You might have heard mutterings from the corridors of Stormont buildings referring to Belfast as the cultural capital of Northern Ireland, one that has transcended a bloody 30 year war, and exited the turmoil with a renewed sense of identity and togetherness. Rhetoric aside, there is no doubt that the city, and county for that matter, have changed, but have the ghosts of the past been forgotten, or is there a now unifying force in town?
‘Capitals of culture’
This is a phrase I have been thinking about lately and something that has confused being immensely. Say it out loud, and you think of the likes of Barcelona, Athens or one of the other great European capitals which are dripping with cultural diversity, embodying what its means to be part of that culture. They have a collective identity, a common shared purpose, and despite some internal differences, speak with one voice.
Belfast, on the other hand is not one of those places that you immediately spring to mind when accumulating the European cultural top 10. Why is this you may ask? With the troubles a dinner table taboo, progress and development are now topics for post dining conversation.
The men on the hill, sitting behind their comfy desks all sing from the same hymn sheet, one that has been carefully prepared to prepare the province for modern times.
We are living in disposable times where a weary people live to work, talk about work, write about work, dream about work, gossip about work, and will eventually die because of work.
Has the ship been scuttled by our elected representatives? Has post conflict Northern Ireland been led astray by the powers that be, thus bypassing the crossroads of opportunity in favour of rampant, faceless capitalism?
I see a PFI virtual Disneyland increasingly void of character and identity, homogenized more by the day in the mirror image of the power elite.
There is no doubt that the country is a better place to live than during the troubles, but lets be honest here, that is not difficult. As a people we should not have to settle for this treatment. We are being bent over double by rising prices, combined with some of the lowest wages in Great Britain, pushing most back into a corner of debt and reliance on credit. This is creating a monster culture of servitude in which our children and children’s children will be expected to pick up the bill.
We all now have a role in the movie that is the surveillance state. The proliferation of CCTV cameras in the province is nothing short of breathtaking. Recent study showed that these highly expensive machines do nothing to reduce crime levels. So why waste public money lining the pockets of lecherous private companies profiting from the proliferation of fear? We are all now virtual prisoners in our own communities, guilty until proven otherwise.
This monster will be a difficult beast to tame and who knows which aspect of our lives it will rampage in next?
As the late, great Bill Hicks said,” It's just a ride and we can change it any time we want. It's only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings and money, a choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your door, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one.”
So as far as I can ascertain, there is indeed a unifying cultural aspect within Northern Ireland and this is consumerism. The old religious divides and tribalism remain largely intact, despite what we are told on the news. After the political triumph of the Good Friday Agreement and St Andrew Agreement a vacuum was created in the culture of Northern Ireland. It used to be filled with horrific daily news stories about atrocities committed during the thirty year conflict on the streets of the province. The dawning of relative peace meant that something had to fill this space, something big, and something overwhelming. This where consumer culture was ushered in with it quick fix escapism and feel good therapy, soothing the wounds of war.
We don’t need to buy into this fake opulence and are only at the mercy of the masters if we hand them our support. On the surface the ghosts of the past have been blurred by frantic shopping and mirrored shopping malls, but when the veneer is lifted, one will see a society divided by old differences. Things may have moved on slightly, but not as much as we would like to believe.