Blood for the Future
The Northern Ireland “Troubles” in Les Levine’s Resurrection
“I want to go home,” howls the girl, her eyes raw with tears. The children are pelted with rocks and begin to scuttle down the road in their parents’ arms. Someone throws a pipe bomb from an alley nearby. It lands just meters from the girls, exploding with a thud, and smoke engulfs part of the street. They scream and start to run. Eventually, they cross the gauntlet and reach their goal. “I’m not doing it again,” says one mother, interviewed by a news crew from the safety of the schoolyard, “they can keep the road.”
These events form part of the Holy Cross Dispute, a period of eight months of acute sectarian tension in Northern Ireland. During this time, Holy Cross Girls Primary School, a Catholic elementary school in a Protestant enclave of Ardoyne, north Belfast, was picketed by hundreds of loyalist Protestant protestors trying to stop the children and their parents from walking to school through “their” area.
Some protestors shouted abuse and threw stones, bricks, fireworks, blast-bombs, and urine-filled balloons; loyalist paramilitary group Red Hand Defenders made death threats against parents and faculty; the children and parents were escorted to school every day by hundreds of riot police backed by British soldiers.
Dates are important in Northern Ireland. There is no way to list all of them; nor could this capture the conflict’s full complexity, and these might cause confusion. This did not, after all, happen during the height of the “Troubles” (1969-98), the ethno-nationalist conflict between the British state, Irish republican paramilitary groups (associated with the IRA), and loyalist paramilitaries (Ulster Defence Army and Ulster Volunteer Force), stoked by civilian hatred between Protestants and Catholics, which led to around 3,500 deaths (including 1,840 civilians), and 50,000 casualties.
The Holy Cross Dispute was, rather, between June 2001-January 2002, three years after the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement (1998). The treaty officially ended the conflict, and there has been some improvement in community relations since. It could not, however, eliminate mutual mistrust after eight centuries of English invasion, conquest and colonial settlement, massacres, public prejudice, and deadly republican counter-insurgency.
Resurrection (1972-2016 ), by Dublin-born, New York-based media artist Les Levine, featured at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (15th February-6th May 2019) shows thirteen new photographs of the Troubles.Resurrection reconsiders the artist’s earlier The Troubles: An Artist’s Document of Ulster (1972), a series of 80 Cibachrome photographs of Catholic and Protestant homes, churches, funerals, and, as he tellingly puts it, “explosions.” Levine says that both exhibitions avoid politics for the human side of the conflict. Perhaps you can’t have one without the other in Northern Ireland. This is, of course, part of the problem. One way to respond to this is, I want to argue, through Michel Foucault’s lecture course Society Must Be Defended, delivered at the Collège de France in January-March 1976.
Foucault inverts Carl von Clausewitz’s aphorism “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means,” political persuasion at the tip of a sword. For Foucault, “politics is the continuation of war by other means.” This means not only that the inequalities of strength shown in battle appear again in political life, but that civil peace merely redeploys the energy of physical conflict.
Resurrection thus shows us how the social contract does not end civil war. The Troubles were almost, but not quite, a civil war, and this exhibition shows how the rage of war can still corrode life in a mature liberal democracy. Each work in Resurrection is a snapshot of childhood framed by black and white contact-sheet images from the original 1972 photographs. In one, three young boys scamper in the gloom of Edwardian terraced housing built for workers in Belfast’s factories and shipyards. Another shows a similar row of identical houses, their doors and windows bricked up. On one side of the street, empty but for a few cars, a boy standing in front of a carpet delivery truck looks inquisitively at the camera.
In another, children play in the remains of an abandoned house covered in IRA graffiti. One clambers onto a window-ledge to accompany a friend who smiles at the viewer. At street-level, three more children appear to be jumping on a slab of already ruined sidewalk. It is as if adults have left the stage, abandoning the world to their children who play house while the grown-ups fight among themselves.
Each image contains a question in blue typeface at the bottom left of the frame. Sometimes insightful, sometimes facile, Levine says they are truisms from the time. “Why is truth always the first victim?” reads one. Others ask “Are we everything we see?” and “Is our home truly our castle?” Perhaps the images would be more powerful without them, but they would then lack a certain kind of popular appeal, even if they occasionally spoon-feed the viewer. How the photographs are shown — across one wall and a corner of a stark white room — is, meanwhile, less important than how the viewer contextualizes them. 1972 is, after all, a significant year in the history of Northern Ireland.
On “Bloody Sunday” (30th January), members of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment opened fire on unarmed civilians at the end of a banned civil rights march in the city of Derry. The march, attended by nearly ten thousand people, turned ugly. Part of the crowd tried to climb over a street barrier. They were forced back by rubber bullets and water cannon. A battle began after more than a hundred youths threw stones and iron bars at the troops. Thirteen were killed and seventeen injured.
In the following months, attacks by groups associated with the IRA killed 45 and injured more than 360. This includes “Bloody Friday” (21st July), when the Provisional IRA set off twenty-six bombs in under half-an-hour Belfast. “Some of the bodies were so badly dismembered,” writes historian Thomas Hennessey, “that they had to be swept up and collected in plastic bags.”
Two of Levine’s photographs are particularly effective. In one, some Protestant boys stand behind the Ulster Banner. This, the flag of Northern Ireland, contains the English red cross of St. George on a white field, with a distinctive difference: in the middle, a six-pointed star bearing the Red Hand of Ulster topped by a crown, representing the sovereign source of British imperial and governmental authority. The other shows a group of Catholic children standing before the green, white, and orange tricolor of the Republic of Ireland.
The images stand next to each other in the centre of the display. This can only suggest their thematic importance, tribalism distilled. At the same time, Levine humanizes both sides, judging neither, showing how adult transgressions are passed down through the generations. The inequality between the groups is on display nonetheless.
The “loyalist” boys are not only standing in front of a symbol of English imperialism and Protestant political domination. They are standing outside, in public, on “their” land; some older boys stand behind them, as if they would back them up if they were to get into a fight. The functionalist buildings in the background — perhaps school or factory buildings — are similar to many others found throughout the United Kingdom, making the space continuous with the rest of the country. For the viewer, the place can only be identified as where it is by the presence of the flag.
The “nationalist” children are, however, indoors. The garish 1970s geometrically-patterned wallpaper, and the framed photograph of friar, priest and stigmatist mystic St. Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968) just above the flag, suggest they are in somebody’s living room. The Irish flag can only be shown in private because, at this point, it was illegal to show it in public after The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (1954, repealed 1987). The act prohibited the display of any flag which was “likely to cause a breach of public order.” It gave the police powers to deal with any infractions, but legally exempted the display of the British Union Flag from ever being considered a “breach of the peace.”
Foucault’s description of the discourse of “race war” in Society Must Be Defended helps explain this. By this, Foucault does not just mean late-19th century “scientific racism,” which organized the value of human lives through crude biological hierarchies, with one race always “naturally” superior to another. Rather, argues Foucault, it was originally a way of telling a story about political conflict between two co-existing groups (for example, Romans and Hebrews, Normans and Saxons, Protestants and Catholics). These groups are unified by acts of violence against each other (wars, invasions, victories, defeats), but separated by their different social privileges, customs, rights, and unevenly distributed wealth.
In the Northern Irish context this applies in two directions at once. On the one hand, wars, invasions, victories, and defeats, from the Norman Invasion (1169-75) to the Tudor Conquest (1529-1603) and atrocities committed by both sides — The Portadown Massacre (1641), the Cromwellian Conquest of Ireland (1649-53), and atrocities following the Irish Rebellion (1798), amongst others — are placed in continuity with paramilitary violence during the Troubles. On the other hand, more prosaic kinds of civil strife. Some unionists believed that while they are loyal to the British Crown, Empire, or government, nationalists and Catholics are inherently disloyal and in pursuit of an Irish Republic. During the 1950s-1960s, Catholics expressed their grievances about discrimination in the provision of public employment, social housing, and education, as well as electoral gerrymandering. Things would, of course, get much worse.
Race struggle is not shorthand for the long history of violence and resentment in Ireland (the English crown versus the Irish people, British unionism versus Irish republicanism, Protestantism versus Catholicism). Nor can two images of children with flags represent it. When we think about the race war discourse as a way of reflecting on the two photographs, and think them both at the same time, we can come up with one clear way to frame the whole conflict. Levine’s images correspond, we can argue, to the two competing historical strategies Foucault sees in race war: the genealogical function of “traditional” historical discourse (the Protestant boys), and “counter-historical” discourse (the Catholic children).
“Traditional” historical discourse, pursued by the Roman annalists until at least the late-middle ages or the 17th century had, Foucault explains, two functions. It enforced “the yoke of the law”, justifying sovereign power by telling the victorious history of mighty kings, and fascinated us with “the luster of glory.”
This was expressed in three ways: heroization, memorialization, and moralization, but only the first is truly important here. By heroizing the present, traditional history guarantees the value of how things are now by recalling ancient kingdoms, great ancestors, and heroes who founded empires and dynasties.
The picture of the Protestant boys is just one symbol of what Foucault calls “the unbearable intensity of the glory of power.” Their very presence alongside the flag is part of the ritualized repetition of Protestant King William III (William of Orange)’s victory over Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne (1690). This is commemorated each year by the conservative unionist Orange Order, who march throughout towns and cities in Northern Ireland. Accompanied by pipe and drum bands, they sing songs of triumph, often inflaming tensions by deliberately going through Catholic areas.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, a new “counter-historical” discourse of race struggle emerges. This, Foucault explains, tells the story of all the events and people left out of self-glorifying traditional history. Foucault explains that counter-historical discourse “tears society apart.” It does so by decoupling the history of the people from monarchs, and nations from sovereigns. This new way of writing history does not try to stop us from forgetting, which is the point of writing history, but uncovers what traditional history has hidden. Hence the “counter-” prefix. “The role of history will, then, be,” Foucault explains, “to show that laws deceive, that kings wear masks, that power creates illusions, and that historians tell lies.”
The image of the Catholic children represents a story about the subjugation of the Irish people to the English crown. This dates back at least to Pope Adrian IV’s sanction of Henry II’s invasion of Ireland in the 1150s. “From that time on,” writes Edward W. Said, “an amazingly persistent cultural attitude existed towards Ireland as a place whose inhabitants were a barbarian and degenerate race.” The result is an idea that England has a divinely-sanctioned historical mission to “civilize” the “barbarian” Irish people through colonization, retaliatory discipline, and imperial administration.
One key figure in this is English general, and later Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, perhaps Irish history’s truest fiend. “I am persuaded that this is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood,” he said, after storming the castle of Drogheda (1649), personally stalking house-to-house slaughtering women and children, “and that it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future.”
The Good Friday Agreement is supposed to have ended the conflict in Northern Ireland by creating a multi-party power-sharing agreement between most of the province’s political parties. It does so by clarifying the status of Northern Ireland with respect to both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, commitments to enhance the status of the Irish language (as well as Ulster-Scots), guarantees of fair employment for — and an end to discrimination against — Catholics and nationalists, and the condition of “parity of esteem”, which ruled out the institutional domination of British and Protestant culture. Things are rarely so simple.
It is difficult to do justice to the complexities of the Troubles. Les Levine doesn’t and can’t. The images of the children with flags certainly can’t, since it cannot but reify the conflict by making it look as if it falls into two fixed camps with neatly opposing ideologies. There are no satisfying solutions. It is not enough simply to say that we should minimize neither the carnage caused by the IRA’s bombing campaigns nor the relentless injustices of Protestant rule. Nor is it enough to know that children cannot truly be nationalists or loyalists, let alone airing the hoary old cliché that children are the future. We know that already, just as people on both sides of Northern Ireland’s civil strife have always known it. If there is to be reconciliation — a project threatened by the ongoing Brexit saga — then one side must learn to look the other in the eye with a gaze as sympathetic as Les Levine’s.
Max L. Feldman is a writer, art critic, and educator based in Vienna, Austria. He writes for many art magazines, a column for the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, and has taught at Heythrop College (University of London) and the University of Roehampton, London. He is a Contributing Editor for Public Seminar.