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Fintan O’Toole: We speak the cúpla focal of United Irishese

Big difference between believing ‘in’ something and believing you are then required to do something about it

We in Ireland have a great talent for caring passionately about things we don’t have to do anything about. We can adore ideas in principle while not being especially bothered about them in practice.

No discussion of the prospect for a united Ireland that does not take this into account can be complete. We must consider, not just the physical Border but the psychological frontier: the hard border between aspiration and action.

Our facility for keeping these things apart is not quite hypocrisy — the first part of the equation (the passionate care) is as sincere and deeply felt as the second (doing very little) is stubbornly maintained.

This habit of mind is much more sophisticated than mere duplicity. It is a flair for doublethink rooted in historic experience. It has been shaped by a confluence of large-scale forces: colonial domination, religious oppression, above all mass emigration.


For a variety of reasons, we learned to live simultaneously in an Irish and Catholic dreamtime of values and symbols and sentimental attachments and in a tough, pragmatic world of survival and realism.

We could, for instance, genuinely love our home places, feel a profound affinity for every dip in the road and curve in the hill, and yet be quite ruthless in getting the hell out of the place to make a better life. We had to evolve a culture in which we could hold contradictory desires in our heads, and feel equally passionate about both, without being driven (entirely) mad.

It is in many ways an admirable capacity. Maybe it even helps to explain why Ireland has been disproportionately creative in storytelling and art. Even while dodging artfully around often harsh realities, we have maintained a rich store of imaginary notions.

But this ingrained skill has its downsides. And one of them is that it interferes with a concept that pollsters depend on: the pinning down of attitudes, the quantification of mindsets.

Poll findings lay down a challenge to advocates of unity

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But in Ireland our attitudes contain multitudes. They have gaps, ambiguities, uncertainties. They lead a double life — as figures and as figments.

A great example is the Irish language. We love it. It’s part of what we are, a touchstone of our identity. So long as we don’t have to speak it.

I think the largest recent survey on the language was the RTÉ-TG4 exit poll for the 2019 general election. An alien shown the figures would discern a great reservoir of popular enthusiasm among the Gael.

They suggested that 60 per cent of the population believes it is important to use, promote and protect the Irish language. On a scale of one to 10, the same proportion of those surveyed selected seven or higher when questioned about the value of Irish.

Two things are very interesting about this. One is that a recent survey for Dublin City Council found that only 8 per cent of Dubliners claimed to speak the language even once a day. The other is that apparent enthusiasm for Irish is at about the same level as stated support in the Republic (including in last week’s Irish Times/Arins survey) for a united Ireland. Might they by any chance be related?

Is it not unreasonable to think that the language and unification occupy similar spaces within Irish dreamtime. They are markers of “who we are”, but not necessarily of what we do.

It’s worth stressing that this is nothing as simple as deceit or disingenuousness. People say these things in good faith. And of course, both of the aspirations they express are entirely legitimate.

But there’s a big difference between believing “in” something and believing that you are then required to do something about it. And the evidence is that southern attitudes to a united Ireland are like those to the language — they exist much more in the first of these realms than in the second.

We speak a cúpla focal of United Irishese. Is maith linn aontacht. But start to speak the language of hard cash, of necessary compromise and of real political arrangements, and we mumble our excuses and leave.

The level of resistance to any kind of inconvenience, even on the level of pure symbolism, is astonishing. Nearly half of us say we would be less likely to vote for unity if it involved ditching our dire national anthem.

The Protestant Henri IV reputedly said of his conversion to Catholicism in order to become king of France that “Paris is worth a Mass”. But the fourth green field is apparently not worth an old music hall tune and a few bloodthirsty lyrics in ill-understood Irish.

I think, if I were a northerner of any persuasion, I would find that just a shade on the insulting side of disdain. But it is not meant that way: it is just that mentioning any price at all puts a united Ireland into the category of tangible reality, where it seems, for most of the southern electorate, not yet to belong.

Unlike the habit of loving Irish but not speaking it, this way of wanting a united Ireland but being unwilling to articulate what it might mean is not harmless. In the politics of divided societies, the road to hell can pass through a dreamy landscape of good intentions.