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.