Symbolism in Northern Ireland during a pandemic
by Gordon GILLESPIE
6 June 2021
Celebrations and commemorations of events have often been the source of inter- and intra-community tensions in Northern Ireland, and despite the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 health crisis, this proved to be true during the lockdown.
The outbreak of Covid-19 produced a public health crisis on a scale unseen in peacetime in a century. In response to the emergence of Covid-19, social distancing was introduced in the UK on 28 March 2020, with individuals not belonging to the same family or living together being expected to keep two metres apart. Over the course of the following year, restrictions would be tightened and relaxed as the incidence of the virus rose and fell.
Where symbolism and commemoration were concerned political and social leaders (with notable controversial exceptions) generally conformed to health restrictions and urged their supporters to follow suit. At grass roots levels, however, unionist-nationalist cultural conflicts often continued as usual (for example with political or sectarian images on bonfires) or in slightly modified forms. This was often in defiance of requests from political leaders.
Even before the lockdown began many public events were already being cancelled. Among the first public gatherings to be cancelled (on 9 March) were those scheduled for St Patrick’s Day. Following the decision Belfast Lord Mayor Danny Baker (Sinn Féin) said postponing the St Patrick’s Day celebrations was “the responsible thing to do… I believe there is an obligation on myself and all councillors to protect the health and well-being of citizens. We hope to reschedule these celebrations for a time in the not too distant future.”
Many Easter Rising commemorations were also cancelled. Sinn Féin cancelled its annual commemoration on 12 March, with Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald saying, “Our first priority must be the health of workers and the wider community.” Saoradh also called off its commemoration, but Republican Sinn Féin said it would lay wreaths within the existing health requirements. The party called on people to decorate the outside of their homes, instead of laying wreaths.
Sinn Féin also produced several broadcasts to commemorate the Easter Rising, which were available on YouTube. The Irish Republican Socialist Party announced that it was postponing its commemoration on 16 March and the left wing republican party Aontu announced in mid June that, due to health restrictions, its Wolfe Tone commemoration would feature a discussion to be held on Facebook on the night of 24 June.
Funerals were initially restricted to having 10 mourners or fewer. Controversy arose, however, when these rules were apparently ignored at two republican funerals — one for former Sinn Féin councillor Francie McNally in Ballinderry, Co. Tyrone, on 8 April (where a republican colour party accompanied the hearse) and at the funeral of republican activist Patricia Campbell in Turf Lodge in Belfast, on 10 April.
On 9 April, Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said that no one was exempt from the guidance on social distancing. However, the problem of large gatherings at funerals was not confined to those with political connotations. On 27 April, the Belfast Telegraph reported that funeral directors were being “bullied” at wakes and, on 5 May, said that “lives will be lost” if crowds continued to attend funerals.
The funeral of leading Provisional IRA activist Bobby Storey in late June again raised questions around the gathering of large numbers of people at funerals. The funeral cortege on 30 June provided a source of much controversy. Many believed that social distancing measures had been breached, although Sinn Féin denied this was the case (the number of people who could meet together outdoors was increased from a maximum of 10 to 30 on 29 June, but this did not come into effect until 11pm). Alliance Party leader and Justice Minister Naomi Long tweeted that when rule makers broke the rules it was more hurtful, “for all who made huge sacrifices to obey the regulations”. She repeated that gathering in crowds for any reason was dangerous at that time. A “selfie” featuring Michelle O’Neill taken at the time of the funeral also appeared to confirm that O’Neill had broken health regulations.
The situation was complicated even further when it emerged that Storey’s body had not been buried in Milltown Cemetery immediately after a eulogy had been given by Gerry Adams but had, instead, been driven across the city to Roselawn Cemetery crematorium.
Belfast City Council subsequently issued a statement apologising and recognising that eight other families who had attended cremations at Roselawn on the same day as the service for Bobby Storey were not treated equally.
In contrast, the funeral of former SDLP leader and Nobel peace prize winner John Hume on 5 August 2020 saw numbers at the funeral mass in St Eugene’s Cathedral in Derry/Londonderry limited to 120. People were asked not to visit the family home or line the streets and the Hume family asked mourners to show their respect by lighting a candle in their homes, as a “celebration of light for peace”.
At grass roots level it was clear that the events surrounding the funeral had also brought a response from loyalists with bands taking to the streets on 1 July, despite requests from the DUP and Orange Order for them not to do so. Plans for bonfires in loyalist areas, which had seemed to be off the table, also began to reappear. Despite this, unionist leaders continued to appeal for restraint and said that the usual Twelfth celebrations should not go ahead.
Another IRA funeral proved controversial in the midst of Covid restrictions in January 2021. Photographs of the funeral of republican Eamonn McCourt showed a large number of people following the funeral cortege in the Creggan. More than 11 men walked beside the hearse.
On 29 January 2021 loyalists also appeared to breach health regulations during the course of the funeral of UVF member Hugh Hill in north Belfast. An estimated hundred mourners, including UVF leaders, walked behind the coffin. The PSNI again said they were investigating the incident. DUP MLA and Policing Board member Mervyn Storey criticised the number of people attending the Hill funeral saying, “Whether you are a loyalist or a republican, or anybody else — the same rules should apply.”
On 3 June an event that fell outside the usual unionist/nationalist argument was a protest held at Belfast City Hall in response to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, USA on 25 May. Black Lives Matter (BLM) had first emerged in the USA via social media in 2013, in response to the acquittal of a security guard for the killing of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin.
Northern Ireland Executive Economy Minister Diane Dodds said she understood why people wanted to demonstrate, but that large gatherings risked curbing the spread of Covid-19. Minister for Justice, Naomi Long, commented on Twitter that while she supported the protestors’ “just cause”, a gathering at this time was “reckless and could endanger lives”.
Police carried out checks on roads and at transport hubs in advance of further protests planned for 6 June and said anyone travelling to participate could expect to be stopped and advised to return home or face a fine. Organisers of BLM protests in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry said that they planned to go ahead with the protest, but with social distancing measures in place. Planned protests in Newry, Omagh, and Portadown were cancelled.
Several thousand people attended the Custom House Square Belfast protest against the killing of George Floyd, which passed off peacefully although social distancing guidelines at a protest in Derry/Londonderry appeared to be ignored in some instances.
It subsequently emerged that up to 70 people had been issued with fines at the Belfast and Derry/Londonderry protests. Justice Minister Naomi Long described the police response as proportionate, but some protestors disagreed. Ivanka Antova of United Against Racism Belfast commented: “A peaceful protest, where people are socially distancing, was met with heavy duty police vehicles, armoured police vehicles, and with some PSNI officers in riot gear, so that wasn’t a proportionate response.”
There was further controversy surrounding protests following a gathering of several hundred people outside Belfast City Hall on 13 June. The stated intention of those present was to protect war memorials following attacks on memorials in Britain associated with BLM protests. The Northern Ireland Cenotaph Protection Group said it intended to protect memorials from attack.
Some of those present wore British military uniforms, and Union flags were draped over railings at the City Hall. The PSNI made no arrests and no fines were handed out. Assistant Chief Constable Barbara Gray argued that this protest had been in a “very different environment” than those at the BLM protests. This in turn led to the Police Ombudsman launching an inquiry into how police had enforced Covid-19 health regulations at public gatherings. In November 2020, a Policing Board report criticised the way BLM protests had been handled by the PSNI and noted, “Whatever the rights and wrongs of going ahead with the protests and the difficulty of social distancing given the transmission rates for the virus at the time, this approach was not lawful.”
Lilian Seenoi Barr, who had been involved in the BLM rally in Derry/Londonderry, called for an apology from the police and an acknowledgement that they had treated BLM protestors differently from other protests. In December, Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson concluded that claims that the different approaches to the two protests were unfair were justified. Although the different approaches were not based on ethnicity, this was how it was perceived by some ethnic minority members.
Statues and monuments
One of the areas of debate which overflowed from the USA to the UK in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests was the use of statues and the naming of buildings and streets to commemorate individuals. This came to a head when the statue of slave owner Edward Colston was torn down and thrown into Bristol harbour by protestors. While the removal of the Colston statue on 7 June (if not the manner in which it was done) was broadly accepted, it opened the question of which other statues should be removed. Attacks on a statue of Winston Churchill and the Cenotaph in London were clearly not acceptable to most people but this in turn opened the door to right-wing groups converging to oppose the Black Lives Matters protestors on the grounds that they were protecting statues. Some of this heated debate spread to Northern Ireland, itself no stranger to controversies surrounding statues and the naming of places after individuals — the issue of symbolism had been substantially debated in the early years of the post-1998 Northern Ireland Assembly.
In the midst of the controversy, Amnesty International suggested that McGarel Hall in Larne’s Town Hall be renamed, as Charles McGarel had been a slave owner. Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International commented: “The people of Larne need to be aware of the true origins of McGarel’s wealth and make a decision on the hall’s name.” Some of McGarel’s fortune had been left to the town to build the town hall and a plaque with his name had been added in 2004. A spokesperson for the council said there were no plans to change the name of the hall.
At the same time there was also controversy in Newry, where protestors campaigned to have a statue of Irish Republican and slave trade supporter John Mitchel removed. The space formally occupied by Mitchel’s statue would then see a new work of art commemorating Africans and those of African descent who endured slavery. It was suggested that John Mitchel Place should be renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza. The debate reopened traditional controversies in the area however, particularly that surrounding the play park named after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh. Local DUP councillor Billy Walker believed that rather than concentrating on the Mitchel statue, which he called a “sideshow”, “The SDLP and Sinn Féin would be safer sorting out McCreesh Park. After all, he was an out and out terrorist.” Newry, Mourne and Down Council’s equality and good relations group met on 19 June and subsequently issued a statement noting that “it was agreed that officers proceed to clarify responsibility for the John Mitchel statue, develop options for an education programme, identify the origins of John Mitchel Place and give consideration as to other potential issues in relation to slavery within the council area”. Padraig Mac Cionnaith, who had raised a petition to have John Mitchel Place renamed (which had received nearly two thousand signatures), said the council was “kicking the can down the road”:
“The argument of judging historical figures in the historical period they lived doesn’t apply to Mitchel as he campaigned against abolition in slavery’s dying days and was nothing short of a white supremacist. I was hoping the council would take a definitive action by beginning the procedures to rename John Mitchel Place and relocate the statue to the local museum.”
In October, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council allocated £30,000 to a project “redressing and challenging” Mitchel’s legacy. The council asked for an education programme to include workshops, a virtual exhibition detailing Mitchel’s life and legacy, and a new interpretive panel to be placed close to the existing statue. The council said it wanted to provide “a means of expression for the Black Lives Matter campaign supporters throughout the council area”. The project was also intended to “inform the public and the council on the way forward when it comes to dealing with these controversial issues and the legacy of John Mitchel in the area”.
In November 2020, Belfast City Council voted to erect a statue to commemorate nineteenth century American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had visited Belfast as part of a lecture tour in 1845. The proposal was raised by Sinn Féin and was passed unanimously by council members.
Another echo of this debate emerged in February 2021, after Alliance Party Councillor Yvonne Boyle proposed that the Causeway Coast and Glens council recognise Coleraine-born Hercules Mulligan, who had fought with the American revolutionaries in the American War of Independence. The council initially supported the proposal but seemed likely to overturn the decision after it emerged that Mulligan had also been a slave owner. Councillor Boyle responded: “Whilst it is common knowledge he owned a slave — and that is a reprehensible practice — it is important to look at it through the context of the time. Many of America’s founding fathers were slave owners, and Cato, Mulligan’s slave, helped him in his work as a spy. Many believe that he was given his freedom after the war. It is vital however, that this is not ignored. Any future heritage trail must include his slave-owning and abolitionist history when mentioning Hercules Mulligan.” On 2 March, the council voted not to commemorate Mulligan “in any shape or form”.
Rivalry between some supporters of Glasgow football teams Rangers and Celtic had often led to sectarian confrontations in Northern Ireland. In 2021, Glasgow Rangers won the Scottish Premier League title and prevented Celtic winning their tenth successive title. On the Shankill Road in Belfast hundreds of Rangers supporters took to the streets to celebrate, however, this posed a threat to public health. Rangers supporter Gregory Campbell MP, called on those celebrating to stick to public health rules: “I understand the desire for celebrations but that doesn’t justify breaking the public health rules.” Campbell subsequently added: “It would be a bad day for Northern Ireland Rangers fans if a hallmark of 55 league titles was to be fans in ICU beds rather than being able to cheer on their team to more success.” Health Minister Robin Swann called on people to follow the rules and avoid “whataboutery”:
“Two wrongs don’t make a right. This virus does not care which foot you kick with or what sport you follow, so the potential of there being spreaders within that crowd … we will wait to see now over the next few days.”
Issues surrounding symbolism and commemoration were once again at play during the lockdown period of 2020–21. In some areas, generally those where there were well rehearsed arguments, political leaders were able to exercise a significant, but far from complete, degree of control — for example over the Easter Rising and Twelfth commemorations.
A unique challenge came from the overflow of Black Lives Matter protests in the USA and Britain. While unionist and nationalist leaders were often able to restructure the “traditional” activities of their own blocs, the actions of those supporting the BLM campaign fell somewhat outside their remit and were, therefore, arguably more difficult to control. While the NHS, clap for carers and murals supporting the NHS provided a point of agreement across the ethno-political spectrum, the opening up of questions surrounding statues and the naming of places with regard to the BLM campaign also re-opened the same issues of contention in regard to Northern Ireland ethno-political divisions and differing interpretations of history.
The crisis also highlighted some differences between the traditional areas of controversy and those with a more recent relevance. For the most part, violence associated with ethno-political disputes concerning symbolism and commemoration was generally contained, although the controversies surrounding the Bobby Storey funeral were a stark reminder of how quickly issues surrounding symbols and commemoration could drive ethno-political groups back to their respective trenches. These “traditional” confrontations, however, generally remained separate from the BLM related protests. Nevertheless, the limited degree of overlap that occurred did highlight the potential (as, for example, with the John Mitchel statue–Raymond McCreesh Park issue) for the two to overlap with each other to some extent.