“It is possible to be both Irish and British, possible to be both Orange and Irish. We face into a landscape of new possibilities and understandings.”
It did not take long for a Republican Sinn Féin spokesman to reject her contention,
“It is not possible for someone to give their allegiance both to Ireland and to Britain. Britain represents the denial of Ireland’s rights. Orangemen should instead be encouraged to recognise that they are exclusively Irish, and to work for the benefit of the Irish Nation rather than adhering to narrow sectarian Orange ideology. To suggest that Unionists are anything other than Irish amounts to a tacit acceptance of Thatcherite claims that the Six Occupied Counties are ‘as British as Finchley’.”
The statement represents a classic slice of immoderate nationalism, issuing from a dissident fringe of republicanism. It is hardly surprising to find repellent ideology espoused by such a group.
Of course RSF’s reading of Irish identity is shared by many within mainstream republicanism. Provisional Sinn Féin’s President, Gerry Adams, made comments on the Belfast military homecoming parade which were in absolute concordance with the view propounded by his former colleagues’ organisation. Adams’ argument against an Irish regiment of the British army walking the streets of Belfast, which in the heat of the moment he stripped of rhetorical niceties, was ‘this is Ireland’s second city’. Self-evidently trappings of British identity are invalid on the island of Ireland, by Adams’ prescription.
Even within constitutional nationalism, which has at least notionally accepted the possibility that multiple identities can exist, there is often reluctance to acknowledge that Irishness and Britishness are compatible. There is a residual notion that unionists are mistaken about their British identity, that they are possessed of ‘false consciousness’. There are unionists too, who take a reductionist view of identity, identifying Irishness only with the Irish Republic and maintaining, without undue irony, that Northern Ireland is not Irish.
Rejecting any mixture of the two identities within oneself is different from rejecting the possibility of such a mixture within other people. To hear the type of prescription made by RSF so unashamedly expounded is thankfully becoming a rarer occurrence.
It offers a timely reminder that one of the merits of Britishness is that by its very essence it happily subsists alongside other identities. The fact is that Mary McAleese is right, it is possible to be British and Irish, but it is more than that, it is a distinction and strength to be both British and Irish.