Even the Un-Irish are Irish too…

One of the things worth considering before the Christmas season finally swallows us into its (generally) good natured maw, is just why Conor Cruise O’Brien had such a impact on the Unionists he met and worked with. Michael McDowell (no, not that one) was at Trinity thirty six years ago when he first heard the Cruiser speak. A Northern Irish Labour man, he’d joined the Irish Labour party for his time there, and therefore they were in the same party at the time. Then decades later:

In Washington, when I challenged Hume at a think-tank, he remarked to a colleague: “Michael McDowell will always be an Ulsterman and never an Irishman.” The Cruiser taught me that I didn’t have to choose to be one or the other. I could proudly be both.

How could a Prod like me be just simply “Irish”? My family came to the North in the 17th to 19th centuries, were Scottish Calvinists and English non-conformists. Our identity was a hybrid and no harm in that.

The Cruiser knew we didn’t have to choose one identity, or to allow people like Hume to define us. Likewise, I and my family didn’t accept the unionist label either. We were Northern Ireland Labour Party voters, social democrats or democratic socialists, who supported a party which had both Protestant and Catholic voters who eschewed the tribal choices which so many others felt they had to make or made comfortably.

Later he concludes:

I might have differed with the Cruiser in his last years, but not a lot. He fought to keep the gun out of Irish politics, North and South; he created the intellectual space in what was a stifling cesspool of lazy sectarian understandings. He changed the political playing field decades ago but we are still far from the pluralism he sought.

The fact of this ‘intellectual space’ is these days taken for granted, possibly because such ‘spaces’ on create potential, it is down to real politicians to act upon them, often creating realities that fall a long way short of the originating intellectual’s pristine vision.

The Cruiser once set an acid test for the pluralism of individual Irish Nationalists:

Find out how a given person stands on Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. Those Articles are a naked claim to territory, irrespective of the wishes of the inhabitants. There is no nonsense, in the wording of the Articles, about the consent of the inhabitants. There is not mention of any inhabitants. It is all about territory and jurisdiction. The territory is ours, because we say it is and we must have it.

Ireland, north and south, passed that test in the 1998 referendum. Although it is clear the zero sum of the previous era still has a broad appeal for many. It was a game that has serially ill served the Irish nation (however one defines that terms) in the past.

Indeed one of its side effects is that Irish nationalism has acquired the rather distasteful habit of lopping off from the nation everyone whose face or politics don’t fit our own highly reductive template of what an Irishman should be. Even ultra right wing Senator Joe McCarthy was bounded by the term ‘un’ (rather than ‘non’) American.

That, it seems to me, is not simply to the effects of polticial partition or the incomplete nature of the historical Irish Republican project, but that project’s inability to concieve of itself as sufficiently large and broad enough to encompass of all of those with a birthright to the name Irishman/woman.

The fault lies in the ideology; not the people.

If living on the hill of Howth, jutting as it does away from the mainland and out towards the other island, the Cruiser was somehow cut a roguishly unIrish figure, he was for all of that an Irishman in the depth of his bones.

And a much greater one than many of his more venal critics.

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  • runciter

    If you want to know what a united Ireland would look like, look at Belgium. Two separate peoples sharing a piece of land with no love for each other and little uniting them.

    Isn’t this a desciption of Northern Ireland?

    I also think that as a people, the northern prods will not be sustainable in a united ireland

    Technically speaking it will be unionism that will not be sustainable.

    To answer the question – does your allegiance lie to Dublin or London, can we not take the third answer and say “Belfast”?

    Why would a nationalist support partition?

  • Greenflag

    runciter ,

    ‘Why would a nationalist support partition?

    Right – Far better to support ‘repartition’ .
    People are who they ARE – not what others say or think they are.

    Can’t imagine the Northern Irish of either tribe aspiring to become latter day peaceful Belgians . The problem being the Norners can speak to each other in the same language even if it seems most of the time they are talking at each other .

    Seriously folks NI needs a redrawing of it’s boundaries . It’ll never work otherwise or even if it does it will cost an arm and a leg to keep both sectarian snouts happily sharing a diminishing trough ;(

  • runciter

    Seriously folks NI needs a redrawing of it’s boundaries

    I have a better idea. Let’s get rid of sectarian borders altogether.

    Trying to institutionalise a ‘protestant homeland’ was a bad idea in the first place, and it hasn’t improved with age.

  • Mick Fealty

    It seems to me that the southern nationalist perspective on this is critical to any sane debate on how well northern nationalism stands up to its own ambition. I’ve a good deal more to say on this, but probably won’t get the chance to say it until tomorrow when I return to work.

  • Greenflag

    runciter ,

    ‘I have a better idea. Let’s get rid of sectarian borders altogether. ‘

    Wonderful theory -it’s just the practice that makes such an ideal unrealistic and politically impractical for NI and not just NI . Can’t see the Israelis or Palestinians ever ‘sharing ‘ power either .

    ‘Trying to institutionalise a ‘protestant homeland’ was a bad idea in the first place’

    Not necessarily . The problem was their ‘homeland ‘ in 1920 included too many Irish ‘catholic’ nationalists at the time (35% of the population) and now in 2009 almost 50% .

    You could just as easily have said that

    ‘Trying to institutionalise an ‘Irish political homeland’ was a bad idea in the first place’

    ‘and it(NI) hasn’t improved with age.’

    True the ‘Irish ‘ homeland has fared better although for a long time it was touch and go . And who knows what the present economic turmoil may lead to . I for one remain confident that we Irish do better at being as ‘independent’ as it’s possible to be in this ‘globalised ‘ world economy. Not that I’m averse to practical cooperation with our ‘cousins’ across the water. I read recently that some 25% of British people have ‘Irish ‘ ancestry which is probably about the figure vice versa for the Irish . Not that that alone should be a factor but geographical proximity – linguistic, cultural and family connections ensure that both islands share much in common . Because of relative population size and economic power the ‘politcal relationship’ between the islands impinges more on the Irish consciousness than on the British .

    Happy New Year

  • PaddyReilly

    ‘Trying to institutionalise an ‘Irish political homeland’ was a bad idea in the first place and it hasn’t improved with age.’

    Not exactly Green. Ulster Unionists are what- about 14% of Ireland’s population? Their numbers are going down, especially with regard to their percentage relationship to the non Unionists.

    Most countries have some ethnic minority or another. The Ulster Unionists only constituted a problem because they allied themselves with a world power.

    As Britain’s stock diminishes, and the inhabitents of that island gradually realise that they are being used as a supply of cannon fodder and unnecessary subsidies and being turned into a war-zone to encourage a particular class of horribly accented Paddies in the erroneous notion that they are British and thus superior to their neighbours, the desire to maintain this state of affairs diminishes.

    However, as more and more people start moving round the world to make a living, Ireland becomes less and less the patriotic bruderbund that Republic of Connacht talks of, and more just a geographical convenience. A United Ireland is a superior convenience, a divided one a damned inconvenience.

    When I think of the boys I went to school with and trace their subsequent movements: there’s quite a few in Australia, a number in weird places all round the world. There’s only one I can think of who lives within 8 miles of the school, and that’s because he’s mad and dependent on benefits.

    Northern Ireland might have had some possible life in a world where everyone was a farmer by inheritance, but in a modern world people move on to find employment. But the only way you can keep the majority of the right sort going is by thorough going discrimination, and this is what starts the troubles. The only way you can stop intermarriage is by institutionalised hatred, enforced, in my experience and our times, by murder.

    I have never heard of anyone in Dublin being shot or burnt out because they were letting the side down by marrying a foreign Protestant, but this is all too common in NI I’m afraid.

    So the sooner the Ulstermen become Ireland’s Huguenots the better.

  • abucs

    And for auld lang syne, my jo,
    For auld lang syne,
    We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
    For auld lang syne.

  • Mick Fealty


    That’s as eloquent an evocation of the 19th century Nationalist ideal as I’ve read in a while. But the problem with it is not simply that it’s hopelessly anachronistic, rather it is that it lacks any sense of proportion. I’m not surprised you don’t expect to see unification; under your terms it would almost certainly never happen.

    Yet I do agree that there is no question that there is an problem with a mass of people living in one state holding an allegiance to another state; in the case of Northern Irish nationalism to a state that has yet to exist. Citizenship whist germane does not entirely encompass that problem, as the 7/7 London bombings demonstrate.

    In this respect, the critical work of the Belfast Agreement was not to get a power sharing arrangement into place, but get a constitutional arrangement into place that most Irish (geographically, to be clear) people could and would live with.
    The problem of proportionality arises with the fact that someone lives in one’s country and does not opt-in to the nation state by taking up citizenship has been a substantial fact of life across the west for many, many years.

    For example, that so many Irish people in England, Scotland and Wales choose to retain their Irish citizenship even after many years of living there does not in and of itself constitute a breach of communal security.

    Okay, more specifically, you note of the Unionist population that:

    “Geographically they were born and reared there, yes. But that’s almost an accident of geography. In their hearts and minds they belong somewhere else if they do not have a deep love of their own homeland in its entirety.”

    The fallacy here is the idea that Unionists believe they belong somewhere else. If they did, they would have left the first time Irish nationalism said ‘boo’. Some (even quite extreme loyalists) love the island; many others feel Northern Ireland’s more natural hinterland is Scotland and England.

    Many over the years have been proud to turn out in an Irish rugby shirt, but are equally proud of their own British institutions in Northern Ireland and beyond and their own Unionist tradition. Where you see contradiction, others see a conjunction.

    As a slightly frivolous aside, if Eddie O’Sullivan had kept a large enough roster of players to include more of the Ulster boys long before he did (and made O’Gara play for his place against Humphries a little longer) he might have had something more to show for his golden era in charge of the Irish squad.

    Back to the problem I first stated. So long as Irish nationalism continues to blame unionists for not ‘being’ Irish enough, it will never live out its own ambition to see the island politically united. As I said previously the fault lies not in the people but in the ideology.

    I don’t share yours and Dave’s pessimism about the possibilities of that outcome occurring. Although I think the probability will remain insignificant if northern Nationalism continues to dine out on the same narrative that served it so well throughout the years of the Troubles: i.e., “it ‘all’ was their fault”.

    SF’s abysmal performance in 2007 in the southern General Election should have been a warning that Northern Irish politics is peripheral to politics in the Republic.

    That that message has still not stuck home is obvious from a fairly abysmal performance by Mark Durkan and Mitchel McLaughlin recently on the various calls to patriotism in the south asking shoppers to stay with southern traders rather than go north.

    Both demonstrated an utter incapacity to understand and articulate the question from a southern point of view (and therefore register their views as being relevant within a southern political matrix).

    For me this calls into question the respective parties’ capacity to view Northern Ireland within the wider context of politics and economics on the island.

    One easy observation they might have noted is the Republic’s long-term dependence upon indirect taxation – as well as articulating other of their party’s policies to save Ireland from itself (if such in reality actually exist as yet) – that leaves government revenue so much at the fore front of consumer mood swings.

    The absence of anything other than faux northern ‘outrage’ (which has the effect of confirming the southern audience’s already entrenched view of the ‘mad old uncle in the attic’) betrays, at the very least, a lack of seriousness amongst Northern Irish nationalist politicians about the south, its people and its politics.

    That’s not something that can be manufactured by legislation or changes to a constitution or frivolously tinkering with the Ministerial terms for given territories. It has to be willed from within the respective political parties.

  • Mick Fealty

    To be fair, everyone has been stuck down the same solipsistic mine shaft. The good news for Unionism generally is the link up with Cameron and the UUs. That’s not to say it won’t bring problems, or that it changes everything overnight, but at least one party is being seen to invest in substantial East West relations.

    There are signs too that the DUP, despite critical absences at several Westminster votes, is beginning to take that other place more seriously than it did before if only to effect a debilitating arm-lock on Gordon Brown.

    Unionists are out to block any future unification of the island, because they see a higher benefit for them in maintaining what is after nearly a thousand years; a well established link with Britain.

    In this latest phase play they have cut off the Republican movement’s favourite recourse of the Troubles era, which was to talk exclusively with the organ grinder of Downing Street. Now they are stuck with the Unionist monkey.

    The 2001 census means that that movement’s practice of simply ignoring Unionists is no longer a viable way of gaining a united Ireland. Rather addressing unionists (for which read ‘voters’) with a positive proposition is key to gaining the prize.

    But it must also invest in its relations with the south too and seek to make it part of the overall offering. For now, the whole project suffers from a distinct air of unreality. Making it real means further moderation in the formerly fundamentalist approach to the ‘national question’

    In eighty years of economic independence the Republic and it’s electorate understand that the size of the fiscal pot is governed somewhat by the size of the state. Self reliance is a much more prized virtue than it is in Northern Ireland. Negotiating the ways in which the two states have diverged is one of the challenges for the nationalist parties if they ever want to make political unity real.

    That’s a tough call; and one that can only be risen to with sufficient political will. Whether or not that will exists is a question that remains as yet unanswered.

  • runciter

    The good news for Unionism generally is the link up with Cameron and the UUs. That’s not to say it won’t bring problems, or that it changes everything overnight, but at least one party is being seen to invest in substantial East West relations.

    We had “substantial East West relations” here for long enough to know that it was always going to be a bad deal for Ireland. The beauty of being an independent country is that we are no longer bound to kiss British arse – although doing so can still be advantageous from a individual career perspective.

  • Mick Fealty

    I fear you are missing the point run. The Republic has its independence. It’s a fait accompli. The point is what is northern Nationalism prepared to do to prove North South will serve it better in future.

    The unionists have started trying practical measures to make East West work. Nationalism is doing little other than pious preaching of some pretty abstract verities. As one science communications expert once told me: “There has been shift from a tell me to a show me paradigm”.

    Cameron’s most compelling line was the one about enabling local people to take part in the democratic working of the British state from local council chambers to the Cabinet.

    In this respect we are still waiting for Nationalism to get its planes off the ground.

  • PaddyReilly

    The 2001 census means that that movement’s practice of simply ignoring Unionists is no longer a viable way of gaining a united Ireland.

    We seem to have read different censuses. The one I saw didn’t ask people their views on reunification or politics and even the question on religion was not answered by enough people to be decisive.

    And even if it were devastatingly accurate in this sphere, as a census it cannot factor in the effect of intermarriage, immigration and emigration.

    Censal information can be used to explain what is happening in politics, but it has very circumscribed predictive power.

    So it is the political results you should be looking at. In Westminster terms, the Nationalist camp is one short of 50% of the seats (and that by only about 2000 votes), in European Parliament terms 31,000 votes (as of 2004) of a majority. If David Cameron were that close to a majority, do you think he wouldn’t expect to achieve it by 2016?

    The other Fealtyite error embodied in this statement, imho, is the idea that SF or Republicanism could and should be changing their presentation in the hope of attracting Unionist support. On the contrary, SF have an important role to play in persuading Unionists that they would be better off forming an alliance with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil in a United Ireland than putting up with a SF majority in a separate pravince. Their speciality is repulsion, not attraction.

    Why look to SF? Surely the SDLP would make better persuaders, or even better, the Green Party. But the only argument that might sway certain Unionists is this one: look here, you are a minority now. And even this argument is one that a substantial section of Unionists have always been immune to.

    However, 7 years is a long time in politics. By 2016 who knows maybe SF will be the party of respectability and Éirigí the new bug-bear.

  • Republic of Connaught


    The point of the thread is principally about what constitutes an Irishman. Not just a geographic Irishman but a real, proud Irishman. A man can get a random woman pregnant and become a father. But to be a real father requires loyalty, devotion and love for that child. Not just the act of fathering the child.

    Now I believe what Wolfe Tone and the true patriots of Ireland believed; that a true Irishman is one who puts himself at the service of his fellow Irishmen for the betterment of the entire island of Ireland. Idealistic, yes. But by the guiding light of idealists was the greatest country in the world created in the USA.

    The Ireland link with Britain is indeed in place for a long time, but history proves incontrovertibly that the link helped a minority prosper because of their religious and political views. It did not help all the people of Ireland prosper. This is what the Protestant Wolfe Tone rebelled against. His put his people, the entire people of Ireland, above his own religious community’s greedy power grabbing culture from London. Unionists in the north have continued that same greedy self serving process where “us and them” means Irish Prods getting “legitimate” power from London (another country) while native Irish catholics are forced to accept being governed by a neighbouring island. In the north east of Ireland “democracy” seemingly created this partition situation despite the fact Ulster Protestants are a small minority in a small country called Ireland. And the old Irish Protestant ascendency in Dublin no doubt found some way to justify their unnatural position of power in Ireland too.

    And this cuts right to the point about Irish Unionists in Ulster. Do they in their own minds tell themselves they act in the best interests of the people of Ireland, as any honourable Irishman is required to do, or do they in fact admit they act in the best interests of their own narrow ethnic group of the island’s population against the interests and desires of the vast majority of their countrymen? The question is rhetorical.

    But I do believe there will be a unified country in my lifetime though a steady rise in the catholic/nationalist vote and a small Protestant swing vote. Except it won’t be the free Ireland Wolfe Tone dreamed of because Protestant kids in Ulster will not be allowed, due not to nationalists but to the baggage their own parents hand down to them, to ever truly feel Irish and thus part of an All-Ireland state. They will be the victims of their parents and grandparents failure to do what Wolfe Tone did and make the whole island’s now multicultural population more important than the self serving interests of any minority on the island.

  • Mick Fealty


    Good luck with that strategy.

    I am not talking about the content of the Census results so much as the radical and immediate change it wrought within nationalist polemics.

    The gap between Catholics and Protestants was not closing as rapidly as many had confidently predicted. I only take the logic on from that that counting Catholics is only any good for consolidation of the status quo, not an engine for further change.

    On the contrary, SF have an important role to play in persuading Unionists that they would be better off forming an alliance with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil in a United Ireland than putting up with a SF majority in a separate pravince. Their speciality is repulsion, not attraction.

    I could see that dynamic at work whilst there was a power vacuum within Unionism. That’s now in the process of ending. And the gap between the northern and southern states is palpable again now the process crisis engineering baring little fruit.

    Von Molke: no strategy survives engagement with the enemy.

    Time for a rethink, no?

  • runciter

    Time for a rethink, no?

    The next phase for nationalism is not to make itself more unionist (since this can only be counter-productive), but to use its new-found influence to facilitate the reunification of Ireland.

    Power-sharing allows nationalists to re-make the six counties on an economic, infrastructural and cultural basis. This will gradually erode the impact and importance of the border.

    Such changes are already visible, and will only increase over time.

    The main challenges facing nationalism are complacency and poor negotiating skills on the part of their political leadership. But this will not last forever.

  • SK

    Do not some people have a problem with some Irish people for not being British enough?
    For preferring the native British games of Gaelic football and Hurling over Rugby, both Union and League?

  • Jimmy Sands

    “a true Irishman is one who puts himself at the service of his fellow Irishmen for the betterment of the entire island of Ireland. Idealistic, yes.”

    I think “fascist” would be more accurate.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    Anyone see ‘A history of Scotland’ on BBC2 last night? It was quite interesting, but the narrator Neil Oliver kept referring to Ireland and Irish when describing the comings and goings between the different tribes within the British Isles, even when the name Ireland and Irish didn’t even exist at that time.

    Why does he state that ancient Scotland wasn’t known by the name Scotland until the (9th or 10th century), but continue to call the tribes from whence they originated as Irish and from Ireland, even when that name didn’t exist?

    Also, when he described the creation of the kingdom of Scotland, he never made any reference to their being a similar joint Scot kingdom in Ulster.

    BBC is falsely portraying the history of our people and nations incorrectly by trying to hide the Scottish link between Ulster and Scotland.

  • andy

    Jimmy could you explain how the quote is fascist?
    I fully accept it could be used by fascists of course… but that is a long way from the quote itself being fascist – or else any vaguely nationalistic sentiment would = fascism

  • Jimmy Sands


    Quite simply the idea that I am to subordinate my free will to a notion of what constitutes the betterment of the Volk. RoC believes that in a conlict between an Englishman and an Irishman I am bound to support the Irishman. If I don’t, I’m not a “real” Irishman. My view is that my moral obligation is to support whoever is in the right, regardless of nationality.

  • Mack

    Ulster is my homeland –

    I watched that show, was very interesting. He did mention King Donald and Constantine growing up in the north of Ireland – but by and large he used the word Gaelic or Gael rather than Irish – and used Ireland only in a geographic sense. As in Gaels in Ireland and Scotland – he needs to use some word to describe the location.

  • Ulsters my homeland

    “[i]I watched that show, was very interesting. He did mention King Donald and Constantine growing up in the north of Ireland – but by and large he used the word Gaelic or Gael rather than Irish – and used Ireland only in a geographic sense. As in Gaels in Ireland and Scotland – he needs to use some word to describe the location.”[/i]

    Nonsense Mack, When he mentioned Ireland or Irish he was historically wrong, because the island wasn’t known under that name during the time he was discussing. Why should he be allowed to be historically correct in the creation of Scotland, but be historically incorrect with the creation of Ireland?

  • Mack

    UMH – I guess possibly he could have used Eireann, Hibernia or even Ulaidh. He may have lost his audience had he done so. A minor complaint surely?