Identity as a weapon

Even the UnIrish may be Irish too but both the Hawk and the Sparrow can accurately claim to be birds so it is perhaps a statement of limited usefulness.Browse some of the Unionist blog sites like 3000 Versts or A Pint Of Unionist Lite and the authors are quick to take umbrage at Nationalist co-option of “Irish” but search their sites and you will find precious little to do with the either the state to their south or of the other set of people that have pride in that name, save where it impacts on their own narrow interest. Unionist Lite helpfully includes a list of tags: neither “Ireland” nor “Republic” appear there. There is plenty on advantage of the Union and how it is superior to a Nationalist model and can accommodate everyone, plenty on why Nationalist (or Nationalist policy) X is bad. But in terms of interest in the actual people – North or South- what makes them tick and why, they are as barren as any Nationalist or Republican blog on Unionists. Plenty of pontificating, little attempt at understanding.

This strikes me as identity as a weapon; the claim to an Irish identity has less to do with a genuine desire to express and add to that heritage and more to do with blocking the others expression of their identity. It’s the same logic that seeks to ban tricolours on St Patrick’s Day in Belfast or block Irish citizens from playing for the team they identify with. The formulation is simple: if you accept the logic, then you must bow to Unionist wishes for fear of offending, if you do not accept it, then you are a hypocrite for going against the principles you espouse.

Even if the motivation behind the challenge is dubious, the challenge still remains. So how to deal with it? It is a knotty problem as I suspect those that formulate it know. Two points come to mind. The first is that we must reject the idea that I somehow have to hide my identity under a bushel for fear of offending you. I am proud of my heritage and would fiercely defend my right to celebrate and defend it. If you have an issue with my identity, then the problem is with you and not me. Similarly, if you have something different to add, something you feel is important, then it is up to you to push that and make sure your voice is heard. The Irish language movement, or the success of Irish music, or even the dominance of Nationalist culture as “Irish” happened because people did just that. It was important to them and they were prepared to make themselves heard. The expectation of the same seems a minimal requirement. The flipside is that Republicanism has to be open to that. It has to make space for alternative views, alternative conceptions of “Irish” and welcome them in. It is easy to be dismissive and to lose points of contact or shared experience by cultural chauvinism; much harder to allow other views and ideas to flow freely.

This is important beyond the traditional Orange / Green divide. Whatever the long run economic impact of the downturn, both jurisdictions have sizeable immigrant populations that are wth us for the long haul. What does it mean to be Polish-Irish, African-Irish, Chinese-Irish? It is probably something different that went before. If we shut ourselves into a purely Gaelic shell we miss the chance to grow and enrich our culture and potentially lock out whole sections of populace from wider society and civic institutions, damaging everyone. In terms of loyalties, Unionism will always prevent a particular problem for Republicans due to their insistence on rule from outside the island, but there are lessor questions that face immigrant communities. Ireland has benefited greatly from second and third generation immigrants identifying with it – this process could easily run in reverse. Can we embrace some wider dispersion of loyalties and avoid applying “Cricket tests”? This seems like a key challenge going forward.