instance, stands for an unproblematic place, free of political controversy. This malign portrayal of political involvement is explicit in one of the best-known films of the ceasefire period, Divorcing Jack (1998). Here the political sphere is represented as universally repressive. As a consequence, it advocates a withdrawal into domestic intimacy, demonstrated figuratively in a conversation between its protagonist Dan Starkey and a journalist colleague from the United States. The American asks Starkey what he prefers to call Northern Ireland: ‘Ulster’, ‘the occupied six counties’, ‘the North’ or ‘the province’? Starkey tells him he just calls it ‘home’, avoiding the political associations any other answer would imply.
Most of the film is taken up with Starkey’s efforts to rescue his private life after an act of marital infidelity plunges him into the world of political machinations, estranges him from his wife and leads to her being kidnapped by a renegade paramilitary.
In the film’s final scene, Starkey and his wife are removed from the apparently insensible world of politics and reconciled at home where they make love on what Starkey describes as the ‘magic settee’. Like so many other film protagonists of the period they simply retreat into domesticity. Here there is no need for politics; there is no thought of collective forms of belonging or action, just the sovereignty of the home-owning consumer.

Rethinking the peace dividend?

Divorcing Jack’s ‘magic settee’ is reprised in the image of Paisley and McGuinness reconciled on the sofa in IKEA, seated beneath the store’s brand slogan: ‘Home is the most important place in the world’. While IKEA’s assertion of the importance of home is commercially self-interested, homes and housing are politically contentious issues. From the civil rights movement’s campaign against the sectarian allocation of houses, to today’s ‘ghost estates’ and the repossessions, our domestic lives are neither separate from, nor do they transcend, the world of politics as ‘ceasefire cinema’ would have us believe.
Indeed, the economic and social fall-out from the financial crash of 2008 might suggest that Northern Ireland’s peace dividend is not going to be delivered by free market economics and naked consumerism. Up until then, politicians and media pundits looked across the border to the republic of Ireland with envy and grudging respect. The Celtic Tiger economy seemed proof positive that Northern Ireland’s overreliance on the public sector and government subsidy was stultifying economic growth. The peace dividend would only come by opening up to neo-liberal free market economics.
Of course, the picture down south is very different now: toxic banks and the IMF bailout have burdened Ireland with a crippling public debt and fuelled a crisis of legitimacy amongst its political classes.
Ironically, Northern Ireland has been sheltered from the worst effects of the crash because of the very same reliance on the public sector that everyone wanted to strip away. Currently the devolved administration is preparing to implement a range of cuts to public sector jobs and services but it is doubtful they will be on the same scale that is being inflicted on the public sector in the republic. It remains to be seen whether the new economic reality brings about a more critical re-imagination in media and culture of what the peace dividend really is or should be.

Stephen Baker and Greg McLaughlin are lecturers in media studies at the University of Ulster and authors of The Propaganda of Peace: the role of media and culture in the Northern Ireland peace process, published in 2010 by Intellect Books.

Article published in LookLeft Vol.2 No.6

Previous post

Time to criminalise sectarianism

Next post

Never waste a crisis