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"Pack Up Your Troubles":

Politics & Popular Music in Pre- & Post-Ceasefire Ulster

Sean Campbell

Senior Lecturer & Research Convenor, Communication, Film & Media, Anglia Ruskin University, England


Popular music has had a long and often complex relationship with political life (Denselow 1989; Street 1986). This relationship has, moreover, not always been overt. As critics such as Jon Savage have explained, rock's address to politics has often been evinced 'not by specifics or slogans, but by hints and inferences loose enough for the imagination to leap in and resonate' (Savage 1983, 23). This has certainly been the case in songs about Northern Ireland, with the allusive and elliptical accounts of tracks such as 'Invisible Sun' (The Police, 1981), 'Oliver's Army' (Elvis Costello, 1979), 'Army Dreamers' (Kate Bush, 1980), and 'Careering' (PiL, 1979) exceeding the more overt accounts of songs like 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' (U2, 1983) or 'Belfast Child' (Simple Minds, 1989).

This tendency has been due, in part, to the fact that the Ulster conflict is not easy to accommodate in a genre more concerned, as Bill Rolston explains, with 'more transitory, less articulate forms of rebellion' (Rolston 2001, 64). In addition to this point, most rock musicians inhabit milieux – as Rolston notes - 'far above the day-to-day political concerns and struggles of race and class', and are thus not 'organic to the communities of resistance' that engage directly with political crises, such as that in post-1969 Northern Ireland (Rolston 2001, 65).

Notwithstanding such points, though, a specific event in the mid-1970s ensured that musicians within Northern Ireland (all of the acts cited above hailed from outside of Ulster) could not evade the vexed relationship of pop and politics. After a late night concert at the Castle Ballroom in Banbridge, Co. Down in July 1975, a popular Irish outfit called The Miami Showband were viciously attacked by the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Loyalist paramilitary group (legalized the previous year by Merlyn Rees, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland). In the course of the attack, three members of the band were shot dead, while another was critically injured (Brown 1975, 1, 22). As Britain's Melody Maker music paper explained the following week - under the headline: '"No Music for Ulster" Fear' - the attack was 'the first time that musicians [had] been chosen as a target for violence' in Northern Ireland, and local musicians were consequently in 'fear that the province's musical life [might] collapse' (Anonymous 1975, 5).

Notwithstanding such concerns, the event - as Gerry Smyth explains - had two long-term effects on popular music-making in Northern Ireland. First, 'the myth of a sectarian-free popular music was shattered'; from now on it would be clear that musicians were 'as likely as anyone else to be identified in the restrictive religious and / or political terms that defined the Troubles'. Second, the attack would stigmatize Ireland - and particularly Northern Ireland - as 'a problem destination for international rock acts'. Thus, as Smyth explains, in the mid-1970s 'it was unclear if rock music could survive, let alone thrive, in a place in which politics (rather than taste, age, gender or any other cultural category) dominated questions of identity' (Smyth 2005, 49, 58).

However, an unexpected consequence of the de facto touring boycott of Northern Ireland was an upsurge of domestic music-making, with local bands filling the vacuum left by the more established international acts (Clayton-Lea and Taylor 1992, 55-56). The late 1970s witnessed, then, a marked increase in popular music-making activities across Northern Ireland, a development that overlapped – quite significantly - with the emergent 'do-it-yourself' ethos of punk, which convinced many youngsters in Northern Ireland (as elsewhere) to write songs that addressed their own everyday lives. From this perspective, the major dilemma that would face Northern Irish punk bands was, as Rolston puts it, 'whether or not to sing about the "troubles"' (Rolston 2001, 59). This article explores the particular ways in which this political crisis was engaged - and also eschewed - by punk and post-punk bands in Northern Ireland, before addressing important aspects of the post-ceasefire music scene.

'Alternative Ulster': Punk in Northern Ireland

The emergence of the punk subculture in Northern Ireland is typically traced to the visit of The Clash to Belfast in 1977 (Dadomo and Coon 1977, 25-27; McLoone 2004, 30). Notwithstanding the actuality of this event as a point of origin, it's clear that the visit had a measurable impact on the local music-making scene, serving - in the words of one contemporary observer - as a 'catalyst' that 'ignited the whole punk movement in Ulster' (O'Neill and Trelford 2003, 47).

The presence of The Clash in the city precipitated a raft of Northern Irish punk acts whilst consolidating the efforts of others. A range of socio-political factors have been cited to explain the unique 'stronghold' that punk enjoyed in Ulster (O'Neill and Trelford 2003, v). The late Clash front-man, Joe Strummer, for example, would maintain that punk supplied 'the perfect soundtrack' to what he called the North's 'ravaged cities' (O'Neill and Trelford 2003, 50). In a similar vein, McLoone has claimed that Belfast and punk were effectively 'made for one another', suggesting: 'If there was an element of "the abject" about punk … there was no more abject place in the Western world than Northern Ireland, specifically Belfast, in 1977' (McLoone 2004, 32).

As McLoone goes on to explain, however, while punks in the metropolitan centres of London and New York had the comparatively simple task of 'establishing an alternative' to the conservative 'parent culture', their Belfast contemporaries had the additional - and rather more perilous - job of defying the existing 'culture of dissent that was represented by republican and loyalist paramilitaries', assailing not only the 'status quo' but also 'those aggressive and violent opponents of the status quo who had reduced daily life to the abject' (McLoone 2004, 35-36, 38). In this regard, punk in Northern Ireland – according to its early observers - supplied 'a two-fingered salute' to the 'politicians', the 'authorities', and the 'paramilitaries' too (O'Neill and Trelford 2003, v).

In the context of this complex ethical matrix, what punk appeared to offer was what McLoone calls 'an imagining beyond … sectarian politics', staging 'a rebellion against the complacent certainties of a sectarian political culture that had delivered nothing but social disharmony and communal breakdown', and pointing to 'the substance of a new politics' predicated on a 'positive' - and indeed a 'utopian' - message that deviated sharply from the nihilism of English punk (McLoone 2004, 32, 38, 35). This point has been confirmed by many of the scene's participants, not least the former Ruefrex drummer, Paul Burgess, who maintains that a crucial difference between London punks and their Belfast counterparts was the latter's 'sheer belief and commitment in the political force for change' (Ogg 2005). Contemporary observers of Belfast punk have also laid stress on the scene's 'positive force', recalling that it brought together, 'for the first time, large numbers of young people from different backgrounds … with kids from Catholic and Protestant areas mixing together freely … without fear or intimidation' (O'Neill and Trelford 2003, v). Such reminiscences at least appear to be corroborated by a famous Belfast graffito from 1977 that declared: 'The Clash Unite Protestant and Catholic Youth in Northern Ireland with Punk Rock' (O'Neill and Trelford 2003, 49).

The band that most embodied this 'utopian' project was Belfast outfit Stiff Little Fingers (SLF), who had begun as a 'pub rock' covers act called Highway Star (a name taken, tellingly, from a Deep Purple song). After the visit of The Clash to Belfast in 1977, the band - led by vocalist/guitarist Jake Burns - swiftly remodelled themselves as a punk ensemble, taking their new moniker from a song lyric by London punk band The Vibrators. Despite punk's ideology of self-expression, though, the band assembled their early live sets around 'cover' versions, albeit of contemporary punk standards.

One such formative concert was watched by a visiting English journalist, Gordon Ogilvie, who at the time was Belfast correspondent for London's Daily Express. The reporter later approached Burns and the other band members - Henry Cluney (guitar), Ali McMordie (bass) and Brian Faloon (drums) - and 'urged' them, in the words of O'Neill and Trelford, 'to write their own songs based on life in Northern Ireland' (O'Neill and Trelford 2003, 206). To assist in this new project, Ogilive would shoulder managerial responsibilities whilst co-writing their 'Troubles'-based song lyrics. In the face of punk's 'for real' rhetoric, however, this unlikely press-pop partnership inevitably sparked accusations that the band had 'exploited the situation in Northern Ireland for commercial gain', with a generically British - rather than a specifically local - audience in mind (McLoone 2004, 36).

Nevertheless, the band's Belfast live shows would appeal to a 'mixed' demographic audience, with both Catholic and Protestant youngsters in attendance (Denselow 1989, 159). Their best-known song, 'Alternative Ulster' (1978), served to register the sentiments of disenfranchised youth in both communities, expressing frustration at the futility of the 'Troubles', and assailing militant factions on all sides. The poet Paul Muldoon would later commend the song's 'well-judged, and justifiable, rage', suggesting that it constituted 'a key moment in the artistic life of Northern Ireland', with its song lyrics staging 'an appeal' to 'the power of imagination over nation' (Muldoon 2003, 8-9).

The track consequently came to 'symbolise', as McLoone explains, 'the attempt to forge an alternative politics by the province's severely bored, annoyed and disaffected youth', with the band 'championing an alternative cultural space beyond the clutches of both the political mainstream and the political opposition represented by republicanism and loyalism' (McLoone 2004, 36).

The band's debut album, Inflammable Material (1979), consolidated this gesture through songs such as 'Suspect Device' ('They take away our freedom in the name of liberty/Why can't they all just clear off? Why can't they let us be?') and 'Wasted Life' ('They're nothing but blind fascists/Brought up to hate and given lives to waste'). However, it also included a radically re-worked rendition of 'Johnny Was', Rita Marley's soulful lament on the malign consequences of political violence, originally recorded by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Launched by Faloon's martial snare drill (evoking Ulster's marching bands and British military presence), the plaintive tenor of the original song was transformed into belligerent angst, not least by Burns' terse vocal delivery, conveying rage (where Marley was mournful) at the demise of the song's eponymous figure, an apparently innocent by-stander struck down by 'a stray bullet', and re-imagined here as a local boy ('A single shot rings out in the Belfast night!'). Such gestures – which were of a piece with the sentiment of the band's own songs - ensured that SLF were seen, as Jon Savage notes, as offering a sort of 'Belfast social realism' (Savage 1991, 596),

In stark contrast to the efforts of (the Protestant, Belfast-based) SLF, the (Catholic, Derry-based) Undertones offered little in the way of political address. This band had been formed in 1975 by guitar-playing brothers John and Damian O'Neill, vocalist Feargal Sharkey, bassist Michael Bradley, and drummer Billy Doherty. Initially an R&B covers band with a residency at Derry's Casbah nightclub, the avowedly 'DIY' ethos of punk awakened the group to the possibility of developing their own material. And though Savage would later describe The Undertones as the 'missing link' between the Stooges and Irish traditional music (Savage 1991, 596) the group's exuberant bursts of melodic three-chord punk-pop owed far more to the template of New York's Ramones and Manchester's Buzzcocks than Detroit proto-punk or Irish traditional-folk.

With their background in Derry's Bogside, The Undertones were not unfamiliar with the idea of crisis that impelled punk's London-based vanguard. However, while Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten addressed the social realities of life in seventies Britain, The Undertones were more concerned with the politics of everyday life, offering light-hearted meditations on male adolescence. Thus, while SLF pursued their brand of social realism, The Undertones opted for 'More Songs about Chocolate and Girls' (1980), staging witty allusions to schoolboy pastimes such as Subbuteo ('My Perfect Cousin' [1980]), and exalting the pleasures of teenage treats ('Mars Bars' [1979]). Even more salient in this regard was the title of the band's paean to youthful thrills that served as lead-off track on their (now celebrated) debut EP, Teenage Kicks (1978).

The group's refusal to engage with the Troubles generated a considerable amount of debate amongst both critics and fans. In early press interviews, for example, the band would stress that their work was not concerned with the conflict, only for the bulk of media coverage to re-frame them in that context. 'We've been doing all these interviews', Sharkey explained in 1978, pointing out that '[every] time we've stressed that our songs have nothing to do with the troubles'. However, as the singer related, 'every time the feature has been written up, it's the same old thing - calling us barbed wire boys, things like that. It's pathetic' (Prophet 1978, 13). More than twenty years later, Sharkey - who was no stranger to politics (he took part in the People's Democracy March in 1970) (Denselow 1989, 160) - outlined the group's position in clear-cut terms. Notwithstanding the fact that it had been - in the singer's words - 'outrageously dangerous' to signal 'any sort of allegiance one way or another', Sharkey stressed that all of The Undertones had 'lived and breathed' the Troubles throughout their entire young adulthood, and thus had been forced to confront the effects of the crisis 'every single day'. From this particular perspective, then, what The Undertones' upbeat oeuvre afforded the individual group members - as well as their local fan-base - was what Sharkey calls 'utter escapism' (Teenage Kicks 2001).

This escapist ethos would conceivably have been taken in certain quarters as an apolitical betrayal of the band's immediate milieu, with their songs being cast - from such a critical perspective - in a somewhat conservative light. As Sharkey has cogently claimed, however, the band's early audience - who like the group had first-hand experience of the Troubles in their everyday lives - 'didn't really need [The Undertones] to get up in front of them … and start lecturing them about what was politically and socially going on around them' (Teenage Kicks 2001).

Nevertheless, as Eamonn McCann points out, the group were viewed with a degree of 'suspicion' and 'hostility' by sections of seventies Derry, not least for their perceived refusal to conform to 'what was expected and what was imposed upon them almost as a sort of communal duty to be part of the Bogside and the Bogside struggle'. McCann thus makes clear that the band's environs were not merely 'oppressed' but also 'oppressive', elaborating that the 'sweet' and 'beautiful' sounds of Undertones songs - despite being at odds with the 'angry', 'aggressive' codes of punk – were actually 'far from mainstream' sensibilities in the band's immediate milieu. When viewed in the light of such 'oppressive' factors, the group's oeuvre takes on a more progressive character. For if, as McCann explains, punk was about 'revolting against the things around you', then The Undertones quite understandably 'revolted against anger', assembling an aesthetic that arguably constituted - in the climate of seventies Derry - an 'oppositional statement' (Teenage Kicks 2001). Accordingly, while SLF, as McLoone points out, merely 'preached about an alternative Ulster', The Undertones actually 'lived the alternative and wrote about it by ignoring the political situation completely', with their interest in 'the ordinary' serving as 'an extremely political statement in the highly charged, extraordinary atmosphere of Northern Ireland at the time' (McLoone 2004, 36-37).

Of course, the view that Northern Ireland's punk musicians might be 'harbingers of a new cross-community youth culture that would lead to an end of the conflict' was, as Rolston explains, somewhat 'premature' (Rolston 2001, 59). Nevertheless, the short-lived subculture of punk enabled Northern Irish rock musicians to engage a diverse range of responses to their complex social milieu, with the irate and earnest SLF 'imagining', in Muldoon's words, 'other ways of living' (Muldoon 2003, 8), whilst the playful and cheery Undertones evoked an 'alternative Ulster' through what their singer calls 'utter escapism'. In the increasingly fractious climate of the early 1980s, however - and in the face of various Troubles-based songs from non-Northern Irish musicians - the previously reluctant chief Undertones songwriter, John O'Neill, would stage a direct expressive address to the Northern Ireland crisis. With this in mind, I will now consider the response of various post-punk acts to the Ulster conflict.

'Crisis of Mine': Post-Punk in Northern Ireland

In a 1983 essay called 'The Artist and the Troubles', Seamus Deane pointed out that writers 'can often be more troubled by the idea that they should be troubled by a crisis than they are by the crisis itself' (Deane 1983, 42). It remains unclear whether Deane was au fait with the work of his fellow natives of Derry, The Undertones, but his point might well have been shaped by this group's early 1980s output, with tracks such as 'Crisis of Mine' (1981) exemplifying Deane's observation. With its titular conflation of the personal and political, this song was born - for songwriter John O'Neill - of a niggling obligation to 'at least try and say something' about the Troubles, allied to an inhibiting artistic inarticulacy, hence the 'kind of crisis' that the song sought to evoke (Teenage Kicks 2001). Notwithstanding such creative obstacles, though, the band persevered with attempts at social commentary, not least in the allusion to the hunger strikes in 'It's Going to Happen!' (1981), which contained, as McLoone explains, 'a vague but nonetheless heart-felt reference to the impasse over the hunger strikes' via 'an appeal to Margaret Thatcher to change her mind' (McLoone 2004, 37). If such signals seemed somewhat oblique, the band would unveil their increasing political consciousness when they performed the song on Top of the Pops, with guitar-player Damian O'Neill sporting a black armband in honour of the recently deceased Bobby Sands (Teenage Kicks 2001).

This gesture would be the extent of the band's engagement with the Troubles, however, and - perhaps in the absence of more direct commentary - it was left to musicians from elsewhere on the archipelago to address the Northern Ireland crisis. The best-known of such interventions came from groups like The Police ('Invisible Sun', 1981), U2 ('Sunday Bloody Sunday', 1983), Spandau Ballet ('Through the Barricades', 1986) and Simple Minds ('Belfast Child', 1989). While the song lyrics of such tracks offered vaguely liberal (and clearly well-meaning) accounts of the conflict, other (less mainstream) acts, such as Manchester 'indie' outfit Easterhouse, took a more radical stance, with songs such as 'Easter Rising' (1986) and 'Nineteen Sixty Nine' (1986) espousing republican views, and 'Inspiration' (1986) - a eulogy for the hunger strikes – including an image of Bobby Sands on its record sleeve. Amongst the Irish diaspora, meanwhile, musicians such as Morrissey and Shane MacGowan were staging their own responses to the Troubles, with the former endorsing an IRA bomb attack on the British Conservative Government (Pye 1984, 39), whilst the latter composed a song entitled 'Birmingham Six' (1988). Rather more oblique accounts of the Troubles were supplied by other second-generation Irish musicians, such as John Lydon (PiL, 'Careering', 1979), Kate Bush ('Army Dreamers', 1980), and Kevin Rowland (Dexys Midnight Runners, 'One of Those Things', 1985).

Perhaps prompted by the interventions of non-Northern Irish musicians, the hitherto reticent former Undertones leader, John O'Neill, launched a forthright address to the issue, under the aegis of That Petrol Emotion. Featuring a US-born singer, Steve Mack, as well as two local Derry musicians - Raymond Gorman (rhythm guitar) and Ciaran McLaughlin (drums) - the only residual link to The Undertones was via O'Neill (lead guitar) and his brother Damian (bass). With their name evoking the sense of rage and frustration that was felt in mid-1980s Derry, the group's work would deviate starkly from the escapist Undertones, acting instead as an expressly political platform, and supplying a sort of alternative information service to offset (what they saw as) the media's mishandling of the Troubles.

The band's new-found political stance was overtly Republican (Rolston 2001, 59), with their freshly Gaelic nomenclature (their leader was now called Seαn Σ'Nιill) underlined by record sleeve tracts on British misconduct in Ireland, detailing the use of plastic bullets ('It's A Good Thing', 1986) and assailing the jury-less Diplock courts ('Big Decision', 1987). The group's song lyrics, meanwhile, attacked the media's role in depicting the 'Troubles' ('Tightlipped', 1986), and accused Unionist leaders of endorsing sectarianism: 'Poison is all that you've spread/Are you proud of the bigots you've bred?' ('Circusville', 1986).

Meanwhile, the band's best-known song, 'Big Decision' (1987), advised prospective emigrants to stay put in Northern Ireland to help resolve what had become an ever more fractious conflict. In countering this desire to leave, the song remained appropriately fixed on its 'home chord', with Mack's vocal melody providing subtle harmonic shifts in the verse section. The song does, however, reach harmonic deviation in the chorus, as Mack's memorable hook drives the song's point home: 'You rather sail the ocean/Than make a big decision'. Later on, the singer engages in a breathless rap ('You gotta agitate/educate/organize') - borrowed from Brother D and the Collective Effort's 'How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?' (1980) – that makes the song's wish for political change explicit.

This particular migrant message contrasted starkly with that issued two years earlier by a contemporaneous Northern band, Ruefrex, whose song 'The Wild Colonial Boy' (1985) called on Ireland's US-based diaspora to withdraw support for republican violence. Emerging from a Loyalist area of north Belfast, the band had been formed in the late 1970s by Tom Coulter (bass) and Paul Burgess (drums). The group's persona as (what their singer Allan Clark would call) 'working-class Belfast Prods' (McDonald 2005) led to many of their songs being seen as accounts of 'working-class Protestant life' (Prendergast 1987, 255), with Rolston even suggesting that Ruefrex had 'set out to articulate the unionist case' (Rolston 2001, 59). The group's overarching ethos was, however, ultimately socialist (Irwin 1986, 25; Denselow 1989, 160), and - as Clark would later make clear - their 'message' was 'anti-sectarian' (McDonald 2005), a point endorsed by music journalist Colin Irwin, who stressed that Ruefrex went to 'inordinate lengths to bridge the sectarian gap' (Irwin 1986, 25).

The group's apparent goal of 'bringing the two communities together' was evinced not only in songs such as 'Cross the Line' (1979), but also via their policy of performing in both Catholic and Protestant areas (Denselow 1989, 160; O'Neill and Trelford 2003, 175; McDonald 2005). Indeed, by the mid-1980s, the band were at the forefront of a fundraising concert for Lagan Valley College, the first integrated school for Catholic and Protestant youngsters in Northern Ireland (O'Neill and Trelford 2003, 176). However, Ruefrex's wish to inhabit what chief songwriter Paul Burgess called 'the middle ground' inevitably ran the risk – as he would openly acknowledge – of 'alienating both sides' (Irwin 1986, 25). Moreover, this well-meaning artistic desire to stage the Northern Ireland crisis from what McCann has called 'somewhere … mid-way between the two communities' often merely conjures 'a place where no-one lives', or 'an experience which nobody actually has' (The Late Show 1993).

Nevertheless, Ruefrex went on to become something of a (short-lived) cause cιlθbre in London media circles in the mid-1980s, after the release of their best-known single, 'The Wild Colonial Boy' (O'Neill and Trelford 2003, 176; Ogg 2005). Borrowing its title from a well-known – and rather sentimental - migrant tune, the track set-out to offer, as O'Neill and Trelford explain, 'a scathing attack on (Irish) Americans, especially groups like Noraid, who were involved in raising funds to help sustain the IRA's campaign of murder and destruction' (O'Neill and Trelford 2003, 176). Despite – or perhaps because of - its overtly 'anti-Noraid stance' (Irwin 1986, 25), the record was well-received (Denselow 1989, 160), with critics praising its 'progressively powerful … attack upon the "would-be green men" of Irish America, who readily pay for that vicarious thrill of killing from far away' (Holland 1985, 30).

Not everyone was receptive to the Ruefrex project, though, and - perhaps in light of Clark's unfashionable 'hard-man' image (Irwin 1986, 24), as well as songs such as 'The Fightin' 36th' (1987), which 'commemorated the mass sacrifice of the original 1912 Ulster Volunteer Force at the Battle of the Somme', and included the Unionist slogan 'No Surrender' - the band were dismissed by certain figures as 'Orange bastards' (cited in McDonald 2005; O'Neill and Trelford 2003, 179).

Notwithstanding such abuse, a member of the group would later suggest that Ruefrex's position as what he called 'the "Prod" band' had been 'more politically incorrect and damaging' (from a marketing point of view) than being seen - like That Petrol Emotion - as an 'oppressed' Catholic outfit (Ogg 2005). This point invokes an oft-remarked observation that has been made by – amongst others – James Hawthorne (ex-controller of BBC Northern Ireland), who suggested that 'the Catholic case is sometimes more lyrical because it is about change', whilst 'the conservatism of the Protestant ethos, not well articulated, is of less interest' (The Late Show 1993). Whether or not this is the case, it's clear that Ruefrex's role as the 'voice' of what McDonald has called 'the least fashionable community in Western Europe' (McDonald 2005) would scarcely have aided their prospects in a rock culture that venerates the marginal, the subordinate and the subaltern (see Frith 1996, 122).

The question of rock's relationship to working-class Protestantism would continue to be a concern for Northern Ireland's popular music culture. In this context, Burgess would go on to register his unease about what he saw as the post-ceasefire 'alienation of Protestant working-class loyalists', explaining that this constituency had been 'left behind in the peace process' (McDonald 2005). With this issue of the peace process in mind, I will now turn attention to the post-ceasefire music scene.

'Sunrise': Ceasefire Sounds in Northern Ireland

After twenty five years of violent conflict, the IRA announced a ceasefire in August 1994, precipitating a set of political processes towards long-term peace that would subsequently – despite significant obstacles and several false starts – be a broad success (Hennessy 2000; Morrissey 2002). How was this development registered in the popular-musical field? And how have Northern Irish rock bands responded to the new political context?

Perhaps the most significant pop/politics interface in the post-ceasefire period came in May 1998, when the Downpatrick group Ash performed at a pro-Peace Process event – entitled the 'Yes' concert - at Belfast's Waterfront Hall. This event – described by the press as 'a historic meeting of politics and pop' (Anonymous 1998, 6) - sought to mobilize support for the (then) recently signed Good Friday Agreement, to which Ash had given their unequivocal support. The band's drummer, Rick McMurray, explained to the press:

'It is a chance for change, a chance to break with the past. We [the members of Ash] were born in the middle of the Troubles, we grew up with violence and this is a chance to end all that. The "Yes" campaign is offering us the opportunity to move forward, and Ash want to be part of that' (Anonymous 1998, 6).

The 'Yes' event became best known, however, for the image of U2 singer Bono joining raised hands with John Hume and David Trimble (leaders of the nationalist SDLP and the unionist UUP) in a self-conscious echo of Bob Marley's 1978 Peace Concert, at which the Jamaican singer sought to assuage tensions between that country's political factions (led by Michael Manley and Edward Seaga), rather than to endorse one side or the other (Denselow 1989, 127-34). If anyone was in any doubt about the concert's message, though, it was made clear in a press statement from Ash, who announced:

'The people want a better future and are going to vote "Yes". It's time everyone on all sides accepted this, because some will be doing their best to make sure the referendum doesn't go through. That's why it's so important all the people come out and vote on Friday. The "No" vote offers no hope' (Anonymous 1998, 6).

And though the 'Yes' event was dismissed by right-wing critics as 'silly and superficial' (Bob McCartney cited in O'Hagan 1998: 2) and leftist scholars as 'a government-sponsored public relations exercise' (Rolston 2001, 50), the concert appears to have been a success: the people of Northern Ireland subsequently gave their support – in the referendum – for the Good Friday Agreement.

Despite the fact that Ash had acted as the voice of Northern rock at the Waterfront 'Yes' concert, it was arguably The Divine Comedy that became Northern Ireland's most high-profile act during the ceasefire period. This rather chintzy cabaret-rock ensemble was led by the Enniskillen-born singer Neil Hannon (the son of an Anglican clergyman, Hannon attended the famous Portora Royal School, alma mater of Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett). Unlike most Northern rock musicians – who favoured fast-paced, guitar-based styles – the singer drew on the rather more refined sources of Noel Coward, Scott Walker and Jacques Brel, using strings, brass and orchestral layers. At the same time, Hannon took on a somewhat foppish persona, with signature dandy-like suits and urbanely witty song lyrics. (In this context, it's worth noting that many observers assumed that Hannon was English [see Kallioniemi 1998, 91]). The band's idiosyncratic style reached its commercial zenith on Fin de Siecle (1998), which included tracks such as 'National Express', an ironic eulogy for Britain's best-known coach company, and the group's first UK Top 10 single.

Fin de Siecle also comprised rather more serious material, not least 'Sunrise', Hannon's most overt address to 'Troubles' and the record's reflective finale. Recorded in the context of the peace process, the song supplied a tender meditation on the preceding years of crisis, alluding to the vicious IRA bombing of Enniskillen in 1987, and issuing an implied critique of political extremism on all sides, before pointing – in the song's moving coda - to a 'sunrise' that served as a 'ray of hope' and 'a beam of light', offering an 'end' to 'thirty years of night'. With the noted success of the 'Yes' campaign in May 1998, Hannon could scarcely have anticipated that when 'Sunrise' was released (as part of the Fin de Siecle album) in August of that same year, it would coincide with Northern Ireland's most violent episode, a Real IRA bomb attack on the market town of Omagh, which claimed the lives of 29 people, and injured 300 others. In this brutally tragic context, the song accrued an unsettling resonance, affording the band a gravitas that was ostensibly at odds with Hannon's foppish facade.

If The Divine Comedy had offered a form of light entertainment for the post-modern age, then the pop-cultural values of lightness and style would go on to imbue some of the best-known musical efforts from Northern Irish acts at the start of the twenty-first century. Snow Patrol, the most high-profile band of this period, renewed the spiky guitar aesthetics that had shaped their Ulster rock antecedents, but with more commercial success than their harder-edged predecessors: the group's third album, Final Straw (2003), sold more than two million copies (leading to a prestigious slot at the 'Live8' event in 2005), before follow-up, Eyes Open (2006), became the UK's best-selling album of 2006 (Marshall 2006, 8; Odell, 2007, 98).

Led by the Bangor-born singer/lyricist Gary Lightbody, the group drew on an alternative rock template, displaying an easy-going – and highly accessible – sensibility that was of a piece with contemporary British guitar bands such as Coldplay and Travis. Lightbody, who attended Belfast's Campbell College (alma mater of C.S. Lewis), recalls knowing people who were injured or killed during the Troubles, but explains that an 'open-minded and tolerant' upbringing ensured that he eschewed any 'fundamentalist' ethos (Odell 2007, 100). Thus, while Snow Patrol were described by the Guardian as a 'politically committed' act, this engagement pertained to the more global concerns of Amnesty International and Make Poverty History (Marshall 2006, 8). Despite their occasional denunciations of violence, then, there is little in the band's 'inward-looking' oeuvre (Marshall 2006, 8, 10) that evoked Ulster's social milieu.

It is also worth noting, here, that while earlier generations of Northern rock musicians were framed incessantly – in British media discourse - by their geographical origins (McLaughlin and McLoone 2000, 181), a great deal of Snow Patrol's press has overlooked their Northern provenance (see, for example, Marshall 2005, 8-10). This is perhaps symptomatic of the band's long-term residence in Glasgow, but it arguably also pertains to the effects of the ceasefire and peace process, with this changing context offering journalists a less dramatic backdrop than that supplied by the Troubles. With this in mind, it might also be suggested that Snow Patrol evoke the sentiments of a certain post-ceasefire youth, troubled mostly by their own adolescent crises. If an unforeseen outcome of an event such as the Miami Showband massacre had been an upsurge in the domestic music-making scene, then an equally unanticipated upshot of the ongoing peace process might be an increasing weightlessness in Northern rock.

In this regard, it was perhaps appropriate that Snow Patrol acted as ambassadors of Northern rock at the 'Rediscover Northern Ireland' event - a promotional showcase (led by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and co-sponsored by the Ulster Bank) to attract tourism and business to Northern Ireland – in Washington DC in 2007 (Anonymous 2007). The band also have their own interest in cultural regeneration: in 2007 Lightbody announced plans to launch a record label to showcase talent from Northern Ireland (Odell 2007, 102). This desire would extend to the wider 'Oh Yeah!' initiative, which sought to establish a recording studio/rehearsal room facility for young bands in Belfast, and involved an official meeting – in Whitehall - between Lightbody and Peter Hain, the (then) Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. This, in turn, led to a piece by Lightbody in the British political journal the New Statesman, in which he argued that the proposed complex was 'a place that Belfast sorely needs to cement the flourishing music scene, in our new atmosphere of peace and posterity' (Lightbody 2007, 8). His endeavour appears to have paid off: the planned centre is scheduled to launch in 2007.

Whatever the initiative yields, it's clear that Northern Ireland's rock musicians have been pro-active in post-ceasefire politics, provoking some unlikely associations: both Peter Hain and Martin McGuiness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, are self-confirmed fans of Snow Patrol (Clark 2007, 31; O'Toole 2007, 127). (It is difficult to imagine previous Secretaries of State expressing affection for Stiff Little Fingers or The Undertones). And while Snow Patrol have been endorsed by Northern Ireland's political elite, they have in turn expressed public support for the ongoing peace process, with Lightbody relaying his delight at the 2007 agreement between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party that brought about the re-opening of the Stormont Assembly:

'I never really thought that would materialise. I'd always hoped it would and that there could be not only a cessation of violence, but also reconciliation and some sort of political future for Northern Ireland. It looks like we might have a chance, which is extraordinary' (Clark 2007, 31).

Such comments point to the shifting relations of politics and popular music in post-ceasefire Northern Ireland, underlining the vast changes that the region has undergone since the height of the Troubles. And if the bands have been less pioneering in the period of the peace process (O'Driscoll 2005, 16), or if rock's recalcitrant impulse has acquiesced now and again to state power, then that - in this special context – is a very small sacrifice.



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