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The Vacuum Issue 9 spacer Issue 9
Lovely Local Politics - Oh, What An Unlovely War
by Stephen Baker
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Northern Ireland politics are unlovely. This is not the result of political differences or a by-product of the troubles. Being unlovely has been a deliberate strategy employed by all sides during the conflict, a way to terrorise and shock opponents and onlookers alike.
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There is the obviously appalling aspect of the troubles that left over 3000 people dead. Loyalists and republicans conducted campaigns of assassination where victims were targeted on their door steps, in their beds, in their workplace or local bar. Bombs were smuggled into offices, pubs and shops. Worshippers were murdered as they prayed; mourners shot dead while they grieved; men strapped into vehicles loaded with explosives and detonated before they could get free. Meanwhile political representatives tried to dignify these squalid hit-and-run atrocities as a war but Northern Ireland's troubles were only partially a war story. They also had a chilling affinity with horror.
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In fiction, horror is always about arousing fear and anxiety in readers and views, usually by presenting them with the uncivilised, the unclean, the anarchic or threat to order and control. Horror has its own imagery of blood and bodily fluids; corpses in various states of decomposition or alteration, knives and axes. Historically others have been quick to use such horrific motifs to explain and represent political violence in Ireland. For some it was a way of contrasting their own assumed modernity with Ireland's primordial backwardness. In the late 1800s Punch magazine included satirical cartoons that often presented the revolting Irish as an assortment of Calibans, Frankensteins, and vampires. Ironically it was Irish authors such as Bram Stoker and Sheridan Le Fanu who had popularised many of these gothic monsters and terrorised the imaginations of their Victorian audiences.
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For the English, depictions of the Irish as monsters and miscreants explained the intractability of the conflict across the water. If the Irish were simply monstrous and predisposed to violence then the British were absolved of any responsibility for the conflict in Ireland. This continued to be the case as late as 1982 when the London Evening Standard produced a cartoon that revived the horror motif as an explanation for the troubles. The cartoon featured a confused looking gent looking at a billboard advertising a horror film. The poster read: 'Emerald Island Snuff Movies Present the Ultimate in Psychopathic Horror - The Irish' and it contained an assortment of simian, fanged creatures, representing loyalists and republicans, crawling over gravestones and armed with knives, drills and saws.
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Explaining away the troubles as a horror story was not confined to cartoons. Carol Reed's classic Odd Man Out (1944) represented Belfast city itself as a monster; a claustrophobic warren of barely illuminated narrow streets. The film's chiaroscuro style, harsh lighting and ominous shadows, and the grotesque Expressionist sets that represent the city recalled the seminal horror of films like Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) and F. W Murnau's Nosferatu (1922). In Reed's film, Johnny McQueen, a fatally wounded IRA volunteer, was destroyed by his own propensity for violence but his fate was surely linked to the distorted and disturbing urban environment in which he was ensnared.
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There are other examples in film and literature of the troubles in Northern Ireland being presented in horrific terms and most of them have drawn strong criticism from cultural critics. Rightly so, for interpreting the troubles as a struggle between the primordial forces of darkness and light gives the impression that the problem is as eternal as it is intractable.
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It is one thing for the uninitiated to take such a simplistic approach to the troubles but loyalists and republicans have also utilised horror's imagery and conventions. The result has been some unlovely and decrepit politics.
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The masked loyalists that burst into a crowded Greysteel bar on Halloween night in 1993 certainly demonstrated a playful understanding of the generic conventions of horror when they shouted 'trick or treat' before indiscriminately spraying the interior with gunfire.
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Horror in the Northern Ireland troubles went deeper than the black wit of a loyalist assassin. It was an integral part of the loyalist arsenal. Loyalist killers seemed to positively revel in a reputation for monstrousness. As the Independent's Michael McKittrick wrote at the time of the massacre in Greysteel, 'one of the most striking features of loyalist terrorists: that for sheer hot-blooded, vengeful savagery they can often leave the IRA standing. The IRA uses murder as a cold blooded and clinically calculated means to a political end; loyalist assassins often leave the unmistakable impression that they are men who enjoy their work'. Republican aggression was always easier to rationalise in political terms than loyalist violence. Loyalists assassinations seemed indiscriminate, unconscionable and wild but they were never mindless. The horrific savagery of loyalist attacks was a message to republicans telling them that any atrocity the IRA could countenance and execute loyalists would surpass in terms of ruthlessness and barbarity.
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In the cycle of sectarian assassinations their were awful precedents. None were more shocking than the Shankill Butchers whose preference for torturing their victims with knives, meat cleavers and axes before murdering them by-passed all the usual practices of political assassination. Rather the ritualistic element of their crimes bore all the hallmarks of human sacrifice. It was hardly surprising then that the Shankill Butchers provided the pretext for Northern Ireland's first horror film, Marc Evans' Resurrection Man (1998).
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Resurrection Man is one of the most troubling and intriguing cinematic representations of the troubles. On the surface it is a tale of urban gangsters but a closer look reveals its debt to the vampire film and slasher flick. Its loyalist killer, Victor Kelly, conducts a reign of terror by night, prowling Belfast's streets for victims to slash and slaughter. The film shares more than a passing resemblance to Hitchcock's Psycho, surely the granddaddy of all slashers. Victor, like Norman Bates has oedipal issues and a preference for knife attacks. He disposes of one victim in the appropriately named Tombe Street bath house, a gargantuan recreation of Psycho's notorious shower scene, with its pipes, porcelain and blood stained shower curtains. But Victor is as much the Prince of Darkness as Norman Bates. His vampyric persona is alluded to in his sexualised lust for blood, the nocturnal hours he keeps, his swarthy good looks and sexual ambiguity.
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Resurrection Man twins Belfast with Transylvania and it casts loyalism in the starring role of the city's undead. Predictably loyalist politicians were outraged at this chilling depiction on film but the gable walls of Protestant housing estates suggested that others were sanguine about their association with horror. A popular wall mural in working class Protestant areas draws an uncanny parallel with Marc Evans' film. In Derry's Bond Street it takes the shape of a revived corpse, dressed in a traditional red army tunic signifying Britain's imperial past. It charges across a battle-scared and apocalyptic wasteland clutching a tattered Union flag in one hand and a sword dripping blood in the other. In the background the iconography of Irish nationalism in the shape of the Free Derry wall is burning. In the foreground a fallen Irish patriot, indicated by a green tunic, lies prostrate at the feet of the resurrected Imperial cadaver. This is loyalism's own 'resurrection man'. It is an horrific image that serves as a warning to opponents of loyalism's apocalyptic potential.
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Republicanism has its own resurrection men that lie in the unquiet graves of the 'fenian dead'. It was Patrick Pearse who established the rather macabre terms for nation building in his funeral panegyric to O'Donovan Rossa in 1915: 'Life springs from death, and from the graves of patriotic men and women spring nations'. Pearse sought to make the nationalist cause congruent with Christ's sacrifice but grafting a political project to a religious discourse of martyrdom had terrible consequences. It bound succeeding generations to the past. The sacred memory of dead patriots legitimised contemporary distress and sacrifice, locking subsequent republicans into a recurring narrative of suffering and martyrdom.
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The ten men who died on hunger strike in the H-Block at Long Kesh in 1981 evoked republicanism's sacrificial heritage but their starvation was more than an act of martyrdom. It employed body horror as a tactic in a political struggle. Body horror is the presentation of the human form in a state of decay or dissolution. The sight of emaciated men, their sallow features and wasting limbs, may have inspired awe among the republican faithful but their sacrifice is just as likely to have drawn bewilderment and revulsion from others. The point of the hunger strike is of course to confront others, in particular the enemy, with the appalling lengths that republicans would go to in the pursuit of political objectives. As Terence McSwinney, who died on hunger strike in 1920, remarked, 'It is not who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most who will conquer.'
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The republican martyr's glorification of suffering distinguishes him from the loyalist resurrection man of Derry's Bond Street wall mural. The republican is passive while loyalism's imperial cadaver is aggressive and apocalyptic. Nevertheless both present the same horrific aspect of decay and fatality, both are death-cults.
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Marx wrote that, 'The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living'. Nowhere have those dead generations weighed more heavily than in Ireland. Whether at the Dublin GPO or the Somme, the sacrifice of forebears has imbued republicanism and loyalism with a religiosity that discourages any critical inspection of their politics. To question the underling tenets of loyalism and republicanism is to speak ill of the dead.
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Politics is never lovely. Politics is about the unequal distribution of power, the abuse of power and the struggles to resist and dissolve power. There is no good reason why politics should aspire to be a beauty contest. But political struggle needn't be as ugly and misshapen as in Northern Ireland where decay into martyrdom and apocalypse seem like political ends in themselves.
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