Setting the unionist cat amongst the cultural pigeons: Nelson McCausland on why unionists ignore culture at their peril

The Gransha Suite at La Mon Hotel had obviously been packed with DUP Conference delegates for the previous session on Challenges in Policing when I eventually arrived earlier this evening. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott was still giving a few interviews to the press while a Lambeg Drum was being set up on the other side of the stage.

Nelson McCausland was up next, addressing DUP delegates as a dedicated follower of culture and MLA, rather than as Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Nelson McCausland watching pupils from Belfast Boys Model School practicing their Fifes and Drum before his session at 2010 DUP Conference on Why unionists ignore culture at their peril

He started by defining culture as “cultural traditions, heritage and sport”, saying that these were the things that “give us a sense of place, a sense of community and a sense of belonging”.

For the past two years, children at some schools have been learning the fyffes fifes and drums. Some pupils from Belfast Boys Model School then got up to demonstrate their skills.

At this point turn the volume of your computer up loud and click play below. (MP3)

Nelson’s pitch was that a city like Belfast was “no longer an industrial powerhouse” so “we need to look in new directions for the economy”. He singled out creative industries, cultural tourism and cultural industries as examples.

There is an argument that UK and Ireland are now so reliant on service industries and the knowledge economy that we’re doomed. In a post-recession economic wasteland, people who can produce things will be king. Thinkers and tour guides will be forming a queue at the expanding number of dole offices that will be sprouting up on street corners like Starbucks franchises. So Nelson’s mileage may vary …

What brings people to Northern Ireland for a holiday? It’s not going to be the sunshine.

Nelson suggested that more could be made of existing tourist sites to draw in foreign visitors. He pointed to America’s love for 7th President Andrew Jackson and suggested that the Andrew Jackson Cottage near Carrickfergus should erect a flagpole, fly the Stars and Stripes and advertise to Americas onboard cruise ships as they sail into Belfast Lough to dock for some shopping and sightseeing. The speculated that the Ulster-Scots Academy [which I think is the same body as the Ullans Academy?] could “produce a exhibition and an experience that is accurate, authentic and entertaining”.

Successful Ulster golfers bring overseas business to NI golf courses. Calling it “Team GB” means that we miss the opportunity to be included in the branding – Nelson favours switching to “Team UK”.

James Gamble, co-founder of Procter and Gamble, was born near Enniskillen and educated in Portora Royal School. Why don’t we connect with the Ulster diaspora?

The lecture then changed to look at Irish culture. Rather than looking for best practice and successful ideas from that sphere, Nelson quickly turned to critique the politicisation of Irish culture, going back to the late 19th century Gaelic revival and quoted a line from a 1982 speech by a Sinn Fein cultural officer Patrick McCreevy who said

“Every phrase you learn [in Irish] is a bullet in the freedom struggle.” (Padrig O’Maoicraoibhe)

It’s a subject Nelson has touched on before, including in a letter to the Belfast Telegraph in July 2007. Sinn Fein’s “cultural war” is serving to strengthen the nationalists community and at the same tie undermining unionist community (by demeaning unionist culture and trying “to convince unionists that they are really Irish).

Slide about Irish/Nationalist culture - part of Nelson McCausland's session at 2010 DUP Conference on Why unionists ignore culture at their peril

With a decade of centenaries just around the corner, he challenged how the Northern Irish angle of the 1916 Easter Rising [link to a post on Nelson’s blog] might be celebrated in 2016. He mischievously explained that the northern rebellion consisted of Denis McCullough the president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood taking 150 followers on the train to Tyrone. Reaching Dungannon they met Patrick McCartan, leader of the local Tyrone volunteers who wanted reassurances that the Pope had given his blessing to the rising and that German guns had arrived in Kerry. They turned around and headed back to Belfast. McCullough accidentally shot himself in the hand on the journey home. “Not much to celebrate” suggested Nelson.

Nelson McCausland speaking at his session at 2010 DUP Conference on Why unionists ignore culture at their perilWithin the “broad church” of unionism, Nelson identified historical characters worth celebrating: Francis Hutcheson, Lord Kelvin and Amy Carmichael. He quoted the 1975 Bullock Report and its assertion that “no pupil should be expected to … live and act as if school and home represent two totally separate and different cultures which have to be kept firmly apart”. Catholic schools and their embedded cultural teaching seemed to be the one area where Nelson felt unionist could learn something. After all, if a school in a nationalist area could put on a play about Robert Emmet (an Irish rebel) …

For any cultural or linguistic tradition to thrive, it needs to be in two places. It needs to be in the school where it is affirmed and validated and passed on; but it also needs to be there on the media. And the question is are we getting a fair share of cultural expression from the community that we belong to in terms of BBC, UTV and the other channels. There are issues there we take up and are still taking up with the BBC.”

He finished by referring to the lack of unionist cultural content in the Belfast Festival at Queens.

Too often we have allowed our cultural traditions to be marginalised and excluded. And in many ways there is still a cultural establishment where unionists are under-represented and therefore it is easy for those organising events programmes festivals to forget about us or to ignore us. And that’s something we need to challenge.

As an example, he pointed to the absence of crowd-drawing gospel concerts from the festival programme. [Update – Nelson has now blogged about cultural inclusivity and gospel music in particular over on The Minister’s Pen blog.]

Was quality an issue? In an ad-libbed remark, he went on to say

I did point out that one of the star turns in the Queens Festival this year was Hugo Duncan. So I reckoned that if Hugo Duncan was of high enough standard for the Queens Festival I think we should be all right.

Guess who’s not going to get a Christmas card from his Uncle Hugo this year!

Overall, quite a different approach to the spirit of openness and shared exploration voiced by Nelson’s party colleague and ex-leader Lord Bannside at the Columbanus Celebration earlier this week.

The full audio (MP3) from the 35 minute session is available if you’re interested.

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