Saturday, 19 February 2011

Don't Frighten the Horses

Two race horses died suddenly at Newbury Racecourse (51 degrees North, 1 degree West). Almost immediately speculation arose that they had been electrocuted. They'd grown skittish and nervous. Stable hands, in the parade ring with the horses, reported sensing shocks. As the week wore on, cardiac arrest was confirmed as the cause of death in the horses. Leakages of electricity from faulty underground cables were cited as being the likely source of the deadly current.
Underground cross currents are everywhere. Here, in Derry (54 degrees North, 7 degrees West), the city which has been designated as the first ever UK City of Culture for 2013, the majority of people vote Irish nationalist and cross currents of national identity – British or Irish? - run deep. These cross currents, between the aspiration inherent in that voting pattern and the actual political circumstance, are resolved in a number of ways. In the first instance, there is the open-armed welcome for the designation from unionists. Then there is the welcome offered on the basis of the jobs and economic boost the designation supposedly promises. There is also a sort of 'between gritted teeth' welcome, coming mainly from nationalists, saying 'we are where we are and lets get on with it'. Perhaps the most widespread response is stirringly pragmatic. This says 'whatever's going -  from whatever source -  we will avail of the opportunities offered'. There is a slight 'beggars can't be choosers' tone to this approach and it connects with a duality, generally comfortably held, which accommodates national identity cross-currents as not a case of 'either-or' but as a case of 'both-and'. Of course there is also the response of dissident republicans, who threw a pipe bomb at the UK City of Culture office – a UK target, in their terms – in a ludicrous, yet successful, again in their terms, response.
Given such tensions and resolutions, language suffers. A widespread approach to the cross currents problem is simply to drop the UK from the front of the title and to continually, at times slavishly, refer to ours as 'The City of Culture.' This approach is favoured by the broadcast and print media, defended as a form of shorthand. Some consider it sleight of hand. It is as vacuous a phrase as saying ours is 'The City of Dog Mess.' Every city is both-and. Culture and Dog Mess. 
There is a specific problem with the dropping of the UK element of the designation, a problem that amplifies the cross-currents and causes confusion. It mirrors ignoring the underground cables and means people compare our city and it's designation with Cork, Liverpool and Glasgow, which were European Cities of Culture. There is no comparison and, unlike the European case, no front-end money. 
So the cross currents, permanently underground, surface. The appointment of a man with an SDLP background to lead the work in developing the year sharpened the criticism of the stewardship of the project, currently led by our city council and a development agency called ILEX, from Sinn Féin. 
There is a debate to be had, as dangerous perhaps as investigating underground cables, to explore the single-phase, two-phase, three-phase and multi-phase electricities of national identity in our city. Without the debate, we will do more than mildly shock the stable hands. We will frighten the horses and compromise all our hearts.

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