Nationalists must stop using equality as flag of convenience
‘Unionism is British nationalism, and two nationalisms cannot have equal standing’
Paul Givan (right, with Sinn Féin’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir): The DUP minister was denounced as an “ignoramus” by Gerry Adams after cutting an Irish-language bursary. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Sinn Féin wants a new settlement at Stormont based on “equality” and “respect” – words it repeated prominently as the latest crisis deepened. There is no doubt the DUP has denied republicans both, but it is misleading to portray these terms as synonymous. In Northern Ireland, respect is vital because it is our agreed alternative to equality.
This does not apply to equality between the sexes, races, religions or the other six “categories of persons” specified by the law enacting the Belfast Agreement. The mistake is extending the equality of individuals to unionism and nationalism themselves.
Unionism is simply British nationalism, and two nationalisms cannot have equal standing within one sovereign state. Such a thing could only be attempted within some innovative new constitutional arrangement, and that is specifically not what the agreement or Irish nationalism seek to achieve.
Instead, the agreement states that Northern Ireland will be British until a majority vote for it to be Irish. British nationalism is therefore favoured pending the ascension of Irish nationalism, and as this a one-way process – no mechanism is provided to be British again – Irish nationalism is favoured overall.
In the meantime, the agreement grants both nationalisms not equality but “parity of esteem” – in other words, equal respect. It is a subtle yet critical distinction, fundamental to the dynamic balance of Northern Ireland.
Flags and emblems
Unionists have upset this by showing no respect; the comparable republican sin is wilfully over-interpreting equality. This is best illustrated, pathetically, by the issue of flags and emblems.
Unionism’s position is that British flags should adorn all public buildings, with views differing only on how often. Nationalists can like it or lump it.
Sinn Féin’s position is that no British flags should be flown unless Irish flags appear alongside, which appears superficially reasonable. So would the reverse apply in a united Ireland? Of course not. This is equality as an acceleration mechanism towards unity, after which it would be rapidly decelerated to zero.
In a speech to Sinn Féin activists last Saturday, Gerry Adams cited the final straw in Stormont’s current stand-off as the withdrawal of a £50,000 Irish-language bursary by DUP minister Paul Givan, who the Sinn Féin president denounced as an “ignoramus”.
Adams concluded by asking: “How could anyone hate a language?” This was another illustration of the respect and equality problem.
Contrary to sly assertion, there is nothing unusual or irrational about unionist dislike of Irish. A language can be hated when it is part of a competing nationalist agenda. Many people do not want Irish to have that role, but Sinn Féin is not among them. As Adams must know, linguistic division is one of the oldest, commonest and trickiest problems in politics. Europe is beset by it, which is why Brussels always gives short shrift to exploitation of the issue – rather ironic, given Stormont positions on Brexit.
The only places where multiple tongues coexist equally and easily are where they have been completely denuded of conflicting nationalist contexts, such as in Switzerland. Nobody envisages Northern Ireland becoming an independent confederation of cantons.
However, it is only thanks to Givan’s disrespect that the Sinn Féin leader could embark on such vintage victimology. Adams has made little secret of his cynicism, telling a party meeting two years ago that equality is a “Trojan horse” to “break these [unionist] bastards.”
Sinn Féin is also engaged in a complex recasting of the Troubles as a fight for equality, rather than the fight for Irish unity it proclaimed at the time, allowing it to explain why the violence ended but the struggle continues.
Equality lends itself to such creative expansionism: it is a difficult thing to argue against without sounding like one of Adams’ “bastards”. So it has been reduced to a buzzword slapped onto the same old constitutional battleground. Yet the battle is not for the permanent draw that equality implies, but about respectfully managing a process of victory and defeat.
The approach afforded to unionism – the eventual loser – is to show nationalists enough respect to blunt their nationalism, which would be difficult to manage even for those inclined to try. In failing to try, unionists have lost any authority to complain about the consequences.
Unionism is about defence of the status quo, not because it “fears change”, as Adams likes to say, but because it already has what it wants.
To unionists, political generosity can seem like trying to delay the inevitable by encouraging it. That concern deserves respect, too: republicans are far too glib about dismembering someone else’s country, considering that their grievance is the dismemberment of their own.
Still, unionism needs to do better than petulantly stalling for time. A philosophy of “what we have, we hold” can only go so far if it keeps making you fall over.