Is Heaney right when he talks about us having ‘caste politics’?

I was wondering if in my absence yesterday someone on the Slugger team might have picked up the gauntlet thrown down so casually by the south Derry Nobel Lauret, Seamus Heaney. It seems not.

In an interview with the Times it seems the poet doesn’t think there is going to be a united Ireland. In fact this may have been the least interesting thing he had to say.

According to the Irish News, he also noted…

Loyalism, or unionism, or Protestantism or whatever you want to call it – in Northern Ireland it operates not as a class system but as a caste system.

That’s an interesting shift in terms. If there is a lasting and useful legacy of Marx, it is the conception that different economic classes in society have separate and competing interests. This has given rise to and inspired some of the great political movements on the right as well as the left across the world.

Not here in Northern Ireland though, where the threads of ethnic and sectarian alignments are long, deep and, for the most part, poorly understood. At the bottom end of the scale, caste politics is not an inaccurate term for what passes political commerce here.

The reduction of meaningful political conflict to how long and where a flag flies suggests a hollowing out of public interest to benefit of a small number of signal issues that re- emphasise the “legacy communities” of history.

So community ownership of the shops at Ardoyne displace from political discourse the more pressing material concerns of over crowding inside Catholic and increasingly in recent years Protestant upper Ardoyne.

I suspect Heaney is on to something here. His pessimism on the ‘national’ possibly springs from this bleak but not unjustified fear that the pretension at larger and more noble ideals in our politics is little more than a veneer upon a deep (and mutual) ethnic antipathy.

All of which leaves us a long way adrift of unification of any sort…

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