There’s a burly bald guy on the TV wearing shades and he is jogging down a street looking like he means business. And then you look a bit closer. That’s not a real hard man – just look at the clobber for a start – you don’t get that kind of gear in TK Maxx. When he takes his dark glasses off he just doesn’t have the eyes. You know what I mean: the cold, dead, merciless eyes of people who have done seriously bad things. We have that kind everywhere, even in government.
Yes, that’s not a gangster. It’s the actor turned journalist Ross Kemp. And look, aren’t those the Ardoyne shops, just to the right of the screen? Yes indeed they are. For Mr Kemp is in town to film the latest episode of his Extreme World series.
Extreme World is about “the most dangerous places in the world” The current series takes us to Lebanon, Papua New Guinea and the slums of Rio. Last time around he was in the Congo and Pakistan. But today, right there on the telly, this is “Our Time, Our Place” and there’s Ross with his camera crew at Twaddell Avenue watching teenagers throw rocks at cars.
This was not quite what the powers that be had in mind when they said they wanted to stimulate the film industry here. Nor will the scenes that followed be repeated in the Tourist Board’s marketing materials. In terms of dismantling Northern Ireland’s positive image, this was about as damaging as it can possibly get.
But it is worth watching again and again, if only because it gives us a compelling insight into what the rest of the world, especially people in the rest of the UK actually think of us and if this sort of programme does not help to wake politicians up from their collective inability to resolve conflict nothing will.
Let’s start with just one minor detail: the supreme irony that in the very week that a senior Orange man went to war on the Irish language, that an English broadcaster felt the need to use subtitles when interviewing loyalists in north Belfast. That in itself is worth thinking about. I doubt it would happen in Newcastle, Birmingham or Liverpool. The use of subtitles is a sign of just how much viewers regard Northern Ireland as an alien place, certainly not part of their world, a very different Extreme World.
The reality is that people can fly the flag and feel as British as they like, but many fellow Brits regard them as strange, alien, and yes, let’s be frank about this: frightening.
Then there were the interviews. It was almost as if Kemp’s research team had scooped up all the most incoherent, illogical and plain stupid contributors from the Nolan Show and then got them to tell us what Northern Ireland is all about, aided, as previously noted, by the occasional use of subtitles. Frankly anyone watching from anywhere else in the world must have concluded that we are all deranged.
The programme shifted from Derry/Londonderry to Belfast. In the Maiden City Kemp gulped at the damage from shrapnel and RPGs at a police barracks, before heading off in his black Mondeo to chat to Gary Donnelly of the 32 Counties Sovereignty Committee who told him why dissidents would continue with “armed struggle”. In between we heard about punishment shootings and the activities of Republicans Against Drugs.
Then we were on the peace walls in north and west Belfast. Viewers from elsewhere will have been horrified to note that there are now more than there were before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. And surely too, they would have been astonished to notice how many people were up so early on the morning of the Twelfth both to be offended and to give offence.
What a place!
Of course many people here will argue that Kemp doesn’t understand. He has no real insight into their grievances and issues. That is not the point at all.
What we were getting was an insight into how others see us, it is nothing whatsoever to do with how we would like to be portrayed, or indeed how we truly are. And what others will have taken from the show was that Northern Ireland is a divided, bitter, violent, ugly, hate-filled place locked in its past, and dominated by a tribal rivalry which is utterly incomprehensible to the outside world and totally alien to it.
When you strip it all down that is how we were portrayed and that is how we will continue to be seen unless and until outstanding issues are resolved.
What will especially have struck those in the rest of the UK is the cost of the rioting – £25 million. At a time of massive cutbacks in public services why on earth, they will say to themselves, should we continue to subsidise a place we prop up, in order to help fund the cost of mayhem?