Conflicting Visions of a Province-to-be: Consumerism and Protest in Northern Ireland

     Hi everybody,

     In the past few days, I’ve spent a decent amount of time going over a slew of academic writings on what “modernity” meant during O’Neill’s time.  As a result of this work, I feel that I have a much stronger theoretical framework with which to reinterpret the O’Neill Ministry’s guiding philosophy.

     By and large, I’ve affirmed my suspicion that O’Neill’s pursuit of a materialistic modernity built upon contemporary economic policies, across Western Europe, but primarily around Britain.  Prime Ministers such as Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson, representing the Conservative Party and Labour Party, respectively, both tried to transform British domestic life in similar ways.  They made appeals to businesses and trade unions alike, while supporting private sector growth and public intervention in markets, using the Keynsian system to wed state planning and private business.  Each Prime Minister built a universalizing campaign for national prosperity.  Local identities would mean less, ideally, if everyone became an equal consumer.  Why is it important that O’Neill embraced this modernization strategy?  Because the social fabric of Northern Ireland was far different from that of Britain.  In turn, by applying British political standards onto a region where British neoliberal mores were not dominant, O’Neill appears to have set himself up for failure.

Fig. 1 – Prosperity Pete (from PRONI record COM/62/1/1608)

     However, O’Neill’s vision of a materially-driven province had its proponents, even before he became Prime Minister.  As the Ministry of Commerce supported local commerce in mid-1962, they came up with a fascinating advertising campaign, part of which involved the distribution of a friendly logo named Prosperity Pete (Fig. 1).

     This emblem emerged by May of 1962, when the Northern Irish Ministry of Commerce set out upon building provincial enthusiasm for domestic businesses.  This “Ulster Week” (similar to the Ulster Weeks O’Neill would hold in England and Scotland, during his Premiership) created a specific image of Northern Ireland.  Prosperity Pete represents this image. Decked out in professional attire, he models the ideal Northern Irish white-collar worker.  With his encouraging signs, he professes the optimistic gospel of consumerism—that being a consumer, and using one’s purchasing power to support domestic industry, is good for the province.  Most of all, he is a symbol of wealth, made out of literal symbols of wealth, for he wears a sports jacket imprinted with pound sterling symbols.  This image, I would argue, represents the heart of the modernity vogue within Northern Irish Unionism, during the early 1960s.  Although Prosperity Pete does not seem to have found his way in Ulster Week advertisements past 1962, his iconography speaks to the philosophy of mid-century liberal Unionism.  To the likes of Terence O’Neill or Jack Andrews (the latter was Minister of Commerce during the 1962 Belfast Ulster Week), an ideal “modern” world strove for material prosperity.  By using capital investment and greater production to stimulate province-wide economic activity, indescribable happiness and social benefits would allegedly follow.  Of course, things did not go according to liberal Unionists’ plans.

     O’Neill’s modernist vision poised a philosophical challenge to Unionist politics and unionist culture.  Ulster unionism had, for centuries up to that point, built itself upon a “siege mentality,” constantly whipping up support among British-identifying Protestants that their way of life was at great peril from an Irish-Catholic menace.  By nurturing a somewhat non-sectarian, consumerist ideal for all Northern Irish people, O’Neill furthered fears of an ever-present siege.  The Premier’s efforts to include Catholic and Irish-identifying people within Northern Irish citizenship became, among a smaller yet vocal element of the Protestant population, an attack on Protestant identity itself.  He tried to integrate a perpetual out-group in Northern Irish politics.  The cost of this action was the further entrenchment of Ulster’s desperate defenders.  Unable to articulate his vision for society to working class unionists, loyalist fundamentalists such as Ian Paisley usurped his influence, entrenching the Ulster siege mentality ever more.

     At the same time, O’Neill’s modernist vision clashed with the picture of a modern world that many younger, middle-class Catholics hoped to see in the province.  O’Neill’s policies stressed social harmony, and the veritable elimination of pre-existing ethno-sectarian identities in favor of inoffensive consumer culture.  By contrast, civil rights activists such as Gerry Fitt, Bernadette Devlin, and John Hume believed that the modern state should not merely encourage equality—i.e., by promoting civic patriotism, and increasing living standards—but enforce it, through enacting a strict, anti-discriminatory legal framework.  This alternative form of modernity triumphed human rights above consumer choice, and material plenty.  While protests swept across the Western World during the late 1960s, however, the blowback to reform was sharp.  This conflict not only compounded an aged communal divide, but brought down the political establishment altogether.

     To be continued in my next post…

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