"Totality Of Relationships"


Sir, - Seamus Mallon's comments on the Peace Process (The Irish Times, September 30th) were interesting. He mentioned the "totality of relationships in these islands", but unfortunately failed to mention the east-west, BritishIrish relationship - the famous "third strand" of the peace process. In contrast, the Taoiseach stated early last month that the peace process would provide an opportunity to "review fundamentally" relations between Britain and Ireland, and that "a more developed relationship between Britain and Ireland, for which there are many models throughout the world", might facilitate closer North-South links on the island of Ireland.

The logic of closer links between Ireland and Britain arising from closer North-South links, is obviously that if we wish to move closer to the British-Irish of Northern Ireland, we must also move closer to Britain. In fact, a step towards unionists is a step towards Britishness in the broadest sense. However, have we examined closely enough what is meant by "Irish" and "British"? This is especially important in post-nationalist Ireland and postScottish Home Rule Britain. Linda Colley in Britons argues quite convincingly that the invention of "Britishness" was so tied up with Protestantism and Empire that the Irish - even the Protestant Irish - were unable to partake in it. An analogy could be made that the invention of "Irishness" was so tied up with the Gaelic Catholic ethos that Protestants and non-Gaelic Irish could not partake in it.

Do these definitions of "Irishness" and "Britishness" still hold good? Wolfe Tone's vision had no place for cultural or ethnic nationalism. He wished to create an Irishness from the diversity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. The "Gaelic" vision of Irishness is largely a legacy of Pearse. An Irishness founded on Gaelicness is automatically exclusive of the non-Gaelic Irish. Perhaps the time has come to consign "Gaelic" Irishness to the scrapheap of history, not just for the sake of North-South relations, but because Ireland is rapidly becoming a multi-cultural society. Wolfe Tone's vision of uniting the people of Ireland in the "common name of Irishman", surely means a composite or pluralistic "Irishman", not a white, male Catholic Gael?

"Britishness" is different. Firstly "British" is not a true nationality but a composite of related nationalities. Secondly, secularisation, loss of empire and multi-culturalism have transformed "Britishness" from a WASP dynastic, imperial, identity uniting Canada with Coventry through loyalty to a Protestant crown, into a geographic nationality based on the island of Britain. Old style "Britishness" now largely exists only in Northern Ireland - as does old-style "Irishness".

Northern Ireland is a BritishIrish problem. It is part of the unresolved nature of the relationships between these islands. The Irish are not British; yet the British and Irish are not foreign to each other. Cultural similarities - from driving on the left to fish and chips to pubs and pounds and pence - make Ireland and Britain resemble each other more than either resembles any other country. There is hardly any need to mention history, geography or common Gaelic ethnicity. The fringe Loyalist parties have begun to grapple with this problem, advocating such measures as the creation of a "Council of the British Isles", modelled on the Nordic Council.

But the term "British" is wrong. We need a new adjective to describe the relationship between Britain and Ireland. If "British" is to England, Scotland and Wales what "Scandinavian" is to Norway, Sweden the Denmark, then we need an adjective (Atlantic? Britannic?) to be to Ireland and Britain what Nordic is to Scandinavia, Finland and Iceland. The peace process is - and is intended to be - about more than Northern Ireland. If it is fully to succeed it must, for once and for all, harmonise "the totality of relationships in these islands". - Yours, etc., Sean Swan,