Arlene – you can’t have your ‘Cultural Cake’ and eat it if you don’t stand up to the Gregory Campbells – By Eamonn Mallie

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One of the main arguments prosecuted by DUP leader Arlene Foster and some Unionists to counter nationalist demands for equality and parity of esteem is that nationalists are seeking ‘Cultural Supremacy.’

‘Cultural supremacy’ can be defined as follows: ‘someone believing that a particular type or group of people should lead or have control over other types or groups of people because they believe they are better.’

Unionists are laying the charge that nationalism is about super imposing its notion of culture upon those who do not share its outlook – seeking to demonstrate it is superior.

Culture is further defined as ‘the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.’

Culture reveals itself through politics, religion, sport, dancing, language, customs, music, song, storytelling, accents, flags, festivals, marches, anniversaries, landmark events, battles, victories, famine, emigration to name some of the defining events shaping our lives.

People normally choose or inherit one or more of these to define their identity or that for which they stand.

On balance it is this mix in our cultural make-up in Northern Ireland which ought to add to the richness of the tapestry of life: this mix has real merit conditional upon there being no desire to dominate.

The late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich spelling out why he disagreed with the IRA’s campaign of violence told me “if I live under the same roof as you and I go out each weekend and I get drunk, return home and I break your windows  – you will not invite me to your Christmas party.”

The above was a metaphor to demonstrate the wrongness of the IRA terror campaign waged against their Protestant neighbours.

This was not the way to build bridges then or now.

Opting to ignore the emotions or feelings of one’s neighbour may well come down to ignorance, bad manners, intimidation, bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism and there may well be other motivating factors including xenophobia.

In society in Northern Ireland, parading, marching, policing, anniversaries, sport, the flying of flags, cultural expression, legal protection of the language one chooses to speak such as ‘gaeilge,’ can all end up ‘hot button’ issues.

Northern Ireland obsesses more about the right to march than most normal societies.

It obsesses more too about which flag flies where and when.

In a democracy the right to protest, march or congregate is a given, conditional upon all of this happening within the framework of the rule of law – a rule of law which cannot be set aside where any of the aforementioned encroaches on the rights of other citizens.

It is a truism to say that the population of Northern Ireland is not homogeneous – au contraire – it is a very divided community of conflicting political aspirations, conflicting theologies, conflicting narratives, conflicting sporting interests, conflicting language interests and conflicting historical perspectives.

Many of the cultural and political events people want to mark in Northern Ireland have deeply rooted histories like the 1916 Easter Sunday Rising which ultimately led to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland.

Common sense demands that the Easter Sunday Parades, marking the 1916 Rising, do not take place at any interface or in a district where the feelings of the adjacent community are incompatible with such a commemoration. Sensibly this does not happen.

Were such a violation to take place the rule of law would justifiably be applied by the police rigorously and must not be set aside, remaining mindful all the time, of the rights of those who identify with The Easter Sunday Rising.

The thesis prosecuted above argues the rule of law is paramount in all circumstances.

In the past month a small number of people in business and public life in Belfast, all non Catholics, asked me “why is the rule of law set aside in Belfast in July?”

Surely that is a question for Chief Constable George Hamilton – not for a journalist I thought.

The question posed was prompted by events surrounding the Twelfth of July demonstrations and the Eleventh Night bonfires lit in many Protestant/loyalist districts in Northern Ireland.

Many of the bonfires are made up of wooden pallets and tyres with some reaching over 100 ft tall.

In North Belfast Winston Irvine advises that following a consultation in 2009 the number of bonfires in the Woodvale area interfacing with Ardoyne were rolled into one, mindful of reducing levels of pollution and danger to property and members of the public.

He further adds that it was agreed to end burning the Tricolour and effigies of elected members of Sinn Féin and the SDLP and Catholic Church symbols.

This is not the case in East Belfast and in other districts.

Less than due regard is afforded to the sites elected for the bonfires by the builders in some cases, with little evidence that the appropriate agents of State pro-actively intervene to re-locate these bonfires despite the potential dangers to life and property.

There is ample evidence of scorched earth and environs and damaged property in the aftermath of the Eleventh Night to persuade the authorities to actually police these activities in the interests of all, including the bonfire builders who have shown themselves to be extremely architecturally adroit.

Clearly my questioners had in mind the apparent indifference of the agents of law and order in challenging the displays of flags in mixed areas, of sectarian, anti-social behaviour, of the burning of the Union flag in the case of a Derry bonfire recently, of the burning of The Tricolour, nationalist symbols, Catholic symbols, and effigies of elected members of the SDLP and Sinn Féin on Eleventh Night bonfires.

Why do the authorities appear to abdicate in applying the rule law in July when it comes to these matters? They rigorously apply the rule of law throughout the rest of the year.

How can Arlene Foster portray the nationalist demand for legislation to protect the use of ‘Gaeilge’ from abusers of the language like Gregory Campbell MP as a push for ‘Cultural Supremacy’ when she refuses to call his likes to order?

To her credit in the wake of some of the more extreme outcroppings on bonfires Mrs Foster said:

“It was wrong to have posters of political opponents.

“And indeed the coffin with Martin McGuinness’ face on it was not part of my culture, and it is not part of our culture, and therefore it should not have happened and I condemn it.”

Mrs Foster also addressed the issue of bonfires built close to property, including homes that had to be doused with water by firefighters to protect them from the heat and flames.

The DUP leader added:

“It is important that those who want to celebrate by building bonfires have respect for the people who live close by.

“Unfortunately, we saw over the Eleventh Night some buildings were in danger of being damaged and that’s wrong – because those people have to live there and they have to continue to live there after the Twelfth is over” she said.

How cognizant however is Mrs Foster that in the eyes of nationalists what happens during some of these Orange demonstrations and the Eleventh Night is ‘cultural supremacy’ writ large?

What is baffling to nationalists also is the apparent complicity of the police and the agents of the State in adopting a ‘softly softly approach’ to manifestations of sectarianism and burning of nationalist effigies etc.

Orangeism has a long history behind it: thousands and thousands of people identify with what they view as both a religious and a patriotic association: religious in that it has its roots firmly grounded in England’s so called Reformed Heritage, and patriotic, through reflecting an allegiance to the British Crown.

Why should nationalists logically or legally seek to deny these facts of history to which their Protestant neighbours so dearly cling?

Were nationalists to move to undo the monuments, trappings and symbolism associated with Orange culture including its murals, bands and other lawful manifestations – that would be gratuitous and an act of ‘cultural supremacy.’ Burning Orange halls is indisputably an act of ‘Cultural Supremacy’ which is totally unacceptable.

There is an onus on all nationalists to stand up to such developments.

That said, there is an onus on the leadership of the Orange Order and on people like Arlene Foster to lead to bring to an end what can only be interpreted by right thinking people of all persuasions, the offensive perverse burning on bonfires of effigies of nationalist elected representatives, of the Tricolour and of catholic symbols.

The same duty of care falls to nationalist politicians in the event of the burning of the Union flag on any bonfire.

In conclusion, while respecting Arlene Foster for her condemnation of the worst aspects of the Eleventh Night bonfires she is on narrow ground talking of ‘cultural supremacy’ at the hands of nationalists, as long as she fails to call out the cheer leaders in her party including Assembly members and MPs who abuse ‘Gaeilge’ as a language and lend support to sectarianism through their presence on the Eleventh Night while effigies of nationalist politicians are being set alight.

Why will she not exercise some control over her elected members – such as Gregory Campbell who wallows in practising spewing out an anti nationalist commentary smacking of ‘Cultural Supremacy?’

He is not a lone wolf: witness the decision of Minister Paul Givan to kill off the ‘Irish Language Bursary funds’ for young people wishing to spend time in the Gaeltacht where Gaeilge is spoken as its first language.

No one in their right mind ought to afford tolerance to the reported train of thought attributed to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams replying to Gregory Campbell’s parodying of the Irish language.

Adams said he was often asked by republicans “What’s the point?

“They weren’t blaming Sinn Féin – in fact they were making the point that Sinn Féin were doing their best,” he said.

“But what’s the point?

“The point is actually to break these bastards – that’s the point.

“And what’s going to break this is equality. That’s what’s going to break them – equality.”

Michelle Gildernew MP’s talk about ‘teaching Arlene Foster manners” is not helpful either.

She was rightly ticked off by Northern Ireland Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill.

Where is the grace or healing in any of these derogatory comments uttered by politicians on either side of the community?

Where is the grace in Arlene Foster accusing nationalists of demanding ‘Cultural Supremacy’ while wilfully confusing this with nationalists’ request for fair play and justice?

How can one take Mrs Foster seriously on these matters all the time ignoring Gregory Campbell and others in her ranks who consistently spew out anti nationalist insults and rhetoric about their language and culture?

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About Author

Eamonn Mallie

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. Excellent piece, Eamonn. It shouldn’t really be that difficult, but leadership requires the courage to lead — not to follow — and, as you so often say, it requires the quality of graciousness.

  2. After sixty years of living here, I am so tired of watching endlessly where all the children eventually go. If they could they would crawl back to the wombs of their ancestors and Lord I wish they could. Leave alone the notion of grace there is no understanding of the simple nature of respect in this society, north south east or west of a border. We turn a blind eye to everything unless it is offending us directly, we don’t step up to the mark to consider how a stranger feels or thinks, or what we can do to encourage him and her from their insecure and childlike ways. Are we are brothers keeper?

  3. Jake Mac Siacais (@MacSiacais) on

    Píosa an-mhaith Eamonn. Bhí an cur is cuiteamh le Nelson McCausland iontach suimiúl fosta. Caithfidh go bhfuil ionadaí tofa ag an DUP le cur chun tosaigh in ionad Nelson, nach dtugann mórán chuig an tabla. Ní thiocfadh leis fiú a phobal féin a ghríosiú chun vóta a thabhairt dó.Tá díospóireacht a dhíth air seo ag leibheál éigin. Caithfidh Arlene seasamh a ghlacadh mar a deireann tú féin. Maith thú coinnigh leis and dea-obair

  4. With an untimely reference to Christmas you lurch into the Cuckoo metasphere and chide A. Foster. There is only one Gregory Campbell MP unless I’m mistaken.
    Are you suggesting a brood of cuckoos or the like are in the henhouse?

  5. Thank you Eamonn for expressing in a measured way what very many ordinary moderate people from a so called nationalist back ground feel. I am not a Sinn Fein voter at all but as said above am a very moderate Catholic who would love to have respect from all within our community in Northern Ireland.I do not at appreciate at all the, burning of Cathiolic effigies at bonfires but do appreciate not all participants agree with it.
    I go to see N Ireland soccer matches but still have never been made to feel totally happy about the various banners etc. I am also doing my best to bring more of my friends to Windsor Park. Strange because I also follow GAA big time.

    If the more extreme Unionist politicians could recognise this feeling and understand it then we could move forward. PLEASE ARLENE AND DUP – UNDERSTAND WE ARE NOT ALL AGAINST UNIONIST CULTURE OR EXPRESSION OF THIS . JUST GIVE US A BREAK AND LET US ENJOY OR MUSIC/ sport etc without judgement. I have no problem at all with the 12th marches etc.. As long as they don’t degrade or display antagonism towards my faith/ irishness.
    Mocking the Irish language is a real shame, though I can only speak a few expressions myself. Finally I agree that as long as Unionism displays a major lack of respect towards Irish culture then votes will flow in for SF. Thanks Eamonn. Hope I don’t get into trouble?..

  6. Jake Mac Siacais (@MacSiacais) on

    Have re-read this piece and have just listened to Nelson McCausland’s exchange with you on BBC Talkback. Eamonn your piece is very measured and balanced. People are called out where necessary and praised where praise is due.
    Nelson, and I’m being as charitable as I can here, is just so far off the mark that it would leave you in despair. I do, however, believe that Nelson is reflective of an inflexibility which is gladly receding. He is representative of a dwindling band and I was glad when his own electorate rejected him. Perhaps it’s time for BBC to stop giving Nelson so much airtime. Keep up the good work Eamonn and let’s have much more from your excellent site from as diverse a range of contributors as possible.

  7. interesting article,
    it’ s not difficult to
    fall into a state of despair
    and yes an attempt at ‘ cultural supremecy’ is happening from both camps,but off course they
    would both deny it.
    On talk back tuesday the 29th past, Eamon talked about actions ( and i include insults as actions)
    of Unionist politicians driving former SDLP voters towards Sinn Fein
    ,to a certain degree this may be so ,but it ignores a much greater ‘ paradigm ‘
    shift which has happened
    over recent years .And that is
    this: there has been a very subtle shift going on

    within the Nationalist ‘ community’ which involves the GAA and Sinn Fein merging as one .
    this has led to a sort of Pan Nationalist identity
    involving Sinn Fein and the GAA and Irish Language interests. It works from the ground up and Sinn Fein have very cleverly merged
    themselves from within the GAA ,without even the GAA actually noticing. The SDLP have been the big losers in all of this. Now we have a situation where Sinn Fein are refusing to
    return to Stormount unless certain outstanding issues
    are dealt with ie. ‘Act na Gaelige’ . They ‘ Sinn Fein’ have very cleverly convinced the Natioalist population that an Irish Language act is their ‘ birth right’. an Irish language act is not a cilv right, it may be a desirable social
    wish,and achievable in the long term.but is not a priority,and should not be used aa a salvo in the ‘ cultural cold war’ we are all involved in

  8. sorry for any typing
    and or spelling,aberrations
    using one finger tapping
    coupled with short sight
    and little ‘ schooling’
    can get in the
    way of good grammar.

  9. Interesting article indeed. I think the 12th is given the proverbial by ball by the Police because they simply couldn’t contain the outrage if they interfere. It’s probably in the PSNI Health & Safety book.
    SF/DUP have both had their largest mandate ever by doing exactly what they do. A change by either risks losing support and that means losing votes.

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