Is Northern Ireland less Irish than the Republic of Ireland?

If a country’s national flag supposedly represents its two noisiest tribes, a visitor could be forgiven for assuming that a region, like Belfast, where both groups coexist in greatest numbers would most vividly reflect the nation as a whole.

Ireland does things differently.

Its Orange tribe has long been casually disparaged as a “funny sort of Irish“. In more recent years, we increasingly hear talk categorizing the “Northern Irish” as a different – even deviant – category; the ‘southern’ Irish are apparently the norm, no qualification required.

So, do hierarchies of “Irishness” exist?

Is someone born and resident in Donegal, living in a state called “Ireland”, paying taxes to that state, and electing their representatives to an assembly in Dublin, therefore living in a place more Irish than, say, Derry, where tax arrangements are more similar to those in Finchley?

To argue ‘yes’ is to draw on a destructive centuries-old tradition in Irish history: the practice of associating the governing power in Dublin, and its agenda of the day, with notions of an ‘Official Ireland’.

That Irish people have tended to resist and ridicule “official Ireland”, both before and since 1921, has provided little cause for pause among those advocating for identity hierarchies in the present day.

Just recently on Slugger, Andy Pollock asked: “Does the South really want the North as part of Ireland?” Before asking, Pollock evidently didn’t dwell very long on what the North was the northern part of. He’s not alone.

Since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, and the replacement of the Dublin Government’s all-island territorial claims with a definition of the Irish nation based on (article 2) “the entitlement and birthright of every person born in the island of Ireland”, something important has not happened. The Republic of Ireland, no longer claiming the right to jurisdiction over the whole of Ireland, has not discontinued using the pre-1998 shorthand “Ireland”.

Whatever about the legal and political arguments, let’s speak plainly: this is downright bad manners, on a moral equivalence to Ulster Unionists’ irritating misuse of the ancient provincial name Ulster, as though Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal didn’t exist.

Not content with abandoning northern nationalists to search for a state – to paraphrase Fionnuala O’Connor’s fine book – some commentators and officials would now have us seek a new national identity too.

Northern unionists may care little and, with politics in mind, some will readily embrace attempts to normalize this partitioning of Irish identity, and relegation of the northern version of it. But surrendering the term Irish, with all its associated richness, brings a little death of sorts for unionists too.

We’ve reached a point where international media reports on everything from local sportsmen to tourism programs routinely distinguish the “Irish” from the “Northern Irish”. It wasn’t always so. Belfast’s most famous Protestant son, Georgie Best, routinely referred to himself and was described by media as Irish and rightly so.

Bestie didn’t need instruction in identity formation, the Belfast Boy had the only one worth having: he created his own. But for those less sure-footed, Introductions to Irish History, Culture and Identity: 101 starts with a simple lesson. No notions of the Irish state on this island have ever neatly aligned with Ireland’s national identity. Perhaps none ever will.

Yet for all the hassle, have the tensions and incongruence that characterize the relationship between the border around the 26 with Ireland’s much broader imagination, territory, and far-flung people, been a source of creativity too?

Look at the record of states where attempts were made to draw clean lines through blood, borders and belonging. Invariably, we find misery and artificiality.

Though harsh, perhaps we should consider why the the cuckoo clock more or less represents the cultural highpoint of a calm, safe and unambiguous place like Switzerland.

Let’s face it: Ireland’s terrible at politics. North and South, we’re so bored by it, and inattentive toward it, we inevitably get dysfunctional polities and governments. Politics, law, and questions of taxation are the last places the Irish should ever look when exploring who we are as a people.

States come and go, grow and shrink, – and the world over most everyone either has one or wants one. (Indeed, post-1998, the “Northern Irish” demand such benefits not of one but two, including subventions and passports from each, thanks much.)

Whatever about the complexities of describing what Irishness is and might become, none can dispute its existence centuries before December 6th, 1922.

And as we approach the centenary of 1916, and rolled-out references to “cherishing all the children of the nation equally“, it’s well worth remembering how, with Treaty ink barely dry, the Irish Free State was initially used as a bureaucratic tool for restricting censoring and perverting notions of “Irishness” – and the catastrophic effects that scar the nation to this day.

Nationalist fanatic Éamon de Valera is generally the go-to culprit referenced by political historians seeking to convey the narrowness and nastiness of the new state’s “Irish” project.

Dev’s infamous goal of a “Catholic State for a Catholic people” well captured the spirit of hostility and downright self-delusion that fueled the new State’s administrators’ earliest acts of cultural vandalism. Armed with sanctimony and a power to pass legislation, their aggression towards any Irish person, idea, or organization who failed to fit their “official,  chauvinistic and conservative “ideal” remains a source of shame.  But the cultural rot predated Treaty opponent De Valera’s rise to power in the thirties.

As soon as the caitiffs replaced the rebels, a nefarious, censorious attempt to define Irishness began, and the exclusion and self-exiling of many Irish soon followed.

The (later) Republic of Ireland’s record on officially defining Ireland or Irishness was, until Article 2’s rewrite in 1998, a sorry one.

Today, anyone attempting to describing the Irish – north, south or beyond –  ought to remember our nation extends well beyond the borders of its Republic. And we’re all the richer for that.

PS – Declan Kiberd’s “Inventing Ireland” and “Irish Classics” offer you two dazzling explorations of what Irishness might mean and has meant, particularly to the artists who defied the two states in search of it.

Strategic Communications Consultant, located Washington DC

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