Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Why Ulster unionism which owns its Irishness is stronger and more effective

Over at Everything Ulster, Michael Shilliday has highlighted an interesting exchange during yesterday’s Assembly debate on a motion suggesting that in no way could the IRA’s squalid murder campaign be described as a ‘war’. In an answer to a question from Sinn Fein convicted murderer Raymond McCartney, Danny Kennedy commented that he would have no theoretical objection to a united Ireland if the context were the Republic rejoining the Union.

Michael commends Kennedy’s statement, seeing in it reclamation of Ulster unionism’s Irish identity. This is a theme which has been discussed on this blog before, both in a lengthy post devoted to the relationship between unionism and the concept of Irishness and more recently, in a post challenging the description of unionism as a form of nationalism, where I highlighted the thoughts which Education Minister Michael McGimpsey brought to the subject.

As a civic unionist, my view is that people are free to identify themselves as they wish without this self-perception necessarily colouring their political beliefs or allegiances. I do maintain strongly however that it makes patent logical sense for unionists to acknowledge the Irish component of their make-up and indeed to claim proudly their Irishness. In the piece on unionism and Irishness I expressed the view that the most persuasive and self-confident proponents of unionism here were likely to articulate this sense of an Irish identity.

Ulster unionism, by owning its Irishness, not only recognises an important component of its own make-up, history and heritage, but it puts into action the composite qualities which distinguish the philosophy substantively from Irish nationalism. By doing so, unionism is able to challenge some of the assumptions which nationalism presents as taken as read. Unionism gains strength from acknowledging its Irish identity, even down to beginning the basic task of attempting to reclaim a vocabulary which Irish nationalism has conceptually made its own.

Nationalism by its exclusivist nature has made monopolistic claim on the terms Ireland and Irish. I am currently reading Richard English’s authoritative history of Irish nationalism, ‘Irish Freedom’, and English is extremely lucid in setting out the exact modalities of nationalistic thought. A theme which the historian returns to again and again is the notion of exclusivity and its importance to the nationalist conception of an imagined national community which is so central to its vision. Nationalism rejects a plurality of identity. Nationalism cannot accept that Britishness and Irishness are not mutually exclusive, because nationalism conflates Britishness and Englishness, and Englishness is that against which nationalist Irishness is set. Similarly nationalism cannot recognise a version of Irishness which does not set Ireland’s status as a separate political nation at the centre of its understanding of itself.

By enthusiastically identifying itself as Irish therefore, unionism is attacking nationalism on the very exclusivist territory which houses its ideological weakness. By thus identifying itself unionism shows demonstratively the pluralist, inclusive ethos by which it is defined and demonstrates a stark contrast with the competing nationalist vision.

Unionism has thus far been losing the battle for the vocabulary of Irishness. Partly this has been due to a disinclination to claim this vocabulary for itself. Unionism, in its more blinkered forms, has ceded Irishness and Ireland to nationalists. Michael in his piece traces this secession as far back as James Craig and the inception of Northern Ireland. In many ways this process has gone too far to fully reverse, but it is never too late to attempt to change the way in which people understand these terms. The Republic of Ireland should not have a monopoly on the term Ireland. Whenever unionists use the terms Ireland and Republic of Ireland interchangeably, their laziness is aiding this terminological secession. Conversely Northern Ireland has an equal claim on the terms Ireland and Irish, as does the Republic. When unionists jump down the throats of those who use Ireland as short-hand when referring to our teams in sport or our identity in general, they are merely strengthening the nationalist argument. They should instead be explaining that, yes, they are Irish, but that they are also British and attempting to outline the bigger picture that this dual identity implies.

Unionists must be clear that owning their Irishness does not imply a dilution of commitment to the Union, to the United Kingdom or to Britishness, but equally neither does unionism, or owning one’s British identity, imply a dilution of Irishness. Unionists are just as entitled to identify themselves as Irish as nationalists and in no way should Irish nationalists be perceived as more authentically Irish than Irish unionists. Where the two philosophies differ, is simply in unionism’s more complex understanding of identity and in the pluralistic vision which allows it to fully express its Irish identity within the political context of the United Kingdom.

By articulating these views, the change which unionism ought to be seeking to affect, is to foster an understanding of the terms ‘Ireland’ and ‘Irish’ in the wider world, which does not evoke the symbols, iconography and culture merely of Irish nationalism and the Republic of Ireland, but which also includes equally unionism and Northern Ireland. If Ulster unionism declines to meet nationalism on this battleground, then its international credibility and the strength of its argument will be diminished.

6 comments:

Kloot said...

Thats a long and Interesting post. Ill have to have time to think about this. However, my initial thoughts are, what part of your Irishness do you feel Irish Unionists should be reclaiming ?

* Irish History

* The Protestant history, the catholic History.

* The cultures of the Island (there are many)

* The languages of the Island (there are many)

It cant just be about the label "Irish" is it?

Chekov said...

“Thats a long and Interesting post. Ill have to have time to think about this. However, my initial thoughts are, what part of your Irishness do you feel Irish Unionists should be reclaiming?”

I’m not sure it’s about reclaiming any part specifically as much as staking a claim to have our part in Irishness acknowledged. So to a large degree it is about labels Kloot or rather their misuse or their lazy use. Although I also do sense a degree to which culture, history, language or whatever which acquires the label Irish, causes some unionists to shy away, and I think that is wrong, so there is also a degree to which I want unionists to reclaim all the things you mention as well. As you say, Irishness in terms of culture, history, language, sport is a complex and multifaceted thing. I believe it is incumbent upon unionists to demonstrate how complex and to show that simplistic perceptions of Irishness which show the Gaelic, Catholic, nationalist aspect of Irishness do not show the entire picture. That is the project. Demonstrating that lazy perceptions of Irishness do not tell the whole picture. When you say that there are many Irish cultures you are right, and that is substantially the point, that does not always come across.

Kloot said...

as much as staking a claim to have our part in Irishness acknowledged

I think you will find that most nationalists would be quite happy with Irish Unionists reclaiming their Irish identity, although for some, the reasoning might be more selfish. I would suggest that the major opponents to Unionists reclaiming their Irishness, lay within their own community. Raising the issue is liable to get you labelled, whether deserving or not. You are more qualified to tell us if this is the case of not.

There is a lot that Irish people on this Island share in common that should not be ignored.

There is ongoing display in the Collins barracks, now a museum, which tells the history of the Irish in the British army down through the century's. An excellent display if you happen to be in Dublin.

In terms of culture, a love of music is shared across the islands. Pipe bands and marching bands span the island. The popular tunes in both communities often share the same or similar airs.

When it comes to Gaelic games, well, in fairness, gaelic games would have disappeared off the scene now were the GAA not set up to promote them. There was no great love of them in the Anglo Irish and no great rush to go out to preserve them. Yes, some Anglo Irish did take a strong interest, those who discovered mystic celtic roots..(it was all the fashion at the time), but is it possible to say that the majority wanted it kept alive ? Hardly. For them, it represented backwardness, and therefore it was left to the GAA and by proxy Irish Nationalism. This in the main continues through to today, but I expect it will change in the short and medium term as the political baggage of the GAA is addressed.

In the main the same can be said of the Gaelic language. English was the language of the Union and Gaelic was the peasants language. I would wager that Ulster Scots faced similar issues.

For Irish history, there would appear to be two versions. Each culture has its own version and see its through its own eyes. The battle of the boyne, much confused in both communities, Cromwell, Home Rule, WWI, WWII, all seen differently by both of the major cultures. While history is shared by all, our understanding of it is not.

When Unionists reclaim their Irishness, is it the Anglo-Irish aspect of it that is the focus. The Anglo Irish inventors, politicians, musicians, soldiers, sailors etc? Or is it the wider "Irishness" ?

Anyway, its the foundations of an interesting discussion on it.

Chekov said...

“I think you will find that most nationalists would be quite happy with Irish Unionists reclaiming their Irish identity, although for some, the reasoning might be more selfish. I would suggest that the major opponents to Unionists reclaiming their Irishness, lay within their own community.”

You do have a point here Kloot, although I maintain that part of that selfishness entails prescribing unionists reclaiming their Irish identity in terms dictated by nationalists, which is rather the point I am raising about nationalism in the first place. But reclaiming that identity is not something that is in the gift of nationalism and it is incumbent on unionists to take actions themselves, which is effectively what I am advocating. Obviously nationalist opinion is not monolithic and there are those who take a more inclusive view of Irish identity, but for many, unionism’s inclusion is dependent on jettisoning the political link to Britain. Unionists are Irish, but they are mistaken Irishmen, who can only truly find their identity by disclaiming the link to Britain. I don’t know whether you came across this little gem from the comments zone on Everything Ulster which sums up the attitude I’m talking about.

“Most Unionists want nothing to do with the Irish Language, Gaelic Games etc etc. By the meaning of Irish as in 'from the island of Ireland' Unionists are as Irish as the rest of us. But when people say Irish in the modern world, they mean people who identify with Irish culture. You as a Unionist in Belfast what country they are from and they will almost certainly say Northern Ireland, Britain or Ulster. You ask a Nationalist in Belfast what country they are from and they say Ireland. That is what is meant by the term Irish, that they view their nationality as Irish and their country as Ireland. And Irish people, (in the view that I just explained) want an independent Ireland, free from any British control. They don't want a United Ireland under British Control, they want a United Ireland under Irish control.”

There you have, expressed plainly, a view of Irishness which totally disqualifies unionists from the “modern” definition of Irishness. Irish and Ireland are bandied about totally conflated with the Gaelic tradition exclusively. Now I don’t want to judge nationalists by something regressive that is posted by one of the least insightful people who comment on a blog, but I think in this case he does articulate a strand of nationalist thinking. A good illustration was the rugby controversy when the IRFU contrived the startling fiction that Ireland was playing an away game in Belfast to avoid playing the national anthem here. The anthem issue does not exercise me unduly, although I do feel there was startling double-standards being displayed, but the suggestion that Ireland are in any way less on home territory in Belfast than in Dublin I find very troubling and more than a little offensive.

“Raising the issue is liable to get you labelled, whether deserving or not. You are more qualified to tell us if this is the case of not.”

I’m not sure. Some people have an aversion to using the term Irish or Ireland, but normally they would be fairly hardline, unthoughtful Ulster nationalists. I’d say the majority of unionists see themselves as Irish on some level.

“There is a lot that Irish people on this Island share in common that should not be ignored.”

I agree wholeheartedly. We have more in common than separates us. But I would go further than that and say this is true for the British Isles as a whole.

“There is ongoing display in the Collins barracks, now a museum, which tells the history of the Irish in the British army down through the century's. An excellent display if you happen to be in Dublin.”

That is excellent and a welcome initiative. I’d certainly like to visit. That is exactly the kind of acknowledgment which is helpful.

“When it comes to Gaelic games, well, in fairness, gaelic games would have disappeared off the scene now were the GAA not set up to promote them. There was no great love of them in the Anglo Irish and no great rush to go out to preserve them. Yes, some Anglo Irish did take a strong interest, those who discovered mystic celtic roots..(it was all the fashion at the time), but is it possible to say that the majority wanted it kept alive ? Hardly. For them, it represented backwardness, and therefore it was left to the GAA and by proxy Irish Nationalism. This in the main continues through to today, but I expect it will change in the short and medium term as the political baggage of the GAA is addressed.”

But is it necessary to be interested and supportive of Gaelic games to express one’s Irishness Kloot? GAA is an aspect of Irish culture, and it is a game which is unique to Ireland, but other sports equally have become part of Irish culture. If the GAA become more inclusive and unionists start to play the game will they then be considered more authentically Irish? As an interesting sideline, have you followed the academic opinion which now contends that very few Celts ever came to Ireland? It seems our Celtic roots are a bit of a myth. Anyway that is by the by.

“In the main the same can be said of the Gaelic language. English was the language of the Union and Gaelic was the peasant’s language. I would wager that Ulster Scots faced similar issues.”

Again I would make a similar argument. Gaelic is a valuable and interesting part of Irish culture, but to impute that it defines Irishness in some way is to be prescriptive and to give a nationalist interpretation to that term. English became the dominant language in Ireland some time in the mid-19th century and has a long tradition which is not necessarily bound up with politics. Regional languages always face a hard task to survive when faced with a major language from an adjacent metropolitan centre.

“For Irish history, there would appear to be two versions. Each culture has its own version and see its through its own eyes. The battle of the boyne, much confused in both communities, Cromwell, Home Rule, WWI, WWII, all seen differently by both of the major cultures. While history is shared by all, our understanding of it is not.”

And neither should our understanding be shared. That is what creates a vital culture and identity, the interaction of different but related traditions. Is it not healthy and necessary that different interpretations of history inform different people’s views? But we do share that history because we have shared the island intimately for centuries.

“When Unionists reclaim their Irishness, is it the Anglo-Irish aspect of it that is the focus. The Anglo Irish inventors, politicians, musicians, soldiers, sailors etc? Or is it the wider "Irishness" ?”

I think this is where we differ Kloot, because I don’t accept those distinctions. I think that we are so interwoven as people of this island that categories such as “Anglo-Irish”, “”Gaelic Irish” or whatever have become meaninglessly blurred. Obviously those are identifiable traditions which people can plug into, but the important thing is that none are excluded and none are seen as more “authentic” or more indicative of Irishness as any other. It is up to people themselves to decide which particular aspects of Irishness they wish to plug into. The key is that no tradition tries to claim the label exclusively as its own and does not attempt to exclude others who also identify with it.

Kloot said...

Obviously nationalist opinion is not monolithic and there are those who take a more inclusive view of Irish identity, but for many, unionism’s inclusion is dependent on jettisoning the political link to Britain. Unionists are Irish, but they are mistaken Irishmen, who can only truly find their identity by disclaiming the link to Britain.

I know where your coming from. For years the solution was always thought to be "get the British out of the north and the Unionists will cop on to themselves and see the errors of their ways". Its a flawed position as it denigrates Unionism to being confused Irish. Treating people in this way is condescending and will not lend them towards your point of view

I don’t know whether you came across this little gem from the comments zone on Everything Ulster which sums up the attitude I’m talking about.

I saw that comment and I understand where your coming from. A case of "My way or the highway".

With regards to the anthem, as a rugby supporter I do see the need for this issue to be resolved amicably and soon. I just hope that the IRFU has the cop on to deal with it.

I’d say the majority of unionists see themselves as Irish on some level.

Well thats good to hear.

But I would go further than that and say this is true for the British Isles as a whole.

Agreed. Along with the different cultures that exist across the British Isles, there is a shared culture there as well.

Drama, Music, TV, all shared across these Isles. We even share social problems with drug and alcohol abuse. Theres the shared history, and the shared economic and legal systems. Its the politics that always got in the way really, and localised culture was its weapon

But is it necessary to be interested and supportive of Gaelic games to express one’s Irishness Kloot?

Absolutely not. Im not a massive fan myself. Gaelic is just one sport on a sport mad island. GAA, football and rugby being the most popular sports on the island are then obviously the ones most politicised.

Gaelic is a valuable and interesting part of Irish culture, but to impute that it defines Irishness in some way is to be prescriptive and to give a nationalist interpretation to that term.

I agree, there is no one thing which defines Irishness or indeed Britishness. My own view on this is that a number of different ingredients feed into an identity. Social aspects, cultural aspects, historical aspects, geographical aspects, all feed into the creation of an identity. To pick any one and say that this is the primary driver is to ignore the other valuable contributors

I think this is where we differ Kloot, because I don’t accept those distinctions. I think that we are so interwoven as people of this island that categories such as “Anglo-Irish”, “”Gaelic Irish” or whatever have become meaninglessly blurred.

I suppose what i was trying to address here were labels that people themselves may have used in the earlier part of the 20th century, which have little or no meaning in the times we live now.

Chekov said...

"I suppose what i was trying to address here were labels that people themselves may have used in the earlier part of the 20th century, which have little or no meaning in the times we live now."

I think that's a valid point. Although again I would tease it out a little and say that the labels had much less meaning that was attributed to them in the first place. A lot of misread history goes into the attempts to attribute to peoples or nations an homogenous and separate genesis.