A St Paddy’s Day for all…

A GENEROUS response in the Andytown News to the news that Belfast City Council is to support the St Patrick’s Day carnival. There is also an acknowledgement that nationalists “will be reasonable and magnanimous when it comes to those aspects of the St Patrick’s Day celebrations that many unionists genuinely have trouble with”. For non-nationalists, that would, in many cases, include the flying of the Irish flag. Just recently, Dr John Nagle of Queen’s University’s Institute of Irish Studies examined attitudes in Northern Ireland towards St Patrick’s Day. Some of the responses he got are below.A Presbyterian student summed up a typical Unionist view of celebrations in Belfast:

I went into Belfast city centre and I wish I had not. Lots of drinking and drunk people making fools of themselves, annoying children blowing whistles and lots of Irish flags being waved. I felt scared to look at anyone in the wrong way for fear of being attacked. I would like to see future events where Unionists could be made feel welcome. As it stands at the minute St. Patricks Day in Belfast is nothing more than a republican festival.

A Protestant, Irish Nationalist who went to the celebrations at Belfast City Hall with his children articulated a similar position:

In Belfast it has been taken over by bigots and used for dark political purposes. It should be made to appeal more to Irish Protestants as well. If they would fly more St Patricks flags and less Tricolours it might help protestants realize they are Irish too!

A Unionist put the case in blunt terms:

I feel like a Jew at a Nazi parade. I am excluded from Saint Patrick’s day as I am a Protestant. It has got more republican than ever. Why does Belfast city council not hold a celebration for all religions in N. Ireland.

A self-declared Unionist mused on the changes he had seen over the years:

In the 1960s St. Patrick’s Day was an excuse for everyone (both. Protestant and. Catholic) to enjoy a night out in a pub/club where Irish stew was served.. Today in Northern Ireland it is another opportunity for people (of both shades of opinion) to express their political views. I would like to see the day as a genuine “Festival” but since Patrick is the national saint of Ireland
he is therefore always likely to be associated with Ireland’s national flag. The flag is in turn an anathema to so many that I do not foresee a situation when a true cross-community festival could ever exist.

There’s a big challenge for the City Hall to meet between now and next March, particularly over issues like flags. Will the Council perhaps use the guidelines employed in Downpatrick, which has managed to hold a pretty successful St Patrick’s Day event that is enjoyed by all sections of the community there?

If they can meet the challenge, it will surely be A Good Thing, because St Paddy is one of the few shared symbols we have in Northern Ireland. As Dr Nagle noted in his article:

As Northern Ireland searches to find a truly inclusive Northern Irish identity – perhaps in a hyphenated British-Irish form – the need to find relevant festivities and neutral spaces to celebrate this identity is critically important. Given the exclusive, often sectarian characteristic nature of visible public celebrations in the north of Ireland (Orange Order parades, Irish Republican commemorations), the inherent political and religious neutrality of St. Patrick, and his life precedes the centuries old struggle over British rule in Ireland) provides real potential for mobilising space and all communities to share and celebrate a common identity.