Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
As always, summer comes and goes fast, but then we are only really talking about a couple of months, and less when we are thinking of our ‘time off’ or ‘time out’. I hope you were able to get your head showered, metaphorically speaking, and at least a bit of a break. Welcome to the autumn – and the autumn equinox takes place later this month when we enter the darker half of the year. Every season has its pluses and minuses but unfortunately this winter we will have to see how well people can survive in terms of heating, what government financial supports people have to help them get through it, and the knock on effects of the expense involved for the rest of their lives and living. So it is a time of great uncertainty and dread for many.
Was it global warming in general, a short but very hot spell in July, a mild winter and spring, all these, or what? Normally the redcurrants last on our bush – if protected by netting from the birds (who have plenty else to eat at that time of year!) – until a good way through August. We used to pick them all together but then discovered that they lasted well on the bush for quite some time. Not this year however – they were turning to mush before the end of July and when we went to pick them all a significant amount were unusable. I don’t know the reason but it could be all the factors mentioned above. Incidentally you can make beautiful wine from red/white/black/any colour currants – I haven’t done it but have sampled some excellent Finnish currant wine, indistinguishable to my palate [or your pallet? – Ed] from a good grape wine.
In gardening, as in life, some things are blindingly obvious, the reason for some things can only be guessed at, and the reason for other things remain beyond even an educated guess. But as a gardener for some decades I do know that the certainty of a hard frost before the end of October has disappeared completely with climate change, now it can be the end of the year or into the new year. When nasturtiums go to mush is my visible guide to a hard frost; this last year some – not all – survived right through to grow afresh this spring, and have provided great colour up a trellis on a shed wall.
As yet Ireland has escaped relatively unscathed from climate change. But what if the Gulf Stream slows further or stops? And what damage will storms wreak in the future? And drought could strike the east of the country. We should not be complacent for ourselves, and certainly not for others as the world hots up and droughts and floods increase. We remain to see whether Roman nomenclature of ‘Hibernia’ for Ireland could be an accurate blessing or curse – if the Gulf Stream stopped the label might indeed be even more accurate – Newfoundland here we come?
More generally this July and August I found it amazing to stand in the sunshine and watch the insects, including numerous Small Tortoiseshell butterflies, on our oregano, helichrysum/strawflowers, fennel and other flowers. They were all busy as bees, some were bees, but it felt a privilege to watch such a display of life and insect industry. It may seem a bit crass and simplistic to say, but if we take care of the insects (a small but not the smallest of life forms yet a vitally important part of our ecological system) then our world will certainly help take care of us.
Civil and religious liberty for all
The concept of ‘civil and religious liberty for all’ is a noble one and anyone who supports equality would find it hard to disagree with it. But what does it actually mean in practice? Is it just a slogan? Is ‘all’ all-inclusive? And if there are competing or conflicting rights, who gets to decide? Such issues are of major import in Northern Ireland or, indeed, anywhere.
‘Civil and religious liberty for all’ is a central slogan of the Orange Order. The marching season in the North is now over and this year was the first year that things were ‘normal’ for it after a couple of years of Covid. Thankfully things passed off relatively peacefully, a wheelie bin thrown towards a band and a broken window (in the one incident) are not, by the standards of some previous years (and centuries), anything much to write home about, distressing as this may have been for those involved.
Arlene Foster has been busy reinventing herself as an activist-cum-spokeperson for civic unionism. And there is a case to be made for unionism and the Norn Iron link with Britain which is often ignored in shibboleth-laden diatribes. In the same way that some supporters of civic nationalism have been trying to move on with what a united Ireland would mean in practice, unionism can examine itself and what ‘the Union’ means or could mean, and rational debate or argument on both sides is to be encouraged. There are debates about whether ‘the centre ground’ has actually grown in the North or simply coalesced more, in electoral terms, around the Alliance Party, but ‘the fact is’ that it is this ‘centre ground’ (covering quite numerous views) which will get to swing the day if it comes to a referendum on a united Ireland in some years to come. Yes, nationalism is somewhat waxing and unionism waning but the floating voters will be the people that both sides have to persuade to go with them.
This is relatively positive in import in that it might persuade unionism and nationalism to be at their best and most cooperative of behaviours – though ‘might’ here is the operative word. For example, unionism shows no sign of compromising on the Northern Ireland Protocol although they would say that it is a question of principle; a LucidTalk poll for the Belfast Telegraph showed 82% of unionist voters believing the DUP should not return to Stormont until the Protocol is scrapped or significantly changed. Yes, that certainly indicates the issue needs dealt with but the Northern Ireland Protocol is not the only issue around and Claire Hanna of the SDLP has pointed out how much nationalists have to constitutionally compromise on a day to day basis in the North: “hundreds of thousands of us in Northern Ireland who do not identify as unionists constitutionally compromise every single day; we live in a reality where the governance lines do not directly match up with our identity…..” https://www.irishtimes.com/world/uk/2022/06/30/london-letter-belfast-banter-in-westminster-reveals-protocol-home-truths/
To return to Arlene Foster, she presented live coverage of the Twelfth parades for GB News television (the BBC were only doing a compilation programme this year, leading to loyalist protests) and wrote a piece in the News Letter https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/opinion/columnists/arlene-foster-bbc-ni-wont-cover-the-twelfth-live-so-we-are-stepping-in-with-gb-news-and-if-you-see-me-in-armagh-be-sure-to-say-hello-3763031 advocating for the Orange cause.
However I suspect Arlene Foster’s grasp of Irish history is a bit lacking, she probably never had the opportunity to study it at Enniskillen Collegiate, or in the unlikely event she did get to study it she is ignoring a crucial element. She said in the article that “This 12th of July, whatever about the naysayers, we will once again celebrate William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne and the Glorious Revolution — Civil and Religious liberty for all.” King William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ did not establish ‘civil and religious liberty for all’ in Ireland or elsewhere, it perpetuated control by the Protestant, Anglican, upper class and in Ireland the impoverishment and exclusion of Catholics from society and the possibility of economic or political advancement. To think that the Battle of the Boyne established civil and religious liberty for all is a myth and a dangerous one as well because it justifies radical discrimination that is not labelled as discrimination. King James might have been as bad, or worse, the other way around, if he had won, but it is William’s forces who won the day and the effects of his victory that we are judging.
In a divided, polarised society like the North there can be a tendency to think that ‘our’ side is better, all round more civilised, than the other lot, and this is across the board, it is a middle class trait as well as working class. It is present in polite society who may extend the feeling of ‘otherness’ to working class people in general; sectarianism and classism can be intermixed.
Getting people to acknowledge the flaws and imperfections on their/’our’ side, and examine their/our myths and shibboleths, is a major task. However until this happens there remains the risk of fractures in society in the North, and resultant violence. United Kingdom or United Ireland, it does matter but overcoming prejudice is a major task whatever flag flies. Northern Ireland at the start of the recent Troubles is a strong lesson in how a society with such fissures can quickly deteriorate into violent chaos – and the former Yugoslavia is an even more brutal example.
Dam it anyway
Typoos – typographical errors – are impossible to eraddyate. Getting rid of one you may cause another. However a classic appeared in a Belfast Telegraph article in mid-July on “15 of Northern Ireland’s hidden gems for staycation visits”. https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/15-of-northern-irelands-hidden-gems-for-staycation-visits-41843818.html Regarding Mossley Mill, north of Belfast, this advised that “Located in the heart of Newtownabbey, Mossley Mill is a fond location for anyone familiar with the small village’s flax milling community. The location has a large damn visitors can walk around and even offers fishing.” Well, dam it anyway. But I am a veggie and I think fishing is cruel, and fish are sentient, social creatures. So that might even cause me to utter a dam or something worse.
My humorous or light-hearted headline of the month, though, goes to the BBC NI website: “Pole-dancing axe thrower wins world title”. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-62717150 There can’t have been any ground for the article to be axed, it wasn’t a hatchet job, the writer had no axe to grind – and I wasn’t bothered to axe about it since I saw it on the website. It all sounds like an interesting way to fly off the handle, and good to hear of someone from this island reaching her target on the world stage. Take a bow, Ceola McGowan from Sligo who is clearly at the cutting edge of her sport. [Billy, unfortunately you seem to have missed the bull’s eye for puns here – Ed]
On a more serious note, it was good to see Suzanne Breen, also in the Tele, https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/columnists/suzanne-breen/bloody-friday-and-role-of-14-year-old-hero-stephen-parker-must-not-be-forgotten-41845237.html (pay wall though) writing to remember Stephen Parker who died fifty years previously. Stephen Parker was a young hero, warning people of a bomb on Bloody Friday in north Belfast in July 1972. His father subsequently founded Witness for Peace. https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/albums/72157675161158637 Dying while warning others of the IRA bomb that killed him, Stephen Parker deserves all the memorialisation possible. Had he lived he would now be approaching retirement age and possibly playing with grandchildren but his life was snuffed out as a young teenager on a day that acted as a very effective recruiting sergeant for loyalist paramilitaries (just as Bloody Sunday had done for the IRA).
Apropos of nothing, I thought of the old (more than a century old) pun “If you weren’t so Ballymena with your Ballymoney we’d have a Ballycastle to be our Ballyholme” – Ballyholme is near Bangor, Co Down so they are all Northern places. But unfortunately in the winter to come most people will not be thinking of a castle for a home but just staying warm and fed. And on a world scale those who have done least to cause the ecological crisis are those who are suffering most from climate change. Anything we can do to make it a less cruel and more caring world is certainly required of us and that includes collective political as well as individual action.
Until I see you again, take care of yourself, take care of others, Billy.