It is understandable that the exhibition by loyalist ex-prisoner Michael Stone should provoke critical comment – especially so in the light of his own attendance at the event and the presence of local community leaders.
It is certainly the case that deep hurt is still felt by relatives and friends of those who suffered at his hands.
However, in a society such as ours, where the release and rehabilitation of ex-prisoners was part of the agreement that brought an end to daily violence, the moral issues are not clear cut.
Ours is a society in which political ex-prisoners, some with a ‘casualty list’ from their own pre-gaol days, have occupied key roles in local government.
They have done more than make art. They have made decisions about our economy, our education and our health.
There is certainly a wide-ranging debate to be had about the manner in which an exhibition such as this should be undertaken – the venue, the publicity (or lack thereof), those invited along and the artistic themes and tone of the artefacts that go on display.
There is also a debate to be undertaken about whether Stone’s violation of the terms of his original release debars him from further generosity. It is a debate that must take into account how, during the Troubles, republican and loyalist combatants sometimes reoffended upon release. This did not prevent the eventual terms of prisoner release, subsequent to the Good Friday Agreement, from applying to them.
I have not seen the exhibition, nor do I know Michael Stone, though I am acquainted with those who do.
However, I am aware that there is a deficit of art, whether visual, literary, musical or dramatic, to offer a view from within the loyalist ex-combatant community of who they were as individuals, what they were collectively, what they did, why they did it and what it means to them now.
At this stage, one thing needs said, however. I am not promulgating the old myth about ‘Protestants not being interested in the arts’. East Belfast, to name just one relevant district, was and is the birthplace of an array of literary talent coming from ‘a Protestant background’, including dramatists such as Stacey Gregg and Rosemary Jenkinson and novelists like David Park, Lucy Caldwell and Glen Patterson.
And Conall Parr’s recent book on Ulster Protestant culture, Shaping the Myth, has cast new light on an array of Protestant working-class talent from the past, such as Sam Thompson and Thomas Carnduff.
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However, the current loyalist community has offered relatively few recent voices that speak out of – and critique – their own experiences. And there are few visual artists to embody the diverse forms which the loyalist imagination might take.
That is why all opportunities to nurture artistic expression coming from within a loyalist context are to be welcomed.
The art of another loyalist ex-prisoner, Geordie Morrow, is a case in point, as is the drama and prose of Robert Niblock. Among Niblock’s plays there is a dynamic play called Tartan, which deals with the gang culture of the early 1970s, which overlapped with the rise of paramilitarism.
His poetry explores the Protestant working-class boyhoods of east Belfast just as the Troubles were beginning to brew.
Then there is the powerful theatre work of Gary Mitchell, with his Rathcoole background and more recently David Ireland, with his origins in working class Ballybeen.
I am not denying that some individual may buy one of Michael Stone’s works merely as a collector of loyalist memorabilia, or indeed out of misplaced relish for the violence of the past.
The true value of this exhibition is not to be found in those responses but in the licence it might just give some young loyalists to ponder the meaning of the word ‘artist’ and the insight Stone’s art should give all of us others into one particular loyalist’s imagination. Art has done that kind of thing in challenging circumstances down through the ages and will continue to do so all across the world.
Philip Orr is a writer and involved in community education