G8 Optics and Oracles in Fermanagh and Belfast

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On the morning prior to the first day of the 2013 G8 meeting in Fermanagh, BBC Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty admitted to being ‘cynical’ about the thirty-ninth meeting of world powers. The widespread media proclivity for hyping these conclaves and what they might mean for the world is never met by any commensurate action from G8 leaders, she complained. It was a rare moment of media introspection; for all the lavish optical fanfare bestowed on this meeting of the leaders of twelve per cent of the global population, few journalists have either the honesty or temerity to ask questions regarding the role of the media in aggrandising an event that invariably ends with the dampest of squibs.

This role of the media – local, national and international – in facilitating the fabrications of the G8, its narrative of progress, its obfuscation of the substantive facts of world inequalities, is surely the major issue to emerge from this conference. The big issues (war, inequality, taxation) become like tributaries of truth dispersed into a Lough Erne of floating inanities. Headlines scream about the ‘Lockdown’. Countless column inches amplify hysterical predictions about violent protests, mad anarchists, crusty clowns and dissident threats. The provincial naval-gazing of ‘let’s showcase the new Northern Ireland’ trumps the global implications of a small minority stewarding the rest of the world into austerity for the masses and unprecedented wealth for the few.

There is also that quaint, rabbit-in-the-headlights parochialism of those over-awed by the fleeting gaze of an elite international audience, typified by BBC NI’s presenters and their dizzy disposition. Donna Traynor gushed delightedly about rumours that Barack Obama might be doing an impromptu appearance in Enniskillen (he never did). She wasn’t alone in this Hollywood-(Co. Down) style hero worship. Like the South Pacific villagers of Vanuatu’s Tanna island who venerate Britain’s Prince Philip as a divinity, the dimly endearing clamour of some bewildered and benighted natives of Norn Iron has something in common with those legendary Amerindians who allegedly sold Manhattan for trinkets and beads. (I’ll not draw the obvious analogy with devolved government ministers here getting a special aid package from David Cameron during the week. Oh wait, I just have!) The Ulster Tatler (a sort of provincial travesty of Hello! magazine) gushed about Tourism Ireland-sponsored ‘familiarisation visits’ for ‘leading travel and lifestyle media’ in advance of the event. According to Claire Keenan of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, these jollies would ‘showcase the wonderful tourism product of Fermanagh’.

And perhaps they did – Fermanagh basked gloriously in the sunlit media spotlight – but that showcasing reached its bathetic crescendo in the surreal fake shop-fronts that have become a completely counterproductive (not to mention comical) emblem of all that is wrong with the G8. Nestled amid a sudden efflorescence of fresh paint and patched-up pathways, could there be any more fitting parallel to the grotesque optical illusion of austerity-ridden advanced capitalism than the fabricated edifice of thriving small businesses hiding recessionary rural poverty and emigration? Yes, in a saccharine, icing-on-the-cake, over-the-top absurdity that crawled out like a garish Lucky Charms leprechaun from the decorating frenzy that engulfed the G8 route to Fermanagh, mocked-up shop-fronts festooned dilapidated and deserted buildings. If, as French philosopher Jean Baudrillard contended, modern society is characterised by the ‘hyperreal’, then this was it. In the media-created universe of the G8, the simulated image of prosperity precedes and creates reality, perhaps what Baudrillard meant by the ‘death of the real’.

For what more appropriate metonym could we have for the optical media event that is the G8 than the brazen bamboozling of fake butchers’ and bakers’ shops in historically under-resourced, west-of-the Bann towns? We know that this G8 bazaar won’t solve third-world debt, grinding poverty or hunger; what’s important is that we re-enact the ritual of simulating its solution, of window shopping the imaginary solutions that were never really on offer.

The painted shop-fronts are aptly symbolic of the politics of façade and flash. Anyone who stops in front of them will immediately see that they are, like the G8’s promises, wafer-thin, but the G8 isn’t about stopping and scrutinising. It’s about glimpsing and gasping. G8 provides the fleeting image of a fantasy world where hunger and debt are on the road to being solved. Blink and you’ll miss the shop-front’s artifice, the crumbling building within — the poverty, economic and intellectual, behind the edifice of neoliberal economics. In this context, the north of Ireland is reduced to symbolic value, a place formerly characterised by conflict now overflowing with prosperity and peace, right? Forget the peace walls and the poverty. In this hyperreal world, there’s no room for the deprivation of West Belfast, recently named, by End Child Poverty, as having the second highest child poverty statistics of any constituency in Britain or the north of Ireland. In this retail version of Norn Iron, peace is for sale, nationalism and unionism are two for the price of one, cash registers ring with the chorus ‘we’re open for business’ and the Giant’s Causeway is a stepping stone into an Irish Disneyland.

This G8 was about optics and eccentricity. It’s ‘what are Michelle Obama and her daughters wearing?’ It’s Vladimir Putin swimming in Lough Erne. It’s Barack Obama’s bullet-proof ‘Beast’ with its steel wheels, his compelling charm, his quoting Seamus ‘Hane’, has-that-kid-behind-him-nearly-fainted and oh-my-God-good-Jesus-I-just-shook-his-hand! It’s rumours that the CIA would be dressing up as farmers. It’s thousands of idle cops. It’s G-8 themed ice-cream flavours from the local Centra and Irish potato cakes at the Lough Erne Golf Resort. The circus came to town.

Michelle Obama’s sincere and heart-felt speech at Belfast’s Waterfront, about social mobility and her and her one-parent-family husband’s meteoric rise from poverty due to determination and hope, might perhaps provide a counterpoint to this. But dig a little deeper and we find something ugly and offensive: an international leader preaching meritocracy, from an America where black men are seven times as likely to be imprisoned as Caucasian counterparts, on an island with some of the lowest educational mobility rates in the European Union, in a polity where third-level fees are presenting a formidable and in many cases insurmountable barrier to smart working-class kids who might have ideas above their station, who might imagine, as the oracular American president waxed inspirational in Belfast, ‘that if we work hard and we live responsibly something better lies beyond the bend’.

In this mixture of freak-show and Hello, of rhetoric and choreography, the specular commentary of the much-touted Clown Army (properly, the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army) would have been a freakish but fitting retort to the public-relations effluvium of the mega-rich, had the CIRCA (or much of these islands’ Left) indeed decided to come. For what better way to ridicule this ridiculousness, to spoof this speciousness, than to don the mask of the clown and call it as it is? True, there was a disappointing turnout of protestors on Monday night – though more than might have been suggested by the three lonely but resolute young men who were the sole standard-bearers for the Left in noontime Enniskillen – but at least they struck a dissonant note of contrariness amid the crippling contagion of consensus. A consensus that ignores the drones, the bombings, Guantanamo, increasing global inequality, tax evasion as a corporate art, the £1.4bn diverted from developing countries into tax havens over the two days of the summit, and a north of Ireland in dire need of economic investment and political change. At least they showed that state broadcaster RTÉ’s pathetic obsession with Michelle Obama’s dinner (prawns and oysters, if you’re interested) wasn’t shared by all.

Images from the event

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Three lonely protestors pose for cameras in Enniskillen shortly before Barack Obama’s ‘Beast’ whizzed past.

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A portion of the crowd at Monday night’s anti-G8 demonstration, which walked to the edge of the security perimeter at the Lough Erne Golf Resort. 

G8 acrobatics_smaller

By early afternoon on Monday these acrobatic entertainers were causing more of a stir in a sleepy Enniskillen than any of the G8 events.

fakesh_fermgATE2

Yes, in a saccharine, icing-on-the-cake, over-the-top absurdity that crawled out like a garish Lucky Charms leprechaun from the decorating frenzy that engulfed the G8 route to Fermanagh, mocked-up shop-fronts festooned dilapidated and deserted buildings.