Lifelines and Deadlines
Veteran satirical cartoonist Ian Knox takes Northern Ireland's politicians to task in the Crescent Arts Centre
Deadlines loom large in the life of veteran cartoonist Ian Knox, who these days produces four cartoons a week for the Irish News.
Although cartoonist there since 1989, he has found a new concentration since his other role on the BBC Northern Ireland's flagship political programme Hearts and Minds came to an end last year, and thinks that ‘I am now doing some of my best work’. He’s right.
Knox admits that he almost missed the deadline for this exhibition in Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre and the simultaneous launch of his website. The lifelines here are at best shadowy, not helped by a complete absence of captions.
There is an early Bloody Sunday poster from 1972, but nothing of his Knox's apprenticeship in animation, children’s comics and socialist magazines, though his collaboration with Brian Moore in the cartoon strip ‘Dog Collars’ for Fortnight in the early 1980s does surface. One needs to know these things to understand the emergence of today’s consummate draughtsman, one with original vision capable of puncturing pretension wherever it is to be found.
This exhibition actually opens with his cover for Fionnuala O’Connor’s book Breaking the Bonds (2002). Here all our politicians are together in a tracked vehicle, which is losing its treads as it ploughs over rocks and through swamps. Gerry Adams and David Trimble look frightened at the front, while Ian Paisley stares balefully out at the rear.
There is no sign that Knox was ever won over to the idea of a benign Paisley. Perhaps the most lethal (literally) of all the cartoons here is one of the big man in full roaring mode, with a tongue that extends into a pistol wielding Michael Stone.
Knox, like others, thought he saw a dynastic succession coming. Here he features father, mother, and ‘junior’ at breakfast. Paisley senior asks rhetorically, 'Unionist unity?!?’ and answers his own question, ‘Well, we’re united’. Meanwhile a portrait of Peter Robinson above the mantelpiece has been used as a dartboard.
We find Robinson as a child in Disneyland sitting on Mickey Mouse’s knee. Mickey asks him, ‘What do you do sonny?’ and is told, ‘I’m a strong decisive political leader from Northern Ireland'. Then again he appears as an unkempt dog being dragged along by loyalist thugs who are trying to make him attack a judge.
Knox has the most fun at the expense of Nelson McCausland, who is always a dimunitive, agitated figure in full Scots regalia. The one I like best is of a visit to the dinosaurs at the Ulster Museum, which are similarly dressed. Evidently it is not enough to convince the creationist minister as the director blusters, ‘Of course, as you say, they never existed. It’s just that if they had done, they’d probably have dressed like this'.
Orangemen feature as lemmings, and flag protesters are unshaven, tattooed and sharp toothed, and they I assume inspired Knox’s vision at the beginning of 2013 of the City Hall being crushed by a gigantic dinosaur. Yet as the peace process goes down the drain, loyalist flag wavers and republican dissidents are seen as equivalents as they emerge from the sewers, the latter as black garbed, gun-toting skeletons.
Knox thinks that ‘there’s more madness and colour in unionism’, though hasty selection for this exhibition may partially explain how nationalism and republicanism come off relatively lightly. We find John Hume picking up yet more awards to add to the multitude of meaningless certificates already adorning his walls.
An uneasy republican veteran lies on his bed thinking, ‘I wish the disappeared would disappear'. In the wider world, George Osborne toasts austerity in Krug, pensioners shiver as they relive Dickens’s time, and the south east of England, inhabited by fat cats and covered in pound signs, is separated from the dereliction of the rest of the United Kingdom by a ditch.
International issues surface. Blair dressed in Shell overalls grins as he shakes hands with Gaddafi. The Israeli cabinet gloomily considers the hostile reaction to their invasion of Gaza, but console themselves that, ‘It’s not so bad – Ulster Unionism has declined to condemn us'.
Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecudorean embassy laments, ‘God, I feel like a Catholic in Rasharkin', while Barack Obama dresses up in Celtic finery but Michelle is less keen and asks, ‘Couldn’t we just send over a drone sayin “Hi!” or somet’n’?'
Knox’s concern for the environment looms large. The republic becomes a giant car park, while Northern Ireland is entirely covered by a Tescos. Our new planning bill offers ‘a system of cheques and balances'. Sammy Wilson lords it over a gently curving earth and declares, ‘How can there be such a thing as global warming when everyone knows the earth is flat?'
And we are right up to the minute. Obama is on the phone to Richard Haas, who is in Kilkeel, where ‘He’s just witnessed a cross community event’, but ‘its an attack on the emergency services’. An American broadcaster announces, ‘Now for a definitive statement on the assassination of John F. Kennedy', and he turns to our very own Attorney General, a smug looking John Larkin. It’s great stuff.
Lifelines and Deadlines runs in the Crescent Arts Centre until January 11.