Few things demonstrate the statist orientation of the Northern Ireland economy better than the weirdly disproportionate level of public-information advertising on local television and radio — with an almost equally disproportionate level voiced by the irrepressible and now filthy-rich Dympna from Give My Head Peace. The same observation could of course be made of advertising on buses, recent examples being campaigns against domestic violence and human trafficking.
The more eagle-eyed Belfastards out there will have clocked the appearance of a new one adorning the Translink fleet, this time entitled "We're backin' Belfast". One need hardly be Sherlock Holmes to work out that this spending is a reaction to, as well as an item in, the economic damage done by the self-defeating Loyalist "fleg" protests — at once an attempt to persuade people to return to the city centre and, perhaps, a useful alternative to the "advertising for advertising" that crops up elsewhere in times of recession.
Whoever came up with the campaign is something of a genius (or maybe just an old fart), for — apart from being a pun on "back in" — the slogan harks back to a campaign of the late 1960s, "I'm Backing Britain", which began when five secretaries from Surbiton, "the queen of suburbs", volunteered to work half an hour extra each evening without pay. They soon found that they had attracted support from patriots as various as Harold Wilson and Robert Maxwell (both of whom, in an ironic coincidence, were later rumoured to be foreign spies) — as well as, no doubt, the odd person enjoying an office affair and thinking, presumably, not of Britain but of England. That the secretaries' initiative ended up not making the difference originally intended is unimportant here: the key fact is the glow of unalloyed patriotism represented by their slogan.
In its current incarnation it is a patriotism of course reclaimed from the protestors — and a recognition that Unionist attitudes can be counter-productive when it comes to their core goal of preserving the Union, and extreme Unionist attitudes extremely so. In fact, given the numbers of Catholics enumerated by the 2011 Census, just as Scottish Unionists living in England would be well advised to vote Labour rather than for the despised Tories, more thoughtful Northern Ireland Unionists might do well to avoid a toxic brand and lend their votes to the Alliance Party.
Perhaps the ad men too realised that simple, if disconcerting truth.