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April 19 2011

Troubled times – in pictures

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin's new book People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground traces Northern Ireland's Troubles through fragments of found photographs



May 19 2010

The trouble with the Troubles

Shortlisted for this year's Art Fund prize, the Ulster Museum is taking heat for what critics say is evasiveness about Northern Ireland's past

In 1978, staff at the Ulster Museum refused to display a work by the artist Conrad Atkinson called Silver Liberties: A Souvenir of a Wonderful Anniversary Year. This painting, embellished with barbed wire and newspaper cuttings, is a furious "souvenir" of Bloody Sunday. Three of its four panels are in the colours of the Irish flag; the fourth panel is black. Portraits of the 13 people killed that day, a graffito of a British soldier, street scenes in a Protestant part of Belfast and a beaten IRA suspect testify to the artist's rage. Protestant museum workers who saw it as a Republican banner of a painting won their argument and the work was censored. Today it forms part of the unique Troubles art collection at Wolverhampton art gallery, with a sea between it and Belfast.

Thirty-two years on, though, the incident has come back to haunt Britain's increasingly prestigious prize for museums. The Ulster museum is one of four on the shortlist for this year's Art Fund prize – the others are the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, Blists Hill Victorian Town at Ironbridge, and the Herbert in Coventry.

Belfast's revamped museum is surely a strong contender. Giving the prize to the other powerful candidate, the Ashmolean, would recognise excellence, but also confirm that excellence belongs in the elite citadels of southern English university towns. (Maybe that would be in line with our Etonian age.) Looking at photographs and reading reports – I have not yet had the chance to go there myself – the Ulster Museum has had a stylish, minimalist architectural makeover that makes it Belfast's "culture bunker", as people joke locally, according to the Irish Times.

But here's the rub. History clings. Conrad Atkinson is campaigning against the Ulster museum getting the award; and he is not its only critic. The Irish Times and others reviewed the museum's reopening last year with some scepticism. What had happened to the promised Troubles gallery that was going to hold up history for examination and debate?

The plan was to look frankly at Northern Ireland's recent past with shocking exhibits, including bloodstained clothes. Instead, the Troubles exhibit, say its critics, is small, muted and evasive. In particular, it does not have the gory display of real artefacts people expected, nor has it borrowed controversial works of art such as Silver Liberties – purchased for Wolverhampton, as it happens, by the very same Art Fund that offers this prize.

On the other hand, amnesia may be exactly what a society emerging from conflict needs. Historians of Ireland might point to a cultivation of memory as part of the problem, not the solution. Should forgetting be punished by the Art Fund prize – or rewarded?


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May 05 2010

Election 2010: Conservatives – not just for England | Martin Kettle

The overnight: David Cameron's visits to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales aim to portray the Tories as a truly national UK-wide party

It is tempting, and the BBC this evening fell for the temptation, to see David Cameron's visit to Northern Ireland yesterday – almost certainly the first election campaigning trip of its kind by a major UK party leader in modern times – in the frame of a possible hung parliament. Looked at this way it can be made to appear like a last minute attempt by the Conservative leader to shore up potential support for a possible minority Tory government if Cameron falls just short of an overall majority to 6 May. Those 18 Northern Ireland seats (effectively only 13 if permanent abstainers Sinn Féin hold on to all their 2005 seats this week) could count for a lot if the Westminster arithmetic gets tight when the votes are counted. Seen this way, Cameron flew to Belfast in a last ditch effort to take his party over the finishing line in a tight race by appealing to Ulster voters as potential allies

Actually, it's something completely different. There's nothing much that Cameron can do to affect the essentially pre-ordained and pretty traditional outcome in Northern Ireland. When the votes are counted, the 10 current unionist seats (or whatever particular stripe) will all be potential Tory supporting MPs in the new parliament while the nationalist MPs from the SDLP have already said they will be supporting Labour while Sinn Féin stay at home while pocketing their Westminster expenses. Even if one or two seats change hands in Northern Ireland this week, which seems likely, the essentials of the outcome there are pretty much set in stone by community division. A quick swing through Belfast by Cameron is not going to change that equation significantly (though it might just help Reg Empey win a seat for the UUP and thus perhaps fulfil Cameron's pledge that Ulster MPs may serve as ministers in a Conservative government).

More realistically, Cameron's trip to Belfast is purely symbolic but in a larger Union frame. His last 48 hour itinerary is taking him from Northern Ireland to Scotland (yesterday evening) and on to Wales today before he ends up in England – and ultimately in his comfortable south midlands Witney constituency. It's designed, in other words, to show the Conservatives as a truly national UK-wide party – not just the English party – on the eve of the party's possible return to government. Last time, in 2005, the Tories took a total of 198 seats, of which a massive 194 were from England, leaving just three in Wales along with the solitary single Scottish Tory MP David Mundell. The polls in Scotland don't currently show much likelihood of any improvement this time. Wales could be another matter altogether, with anything up to 10 Tory gains if things go really well (that's probably optimistic if the Lib Dem campaign surge holds up). Even if Cameron's Ulster Unionist allies pick up a seat or even two, the reality is that any Conservative government this time next week will be overwhelmingly an English based government once more.

This presents a problem for Cameron and an opportunity for his rivals, especially (as Alex Salmond has never tried to conceal) the Scottish Nationalists. Salmond is gagging for the chance to revive the SNP's momentum – which may slow on Thursday – by running as the anti-London, anti-England, anti-Tory, anti-Cameron party in next year's Scottish parliament elections. Cameron is not likely to go out of his way to oblige – he's not so stupid. But the sheer weight of English seats in any Tory majority would be one of the large givens of the new parliament. Cameron loses no opportunity to proclaim himself a traditional unionist Tory – and it is exactly what he is. His problem, though, is that his English party is far less unionist than it once was, and in some respects is teetering on the edge of an explicitly anti-unionist English nationalism.

Yes it's embarrassing for the Conservatives that they are making such modest progress outside England. But look at the other trends. Northern Ireland is not going to lurch into separatism any time soon. Wales is electorally much more like England than Scotland. And in Scotland the chances are that a period of Tory rule may actually help Labour in Scotland rather than the SNP. Cameron would be able to live with all that. The end of the union could be farther off than nationalists north and south of the Tweed would wish.

• More election comment from Cif at the polls


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May 04 2010

Gordon Brown urges voters to 'come home to Labour' after late poll boost

Buoyed by a YouGov survey giving Labour the lead in terms of seats, prime minister gives a stirring performance in Manchester

The momentum behind a last-minute resurrection of Gordon Brown's election campaign grew last night after he delivered a powerful testimony to his party's achievements and appealed to undecided voters to consider their record and "come home to Labour".

Buoyed by a strengthening in Labour's polling position – YouGov today puts the party back in the lead in terms of the number of seats – Brown told a rally of 500 party faithful in Manchester that they had a record to be proud of and to fight for.

In a passionate and detailed speech, he read out a 55-point list of Labour's achievements, ranging from the minimum wage to free museum entry, to rapturous applause.

Brown, who was flanked by 10 cabinet ministers, warned that a Tory government would undo that progress, and launched a powerful critique of David Cameron's judgment, saying the Tory leader would have left families to "sink or swim" in the recession, and businesses to go to the wall, and have seen unemployment as a "price worth paying".

The prime minister depicted the Tory leadership as living in "gated communities with 24-hour security" and therefore careless about cutting policing, saying that they can afford private healthcare and school tuition, unlike ordinary people who rely on public services.

"I want to say to those who have yet to decide – listen to what we have to say. When the last 48 hours of this campaign has passed, in that one minute in the polling booth, vote for the kind of country you believe in. And come home to Labour."

Lord Mandelson, who described the speech as "another bravura performance", highlighted today's YouGov/Sun poll which put the Tories unchanged on 35%. Labour was up two points on 30% while the Liberal Democrats were down four points on 24%.

This could give Labour 288 seats, the Tories would have 261 and the Lib Dems would have 72.

"We have a day to go," Mandelson said. "This poll shows we are still in it. Far from David Cameron waltzing into No 10, the public are not dancing to his tune. They are looking very carefully at the choice between Labour and the Conservatives."

The speech and the polls cheered Labour after a tricky start to the day when a candidate described Brown as "the worst prime minister we have had in this country". Manish Sood, who is standing as a Labour candidate in North West Norfolk, said Brown was a "disgrace".

The prime minister was speaking as Cameron embarked on a round-the-clock tour of Britain to cement his support in the final hours of the election campaign.

Cameron echoed the famous declaration by the senior George Bush, in an attempt to reassure pensioners that their benefits would be safe with the Tories. "All these things are safe," he said. "You can read my lips: that is a promise from my heart."

Bush famously reneged on his "read my lips" pledge not to introduce taxes.

On a visit to Scotland Cameron launched a vigorous attack on the prospects of a hung parliament run by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Speaking to Tory activists in East Renfrewshire, he mocked Nick Clegg for indicating that he would not support Brown but might be prepared to prop up a Labour government. "If you vote Liberal who knows what you're going to get? You might get a prime minister who wasn't even in those television debates; if that is democracy, if that's people power, I'm a banana."

In a ground-breaking election visit to Northern Ireland, where his alliance with the Ulster Unionist party has broken a decades-long convention of bipartisan politics by British party leaders, Cameron sought to portray himself as a unifying figure.

Speaking in a hotel where one of the worst atrocities of the Troubles took place, he insisted the Tory-UUP alliance had created "a new, dynamic force" for Northern Ireland.

But Cameron suffered a blow when Kenneth Clarke, the shadow business secretary, dismissed the idea of brokering deals with Northern Ireland politicians. Warning of the dangers of a hung parliament, Clarke told politics.co.uk: "In the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it's not the way to run a modern sophisticated society."

His remarks will have applied to the idea of having to rely on the support of the larger Democratic Unionist Party. The Tory leadership is hoping that the DUP will support Cameron if he is forced to try and lead a minority government.

But Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, last night contrasted his independence from Cameron with the UUP's formal link with the Tories.

The new alliance appears to be struggling, according to Belfast Telegraph/Inform Communications poll. This showed that the UUP's share of the vote is 13%, down on the 17.7% it won in 2005. The Democratic Unionists are on 26%.

Cameron arrived at Belfast City airport in a turbo-prop plane shortly before 2pm yesterday just as the "no-fly ban" had been lifted by airport authorities on both sides of the Irish border. The ban had been caused by the return of volcanic ash clouds above the island.


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