A singular contribution to a pluralist identity


ANALYSIS:Unionism's retreat from Irish identity only lends credence to extreme nationalist prejudices, writes David Adams

'IT IS possible to be both Irish and British . . ." I felt like cheering when I read those words of President Mary McAleese, spoken on her visit last week to Brakey Orange Hall in Co Cavan. If we are ever to have genuine reconciliation in Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain, it will not be through the endless rehearsing of old grievances, nor will it emerge from the current winner-take-all dogfight in the North over recent history.

As the President has indicated, reconciliation can only be achieved through us recognising the legitimacy of our differences and, crucially, by accepting that they exist within a framework of common identity. For too long the (mutually reinforcing) central tenets of the two nationalisms on this island have gone unchallenged - other than by, to their credit, a few tenacious and routinely vilified Southern newspaper columnists. Both strains of nationalism have nurtured and propagated the dangerous nonsense that unionism and Irishness are incompatible - that you can only be one or the other.

This anachronistic notion of exclusive, singular identities is divisive and destructive and lies at the heart of most of our problems (if we refuse to learn from our own history in this regard, can we at least take some lessons from the broader history of Europe). Unless confronted and dismantled, it will continue to stymie relationships, hinder social and political development, and periodically wreak havoc.

Aside from anything else, Planter and Gael, unionist and nationalist, Protestant and Catholic have shared the same space for centuries and inter-married throughout that period. How on earth can anyone deny our commonality? Some elements within political unionism have reacted a little too gleefully to the President's remarks for my liking, choosing to interpret them as a rebuke to Irish nationalism, which of course in some respects they were. But they were every bit as much a rebuke to unionists.

It was they, after all, who made the major mistake of distancing themselves completely from Irishness after partition, leaving it to be commandeered in its entirety by political opponents.

It was as much by default as by design that Irishness became the sole preserve of only one tradition. Unionists retreated to the point where even the celebration of St Patrick's Day was ditched.

It ill behoves them now to be thanking the President for acknowledging something that they couldn't get rid of quickly enough in the first place, and have never made any effort themselves to reclaim.

By insisting that theirs is an exclusively British identity, unionists lend credence to an extreme Irish nationalist belief that they are outsiders, strangers in their own land. Those who still see unionists as land-grabbing interlopers who have no place in any part of Ireland must surely enjoy the irony of having their prejudices confirmed by the "foreigners" themselves.

What exactly is Britishness? How do you describe it? What particular characteristics, cultural or otherwise, can be held to be specifically British, as opposed to being English, or Scottish, or Welsh in origin? Suggestions would be dearly welcomed by unionists, for they have wrestled for years with this problem of their own making.

At partition, the music and dance, the storytelling, and the poetry style of the rhyming weavers, and much more besides (all brought to the northeast by Planters from northern England and Lowland Scotland) were abandoned by unionists because they had been absorbed into, and were indistinguishable from, the local Irish culture. In no other part of the United Kingdom did pro-union supporters sacrifice their local identity in favour of Britishness in the way that Northern unionists did.

The English, Scottish and Welsh never saw any contradiction in clinging fast to their own cultures while being British - and nor should they have. If anything, multiculturalism has always been a fundamental and valued part of the union.

The upshot was that unionism left itself with only an amorphous "Britishness" to point to as identity. The recent invention of the deliberate - and deliberately exclusive - misnomer "Ulster Scots" is a laughably pathetic late attempt to fill this self-created vacuum. Truth is, nowadays you'll probably find as much clear evidence of an authentic Scots Irish culture, at least in regard to music, in the Appalachian mountain regions of the United States as you will anywhere in Northern Ireland.

As far as Irish nationalists are concerned, if unionists can be considered as Irish at all, it is of the misguided variety. To be truly Irish, you must be anti-British (self-pity is well nigh a national characteristic), and hold to narrowly defined political and cultural (and until recently, religious) orthodoxies. In short, you must be exactly like them.

We have a long way to go before we achieve proper reconciliation. By reminding us that Irishness comes in many different, equally legitimate forms, the President has at least pointed us in the direction we must travel.