In 1995, the Hole In The Wall Gang, a comedy group that found a niche within Northern Ireland’s dreadful hands-across-the-barricades culture industry, sent up the use of grim atmospheric music in programmes about the North. In their film Two Ceasefires and a Wedding, a characteristically gritty Northern scene scored with stark minor key legato music pans out to reveal the image of a woman seated on a lorry playing the music on a synthesiser.
Though it was a recognisable cliché 18 years ago in Northern Ireland, such gloomy hums remain as fresh as an infant’s dirty nappy for broadcasters in the Republic of Ireland when it comes to representing the Northern conflict and figures in it. I have often noticed how televised images on the struggle for civil rights in the North in the late 1960s are set to reflective and faintly sinister tones, as if to suggest that the minds of the people taking part were in tune with some age-old dirge that accompanied conflict in Ireland since time immemorial. I would like to imagine that at least some of the young people taking part had access to the popular sounds of the day. But rarely would you see the scenes of RUC men beating the crap of protesters to the tune of Gimme Shelter, a frequent accompaniment to scenes of revolt at that time in other places.
A couple of weeks ago on RTE Radio Bernadette McAliskey was interviewed by Miriam O’Callaghan, and she was introduced with audio footage from the Leila Doolan documentary film made about her. Wrenched from the film’s narrative and the flow of images, the tense and ethereal background music had the effect of introducing the guest as a bleak figure, even though, in the campaign speech footage she was talking about her dream that in the future Catholics and Protestants would fight for their rights, “irrespective of who the oppressors and exploiters are”. One can imagine the radically different message had the background music to a speech of hers been, for instance, the contemporaneous and no less appropriate I Want To Take You Higher by Sly & The Family Stone.
Last night on TV3 there was a documentary about Sinn Féin aired. It was titled “Sinn Féin: Who Are They?” Time does not allow me to delve into the multitude of barbarisms that were unleashed upon an unsuspecting viewer by the presenter Ursula Halligan. The entire documentary, which was ostensibly a profile of the Sinn Féin leadership, interspersed with comment from political adversaries and occasional allies, was set to a soundtrack of sinister gloom. Were the subtitles working on my screen I imagine they ought to have read ‘sinister legato double bass music plays’ then ‘sinister staccato cello music plays’. Throughout the whole. damn. thing.
The basic premise of the programme was to probe Sinn Féin’s suitability for political office in the Republic of Ireland in light of the party’s growing popularity south of the Border and its history and role in the violent conflict in the North of Ireland. I’m not a supporter of Sinn Féin and have never voted for them, nor at any point, from a perspective that was a great deal closer and more immediate than that of most people watching the programme, did I see any justification overall for the Provisional IRA campaign. Nonetheless I have to say that the gall and the stupidity of this programme in the way it presented Sinn Féin and the wider conflict in the North were nothing short of outrageous.
If it were just a matter of the grossly manipulative mood music, I might have had nothing to say. But the programme went a great deal further than that. Against the ‘They’ from ‘Who Are They?’ the programme presupposed a ‘We’ of principled opposition to and abhorrence of ‘violence’. There was no distinction drawn between State violence and paramilitary violence, or the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed, and the relation between the two in the context of the Northern conflict.
Figures from the political establishment such as Ruairi Quinn and Alan Shatter, who have no problem with State violence when unleashed by the State of Israel against Palestinians, or in imposing the structural violence of austerity policies, were invited to pontificate, to a stately backdrop, in the most ludicrous terms about the horrors inflicted in the North. In a bizarre statement of ignorance, Republican Sinn Féin was called the “latest in a long line of splinter groups”, as if no other splinter groups had emerged in the past 30 years. Sinn Féin itself was described as a “party of protest”, which is a strange term for a party that is actually part of the government in Northern Ireland. But sure up there doesn’t count.
A sequence of statistics was introduced in the midst of the programme, under the heading of ‘The Troubles’. The lists of dead and injured did not bother distinguish between the victims of violence from Republican groups and those who were victims of British State and loyalist paramilitary violence, thereby lending the impression that Sinn Féin was in fact the fons et origo of the Northern conflict. Seen in the light of recent revelations about direct British State involvement in the sectarian murders of dozens of Catholics, the complete effacement from the scene of any hint of oppression on the part of British forces was an insult both to the victims of these murders and other atrocities, and to the intelligence of the public.
Particularly dreadful, I thought, was Ursula Halligan’s description of Martin McGuinness as “a man without much of an education who became Education Minister”. Regardless of what you think about Martin McGuinness personally, the remark was redolent of the grossest unionist condescension towards working class people in the North. In the case of Martin McGuinness, as was the case with most working class men of his age at that time, he was consigned to the educational scrapheap at age 11 on account of an education system that was intended to reproduce class inequality and to divide society into those who would administer and lead, and those who would be administered to and led. Whatever education he did obtain was clearly sufficient to the task of Education Minister. Such a remark says more about the intellectual calibre of political correspondents than it does about any child who failed the iniquitous 11 plus exam, which McGuinness rightly sought to abolish.
As ever, the North only appears in the purview of the southern media establishment in order to mobilise the bogey of “the men of violence”, and to present a gloomy tableau of what happens whenever there is protest and dissent. Such appearances are calibrated to the maintenance of rule in a one policy State dedicated to the violence of the hidden hand of the market, or, when it sets fly from Shannon Airport or rampages against protestors in Rossport, the violence of the hidden fist.