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

  • Greenflag

    ‘ I wonder how the generation coming up will view this island and its politics. ‘

    Not unlike their counterparts in the USA , UK and indeed elsewhere bar perhaps a few Scandinavian countries.

    They may well be asking what does it really mean to be Irish , British or American in a global economy where the international banksters ‘ rule unelected while our powerless ‘elected ‘politicians and clergy are viewed by many of the young and not so young with the same the same esteem as our generation would have had for pimps , prostitutes , second hand car salesmen and unprincipled con artists and that may be an understatement 🙁

    These times too will pass while we await the new ‘paradigm ‘ of the world order/disorder to come . My gut instinct tells me our ‘politicians ‘ are for the most part bankrupt not in the financial sense most have creamed enough off the top of whatever pie or trough their snouts have gotten into -but bankrupt of ideas and policies which will reverse the conditions and circumstances which gave rise to the greatest worldwide economic depression since the 1930’s .

    We forget how close the USA was in the late 1930’s to succumbing to the lure of right wing fascism and how that great depression was only alleviated by Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal ‘ and not ended by those policies .It took World War 2 and 55 million lives to end the Great Depression .

    How many wars and lives lost around the world will it take to end this one ?

    Or will the West muddle through an anemic decade or two long ‘recovery’ while the rising economic giants of China, India, Brazil etc achieve ‘parity ‘ of standard of living and incomes with the developed countries ?

  • southernrhodesia

    @ Alias ,

    The wikipedia article you pointed to did not include any source for the claim that QE2 “refused to meet the Irish president, Mary Robinson, if she was introduced as President of Ireland”.

    Re. “It is, of course, up to the Irish nation – has it has always properly been – to choose the name of their own state. They have duly chosen that name in Article 4.” Your explanation did not back up this claim at all…Rather it was that it was for the citizens of a State to adopt the name they wish….

    Article 1 of the ICCPR….:

    1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

    2. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.

    3. The States Parties to the present Covenant, including those having responsibility for the administration of Non-Self-Governing and Trust Territories, shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.

    …How does this render the old Articles 2&3 unlawful?

  • Alias

    “Your explanation did not back up this claim at all…Rather it was that it was for the citizens of a State to adopt the name they wish….”

    Sorry, but you’ll need to provide greater clarity there. Are you disagreeing with me? As I recall, I said that naming a State was a matter for the citizens of the State. They chose the current name of the State via a national plebiscite held in 1937, and that chosen name is given in Article 4. You might be surprised to discover that the national plebiscite was 26-county, excluding the 6 counties and the people of Northern Ireland. Ergo, they did not name the State then and they will not re-name it now. It is the Irish nation in the Irish state who determines that matter.

    In regard to the name of the State: Ireland. The British state objected to using the title “The President of Ireland” because they felt that it implied that sovereignty extended from the Irish state to Northern Ireland. Ergo, they referred to the President of Ireland as the “President of the Republic of Ireland.” There is, of course, no such place as the “Republic of Ireland.” That is the description of the State, not the name of it. Hence, when the Queen would invite
    the President of Ireland royal function she would use address the invitation to the “President of the Republic of Ireland” and all such invitations would be duly ignored by the Irish government (which must grant the President permission to leave the State). A compromise was accepted in regard to letters of credence from the King/Queen when appointing an ambassador to Ireland. These were addressed simply to President *Insert Name*, excluding the proper address but also excluding the improper address.

    “How does this render the old Articles 2&3 unlawful?”

    You’re confusing Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution with Articles 2 and 3 of the UN’s ICCPR.

  • Alias

    Sentence tidy-up: “Hence, when the Queen would invite the President of Ireland to royal functions, she would address the invitation to the “President of the Republic of Ireland” – and all such invitations would be duly ignored by the Irish government (which must grant the President permission to leave the State).”

  • antamadan

    One of the best threads folks: All angles .Really.

    Personally I can’t believe my mother is less Irish than my father although they were from either sides of the border (They fought about loads of things but that never came up); but the question is: is Northern Irish less Irish than the south and that is a lot more nuanced. The south is more Irish, where the north is Irish and British surely, culture politics, tax rates etc.

    I think we need an all Ireland flag and anthem, and a Northern Ireland flag and song to represent both communties.