If we’re in the same community, how come I don’t know who you are?

Word first used to soften tribalism has now become almost meaningless

Vigorous rivalry at an Old Firm derby. But surely something as nice as ’communities’ will not set about each other in a violent manner?

Vigorous rivalry at an Old Firm derby. But surely something as nice as ’communities’ will not set about each other in a violent manner?


This is a very special time of year for the Protestant “community” in Ulster. When the July bank holiday comes around, that “community” packs its bags and enthusiastically heads for anywhere that isn’t Northern Ireland. Hang on. That can’t be right. Yesterday’s news broadcasts swelled with images of red-necked men tramping angrily down the strips of macadam they insist - when residents demur -- on calling the Queen’s Highway. It seems as if some parts of the Protestant “community” still enjoy celebrating their depressing inability to move on from the 17th century.

Maybe we are wrong to associate the annual festival of stomping and banging with the Protestant “community”. Perhaps, we mean the Unionist “community”. Or is it, perhaps, the preserve of the loyalist “community”? (Now, that’s not funny. You know we’re not allowed to make jokes about the shaved baboon “community.”)

With all these inverted commas flying about the place, you will probably have worked out where this column is headed. Is there any word more promiscuously misused than “community”? When playing the endless zero-sum games that characterise negotiations in the North, politicians rarely begin the conversation by referencing “Unionists” or “Nationalists”. That sounds just a little confrontational. No, no. The Nationalist “community” would appreciate seeing road signs in the Irish language. The Unionist “community” asks that official documents be written in phonetic approximation of Janette Krankie’s vocal intonations.

The word is used as a kind of artificial conflict softener. One can all too easily imagine (indeed, remember) “Protestants” and “Catholics” beating each other over the head with blunt objects outside Old Firm games. It’s a little more difficult to picture the Protestant “community” going at the Catholic “community” with such unrestrained vigour. The construction conjures up quaint settlements - home to traditional costermongers and old-school farriers - built around wooded village greens. You’ve been to Portadown. Right?

It’s not just the supposed warring tribes of Northern Ireland who find themselves co-opted into informal “communities”. The advance of identity politics has imposed the term on all of us. It doesn’t matter if you are a terminally anti-social grump who would rather eat spiders than attend a themed gathering. If you are gay you are, as I understand it, part of the gay “community”. If you are Nigerian, you are part of the Nigerian “community”. There seems to be no form you can fill in to exempt yourself from inclusion.

This week sees the release of a documentary (whose subject hardly needs further explanation) entitled We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. At some point in the discussion of Julian Assange’s murky dealings, somebody speaks up for the “hacker community”. So, a class of people who, by definition, seek the shadows and work in isolation has now decided that it merits the definition of “community”. Who is their leader? Who defines the entry requirements?

The term used to imply the existence of a binding network. In an old-school community, there existed a reasonable probability that any one member had encountered any other. Now, the term merely describes a group of people who meet one particular criterion. Why not speak of a pizza-eaters “community” or a serial killer “community”? So, you want to become part of a social huddle, but you can’t be bothered to meet any new people? Fear not. Just buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto and settle down for an evening of mayhem. You are now a member of the gaming “community”.

In the past, when these entities were geographically centred, the citizen could be fairly clear to which “community” he or she belonged. Sometimes there were overlaps. You could, say, be a member of your local Jewish “community” and of the area’s larger “community”. But the notion that various communal designations were being applied remotely would have seemed utterly absurd.

As a pathological non-joiner, I pride myself on being part of no “communities”. Yet it’s not altogether certain I have a choice in the matter. Occasionally inclined to blow up a robot or invade a neighbouring country, I do seem to be a part of the wider gaming “community”. Observing a recent piece on MSNBC news, I learnt that I was, apparently, a member of something called the “straight community”.

This makes no sense whatsoever. Am I really in the same “community” as Harrison Ford, Angela Merkel, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Terry? How come we never meet up? Why, it’s almost as if the word “community” has lost all firm meaning and is now used merely to imply a degree of unity where little really exists.

Join me in opposing the unnecessary advance of communities. Let us form a network to oppose all amalgamations of unconvincingly connected citizens. Wait a moment. This may need some rethinking.

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