Refusing to say nothing


Connect: It's almost 30 years since Seamus Heaney's poem Whatever You Say, Say Nothing was published. The poem opens "just after an encounter/ With an English journalist in search of 'views/ On the Irish thing'." It includes the defining and justly celebrated description of the North as a "land of password, handgrip, wink and nod/ Of open minds as open as a trap".

In the North, Northern Ireland, the Six Counties, Ulster - that part of Ireland or of the United Kingdom - that cannot even be named to everybody's satisfaction, language is notoriously explosive. Heaney's poem, in which "tongues lie coiled" records "That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod/ And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape".

The poem also has the voice of native wisdom to remind us that "'Religion's never mentioned here', of course." Religion is too deep, too dangerous, perhaps too defining. Consequently politics and journalism have dismissed it as irrelevant in the secular, modern world. Even journalism's labels for the competing sides changed to reflect the view that religion shouldn't be mentioned.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, "Catholics" and "Protestants" were routinely used to describe both sides of the split. Gradually, these became "nationalists" and "unionists" and, in intensified forms (often with a class basis), "republicans" and "loyalists". Yet, "nationalists", "unionists", "republicans" and "loyalists" are really inadequate and arbitrary descriptors.

After all, those deemed "nationalists" want union with the rest of Ireland and those termed "unionists" are really British nationalists. There are people, though few in number, who wish to remain loyal to the link with Britain yet would prefer to see Britain a republic. Are such people "republican unionists", "unionist republicans", "republican loyalists" or "loyalist republicans"? Or might such descriptions designate a person who wants to be loyal to Dublin so long as it remains the capital of a republic? How about Irish nationalists who might wish to see the restoration of an Irish monarchy? On it goes, and the point is that such descriptions are intelligible only because of the convention of their usage, not because of any inherent meanings of the words.

Remember that the most ferociously "anti-Irish Catholic" of all British rulers was Oliver Cromwell, an English Protestant republican who slaughtered thousands of Irish Catholic royalists who were loyal to the British crown. Mixing religion, politics and nationalism gets so knotty, it's easy to understand why saying nothing is the safest and often the wisest option.

Yet total refusal is dangerous too, building up layers of containment which can make an explosion more devastating. Nonetheless, as people - suspiciously, it's usually those most used to wealth - insist it's vulgar to talk about money, it's generally insisted that it's coarse to talk about religion in relation to the place which cannot satisfactorily be named.

However, Paul Larkin, an award-winning, Manchester-born journalist "of Dublin and northern Irish stock" (to many, even that lowercase "n" can be considered to betray sympathies) has written a book that confronts, head-on, the religious dimension to the Northern conflict. His book is titled A Very British Jihad - Collusion, Conspiracy and Cover-up in Northern Ireland.

Clearly, the word "Jihad", meaning "a holy war", is intended to startle. Qualified by the adjective "British", it can seem preposterous. After all, Britain tells us daily that it is opposing a threatening jihad. If Chris Mullin's A Very British Coup, published in 1982 and made into an excellent TV drama seven years later was audacious, then substituting "Jihad" for "Coup" is simply insolent.

Or is it? Larkin's thesis is that "in the name of a religion and a British monarch" the "British state" and "Ulster loyalism" together "unleashed a holy war or Jihad" against "one section of the community only - Irish Catholics and nationalists". He argues that Frank Kitson, "the guru of British military strategy in the 1970s", was Cromwellian in his disdain for Irish Catholics. These are extremely blunt claims about the unnameable place wherein whatever you say, you should say nothing. Moreover, they are being made by an English Catholic journalist with decidedly un-English views on the "Irish thing". In the "land of password, handgrip, wink and nod", a book of extended journalism is not supposed to level such charges.

Yet this book, overwritten in parts, is superb in others (notably the author's reports of terrifying encounters with Billy Wright). The idea that "Protestants are bad people and Catholics good" is "clearly preposterous", says Larkin, who acknowledges "the terrible suffering of the Protestant community". Even so, he will face the wrath of reviewers who confuse linguistic convention with reality.

The conflict in the unnameable place echoes the regionally unequal religious wars of 17th-century Europe. Three centuries on, journalism, while it has recorded that conflict, has also buried some of its fundamental nature. Larkin's book not only disobeys Seamus Heaney's poem; it helps to rescue journalism from itself. As such it is, ironically, a penetrating form of Reformation.