It would have been a timely moment to cut to an interview with a unionist politician, Michael Copeland for example. He might have observed that, certainly, Belfast is Ireland’s second city, but it is also unequivocally part of the UK. He might have explained that the soldiers marching through Belfast yesterday were also predominately Irish, that the largest regiment which took part in the parade is steeped in Irish symbols and tradition, and that the Irish identity of both city and regiment do not contradict or negate their proud contribution to the United Kingdom and to the British army. Instead the report segued to a stereotypical Belfast harridan screaming her Britishness at the camera. Black and white make a simpler narrative for television, but only one of these binary positions was articulated by a political leader and only his words dripped with the politics of exclusion.
The arguments for recognising the courage of our troops, whether we agree with their deployment or not, are now well worn. Shadow secretary of state, Owen Patterson, revisits the contribution of the Royal Irish in Afghanistan in an article stressing the all-island character of the regiment and the distinctive qualities which make Irish troops particularly well equipped to tackle the type of work required in Helmand province. Patterson reminds us of the very real sacrifices which the regiment has made carrying out its operations,
“With horrible symmetry two friends were injured, one a catholic from Dublin the other a protestant from Belfast. Over 70 have been injured and tragically, Ranger Justin Cupples was killed days before the end of the tour. Our thoughts will be with his family and friends as we celebrate our troops’ return.”
From a very different political perspective, Alliance’s Naomi Long has little doubt as to the drivers for republican protests.
“It has….become increasingly clear that much of the political opposition to the homecoming events is less about the rights and wrongs of the Army in foreign conflicts and more about deep-seated resentment at the presence of the British armed services in Belfast.”
Sinn Féin’s actions over the weekend and its rhetoric in the parade’s run-up actually expose the very crude and rudimentary nature of the party’s politics, when they are seen distilled to their essence, rather than cloaked in sophistry and disingenuous semantics. O’Neill delivers a useful synopsis on Unionist Lite of what Sinn Féin’s protest teaches us. The central point is that any allusions the party has made towards ‘engagement’ with unionists are a sham. It is still mired in all-or-nothing identity politics. It is not prepared to respect or recognise the British identity in Ireland, much less to acknowledge that complex, interwoven and interconnected elements of British and Irish identity can coexist without contradiction. Sinn Féin has not yet grasped that accepting the principle of consent entails respecting the wish of the majority to remain within the United Kingdom and that this respect must tolerate certain consequences which flow from that status.
This weekend’s protest has stripped away the cloak in which Sinn Féin has clothed itself in recent times. We saw unalloyed the motivators which drive that party. Intolerance, hatred of everything British, a nasty exclusive form of nationalism which seeks to impose its prescriptive reading of identity. In contrast the Royal Irish Regiment exhibits many of the strengths and nuances implicit in the United Kingdom and in Britishness. Comfortable with its Irish identity, it serves proudly for Britain, encompassing soldiers from the whole island and from a diversity of backgrounds. I know which creed I feel more comfortable signing up to.