The ‘Gaelic Irish’ versus the ‘Ulster Scots’ is a dangerous illusion…

The following is a guest post from freelance journalist Jason Walsh. In part it comes off the back a review of Robert Ramsey’s Ringside Seats: An Insider’s View of the Crisis in Northern Ireland. It also contains a quote from an email correspondence I had with him on the same book. Of which, more from me in a later post…

With all of the recent ink spilled about 1969 and the eruption of the conflict, including the excellent current issue of History Ireland, I find it instructive that few commentators took the opportunity to ask how a political conflict came to be seen as a cultural matter.

As I recently wrote at the Guardian (off the back of a forthcoming review of Robert Ramsay’s book ‘Ringside Seats: An Insider’s View of the Crisis in Northern Ireland‘), if unionism continues to lurch toward a kind of nativist ‘Ulsterish’ identity it is actively damaging the political legitimacy of the union:

For a start, it would be a tacit admission that the union was, as a political force, completely moribund. Creating a backward-looking, cod-aboriginal Ulsterish identity is a long way from Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 declaration that “Northern Ireland was as British as Finchley,” or, indeed, the Ulster Unionist party’s former campaign slogan, “Simply British.”

From my own personal perspective I don’t have a problem with this – except that I find the entire Ulster Scots project bizarre. I’m not a unionist, after all.

In a recent conversation with a representative of political loyalism I was told: “There is a tendency to see [physical force] unionism as having [had] no ideology.” Putting aside the (important) question of what loyalist ideology was, is or should be, surely it can’t just be the creation of ‘Ulster Scots’ which, apart from questions of legitimacy, is more Irish than British anyway.

Slugger editor Mick Fealty wrote in an email about the Guardian piece: “I think you’re right about unionism being in danger of turning inward, but Ramsay’s wrong on the cultural question. Politics is moving to the cultural questions because the occupants of the Castle as stuck in a double headlock. So, there is nothing else to talk about. I read that as fear of the future. But, for me, it’s nationalism that is in bigger trouble.”

I agree with Mick’s analysis of the symptoms, but not necessarily the underlying disease. Certainly nationalism/republicanism has taken a cultural turn – in fact, it moved before unionism – and this has had a devastating effect on how the dialogue has played-out.

For me, the problem – and it’s a problem that is magnified by the workings of the Assembly – is that a cultural battle, better known as identity politics, can never actually resolve the situation in the North. Whatever the future holds, whether likely or not, – the Assembly continuing, joint sovereignty, independence, a federal republic, integration with the rest of Ireland in a unitary republic, repartition – dividing the population of such a small area into discrete groups is unlikely to have a unifying effect in the long-term and, as such, is a recipe for future conflict, whether open fighting or the kind off proxy battles we see in the Assembly.

?Prods and taigs knocking the stuffing out of one another is not a good enough analysis of the conflict and it offers no way forward. Likewise, the ‘Gaelic Irish’ versus the ‘Ulster Scots’ is a dangerous illusion.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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