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There’s nothing the Irish enjoy more than exaggerating their differences

Taoiseach Simon Harris wants people at the top of the island and those farther down to get to know each other better

Long, long ago I had a good-natured conversation in a Dublin pub about the cultural differences between those raised in competing sects of the Christian religion. You know the sort of thing. Protestants use napkin rings. Catholics have chips with lasagne. An early prototype of the Derry Girls blackboard? Not quite.

“Well, as a Protestant …” I began grandly. (Obviously, I wasn’t really anything.) I got no closer to my undoubtedly hilarious variation before a pal offered tart clarification. “You’re not a Protestant. You’re a Northerner!” he snorted. This was a joke. It was a good joke. The point was that, in the hierarchy of difference, “Northerner” rated some way ahead of “Protestant”. To stay within the sectarian parameters of that conversation, the North was Orange marches, bellowing preachers and tying up the swings on Sunday; the South was twilit evensong, church fetes and the poems of WB Yeats. I’d argue that hierarchy still applies.

All of which brings us to various things Simon Harris didn’t say last week. The Taoiseach definitely didn’t say that he hated the North, that it should be tugged into the Atlantic and that those left behind should go and live in Notting Hill. He did say that he’s “of a generation where people are more familiar now with London and Berlin and Paris than they might be with Belfast or Derry”, as he put it to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. As Newton Emerson noted in this paper, more than a few, without bothering to consider what came next, got themselves into a tizzy. “How do we actually make sure people on this island and these islands get to know each other better?” the Taoiseach continued.

One could spend hours pulling apart meaning and context. Many did. It is fair to assume he is talking about people from what I will dare to call the Republic. Pundits have been offering variations on this argument for years. It is not asking much that we “get to know each other better”. There is nothing more controversial here than one of the humans in Sesame Street urging viewers to make friends with the “people in your neighbourhood”.


The nature of the division between North and South has, however, been a sensitive topic for decades (possibly centuries). Not everyone feels it. But you must work hard to pretend that the same cultural distinctions apply between, say, those in Longford and Cork as apply between those in Longford and Antrim. There was a deal of conversation around this last year when research emerged confirming weakish connections across the Border. Obviously, to properly contextualise, we need to know how often the good people of Connacht visit the happy burghers of Leinster. But the language used by folk of all political persuasions confirms tensions between those at the top of the island and those farther down.

Consider the stubborn prevalence of “Free Stater” with both nationalist and unionists in the North. A few years ago my colleague Frank McNally, quoting the blogger Daniel Collins, associated the term with “a mild underlying resentment or derision reserved generally on account of the Northern nationalist’s sense of having been abandoned in an oppressive orange state by his or her fellow Irish men and women”. It is also used by unionists who, depending upon their leaning, see that “Free State” as either an appalling Mordor or an unvisited Narnia beyond the understanding of those on the other side of the wardrobe.

Many is the microblogger who produces that picture of Stephen Rea in Michael Collins when the title ‘Boxing Day’ is used

More obliquely, many in the South regard terms commonly used in the North by both communities as inappropriate for any decent Irishman. One of those terms is “in the South”. (Yes, we all know about Malin Head, in Co Donegal, being more northerly than any part of Northern Ireland.) Many is the microblogger who produces that picture of Stephen Rea in Michael Collins when the title “Boxing Day” is used. Eamonn McCann, the indomitable Derry activist, once raged at “bamsticks who denounce me as a ‘West Brit’ for calling Boxing Day ‘Boxing Day’”. Good for him. Now explain “bamstick” to that fellow from Westmeath.

Such distinctions are trivial. Others go to important divergences in perspective. Some have been there for aeons. Some are new. All are hardened by the division of the island into two jurisdictions. The response to Harris’s comments confirms that there is still a pointless determination to pretend that this virtual trough – “gulf” is too dramatic a word – exists only in the mind of those deemed partitionist (whatever that means). Get over it. There is nothing the Irish enjoy more than exaggerating and parodying their often imagined differences. That’s what we were at in the pub all those years ago. Let discord bring us together. Sling that last sentence on a banner and hang it across Donegall Place. Yes, that’s in Belfast. Yes, it is spelled that way. See what I mean? Bet you can spell Champs-Élysées.