Belfast, St Patrick and the winds of Change…

Since seeing Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” seems like many people of a certain age have been riding a wave of nostalgia. For what it is worth I thought the film was a good show and what would have made it great was perhaps a little more edginess or darkness to firmly reflect my memories of those days. It’s crazy that 1969 is now over 50 years ago.

With the film in the forefront of my mind the next event to arrive was Belfast’s St Patrick day parade and following on from that I came across a couple of reviews of a Comment article by Arlene Foster in the Daily Express entitled Not funny Biden – Now Joe needs stop insulting British Rather than going only with the comments I went back to the original article which was dated 22 March 2022.

For me, years gone by in my world Paddy’s day wasn’t such a big deal. There was Rugby’s School’s Cup Final (in her article Arlene Foster says she spent her day at the Schools Cup final so I can identify with that! Methody v’s Campbell both Belfast sides so no Fermanagh interest). A day off work, an excuse for a few pints and maybe a mention in a church sermon well he was a Saint after all! Patrick being known mainly for driving the snakes out of Ireland and turning the stone or not as the case may be in terms of the weather. I had seen the promo video of the parade on the all-conquering Facebook so as the day started out quite reasonable weatherwise I thought I’d give it a go. My feeling, rightly or wrongly, is that in the recent past St Patrick’s Day Parades and perhaps the “festivities” in the Holy Lands – this looks to have passed over this year relatively trouble-free – progress! – had a distinctly CNR vibe. However, it was clear that the parade organisers had made great efforts towards inclusivity with the Theme for the parade “We are all Patrick”.

On the day the big issue was almost inevitably for Northern Ireland turned out to be the rain! The day started out fine but as I got into town and I could hear the parade approaching down it came with the obvious dampening of spirits. Having said that there was a large crowd and everyone was in good spirits and I was soon distracted by the sights and sounds. So all in all I thought the parade was a great effort maybe a little rusty given that there has been little in the way of performances due to the ever-present pandemic. I think a lot of people were relieved just to have something to go to. Even the Police were relaxed and happy to chat with ones in the crowd always a good sign of the lack of tension.

Now there were a sprinkling of Tricolours and one young girl wrapped up in a Flag (or should I say Fleg?) had me thinking I hope she doesn’t get split from her mates and get caught up with some from the “other side” might not have ended well. However there wasn’t enough of anything to make me feel uncomfortable or that impacted on the parade. It was very notable that there were no blue bag carriers or on-street drinking which often mars other events. I suppose there are laws about this in the city centre. Therefore I came away from the parade with a positive view.

So Arlene’s Article. I guess I was surprised at its prickliness but even more than that I was surprised at how badly it was composed. I need to be careful here people living in glass houses etc.… The main thrust seems to be how Paddy’s Day is celebrated abroad mainly in the US and how this then becomes a cold house for really anyone from Northern Ireland even Britain. The article then notes some, what I would term, errors e.g. the Prime Minister of England (not the UK) which serves only to show how little the Americans understand about Ireland and is more to be pitied than scorned. The concept grasp is the broad brush – Emerald Green, Shamrocks, Bono and Riverdance with perhaps more than one eye on the powerful Irish American vote.

The issue involving Barak Obama in 2016 where Mrs Forster writes

“In 2016, as First Minister of Northern Ireland, I had planned to leave Washington early before all the greenery really kicked in. I had been meeting businesses and inward investors, but was persuaded by officials to stay and listen to then-President Obama’s speech as he wanted to recognise me as the first female First Minister in Northern Ireland.

Against my better judgement, I did and as it was 2016, I was treated to a speech about how wonderful, the Declaration of Independence was from 1916 when Irish rebels rose up against the British state and cherished, we were told, “all of the people of Ireland” – all of course unless you are British.”

My reading of this is she went to the US perhaps grudgingly to mark St Paddys day as all the Fm and DFM’s have done but wanted away asap. She persuaded to stay to be recognised as the first Female FM only to be caught up in Obama’s speech about Irish independence which obviously would not sit well with the PUL tradition. Whether or not Obama did recognise her as the First female FM is not recorded maybe the red mist had descended by that time.

Overall with all of this I am left wondering is it time for the PUL community to be moving away from the “Ulster says No” mentality to a more embracing and participating situation. This would really mean being able to make changes from within the fold rather than thowing the toys out of the pram or lifting the ball and going home. I know this would be hard for many, particularly the older people who did suffer during the times depicted in the “Belfast” film but I think I do get the sense that the younger folk who do not have the acute direct experience type of baggage are gradually becoming more amenable to breaking down barriers and creating shared experiences. I do hope so as after all it is their future and there surely is no appetite at least in that age group to have a repetition of the past.

Postscript

Since putting this together time has moved on to the next landmark in the year – Easter. Here again, I sense various strands of what is a much more powerful religious time of year. On the radio just now have been reports of trouble in Derry.

To carry my same line of thinking forward Easter was very much seen at home as the time to start house maintenance – painting and decorating and the like and I have carried this forward as the time the gardening starts in earnest. Donegal featured on several occasions – and perhaps should again! Of course, the Easter rising dominates Irish history and rightly so. Again though I’m wondering can a way be found for these events to be seen in a more inclusive light that we could maybe just maybe remove the spectre of street violence from our culture forever?

David Jamison is from Belfast. He has recently retired and to use his own words, now with time on his hands to think and write about things he probably should have thought more about years ago.

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