Northern Ireland has been such a pasty white place until recently. So much so, that in my teens I worried that I’d accidentally be a racist when I finally met some brown people. Thankfully there was a website for this – a university had set up a test, flashing images of white and brown people on the screen, asking quick-fire questions to test for unconscious bias. I passed. Not a racist. I thought I was off the hook.
But as the years passed, and debates around white privilege deepened, it became clear to me that I have lots of it. I didn’t discover that I was actually a racist. I just came to recognise that I have a lightness and ease of moving through the world because I’m white. From negotiating airports to finding hairdressers, my skin colour makes my life less complicated.
Sometimes you hear people say that the debate has swung too far the other way. That it’s about giving white people a kicking. It’s not their fault they were born white/male/insert privilege. Which is true. But then you look at political leaders and boardrooms and you see that this is of course the way it needs to swing, to begin to grasp at an equilibrium. Which to be honest, still feels like a distant horizon.
So, to break some Northern Irish eggs… Who is privileged, and by how much? Well, unionists, historically, by a lot. Unionists in contemporary Northern Ireland, by a significant degree. No shit Sherlock, say nationalists everywhere. But it’s clear that many unionists don’t agree, and in fact feel under attack, so let’s try to untangle it a bit.
We could start with the Plantation. But let’s not. Battering people over the head with the past doesn’t usually get us very far.
Let’s start with St. Patrick’s day 2018. The Nolan Show focused on this the other day. Unionist representatives and callers were complaining that the St. Patrick’s day celebrations in Belfast did not feel inclusive, that people were liable to break into republican song at any given moment. I sat there slack-jawed, listening to the parade’s organisers having to insist that it was inclusive and that, whilst they can’t micro-manage everyone, it was a day for all. I have heard the same said about the Twelfth, and I admire all moves towards outreach from both events. But I have also heard a lot more insistence from unionists and loyalists on the right to march and wave flags and burn things. Most people have given up pretending that it’s simply a day for cross-community family fun.
A few weeks ago I was at a gig at the Mandela Hall where the crowd (spurred on by a terrible warm up act) sang ‘Ooh ah up the RA’. Somehow, in 22 years of dedicated pint drinking across Ireland, north and south, this was the first time I’d heard it sung. I was there with Catholic friends, who were fabulously uncomfortable. I didn’t like it much myself, but I was also feeling quite anthropological about the whole thing. I kept thinking of how many more times I had heard the Sash or ‘do you want a fish supper Bobby Sands’ sung around Catholics. How every summer of the fourteen summers since I moved back to Northern Ireland, I’ve heard loyalist band tunes carried by the wind up to my house – six different houses in fact – and walked the dog through the charred remains of the park the next day.
It’s quite taken for granted that most of Northern Ireland will lie low on the Twelfth, get their groceries in beforehand, won’t go out in the car, get out of town. Nobody is asking for marching season to stop. But it’s worth reflecting how we rearrange our summers around unionist and loyalist traditions, when thinking of how to respond to nationalists’ and republicans’ cultural requests.
But hang on. Loyalists living in neglected estates across Northern Ireland – are we saying they are privileged? As Gina Crosley-Corcoran’s brilliant article ‘Explaining white privilege to a broke white person’ explains, you can be privileged in some ways (e.g. white or male) whilst not at all privileged in others (e.g. social class). Academics call this intersectionality. Loyalists have largely been screwed over in the class structure of Northern Ireland. But they have been able to offset this with a range of cultural privileges. So it’s possible to appreciate their pain as well as their advantage.
But back to unionism as a whole. Let’s think about the Britishness of our built heritage in Northern Ireland, and how this forms another hugely taken for granted imbalance. Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan said it well when speaking on the View recently (about 11 minutes in), exploring whether the ‘curry my yoghurt’ days were over or not. When challenged about nationalists trying to assert their own cultural supremacy with an Irish Language Act, he said,
“The issue of cultural supremacy is laughable. I can walk down through my constituency past the Royal Victoria hospital down to the Sinn Féin office at the bottom of Sevastopol Street, maybe over to Queen’s University down to the City Hall and see the monuments of the British monarchy or the British military. [In West Belfast] Crimea Street, the Kashmir Road, Lucknow Street, scenes of British army battles in their imperial past, and there’s not a word about it”.
I do wonder if unionists ever think about this when they think about bilingual road signs?
There are too many examples of the institutional and cultural privileges of unionism in Northern Ireland to note here. The Queen on our money, royal insignia on our tax bills, Carson’s statue up at Stormont etc. You can extrapolate.
And I have some of this unionist privilege too. I’m a ‘no religion’ political ‘other’ of Protestant descent. I have an Irish passport, lived in Dublin for 10 years, and consider myself somewhat literate in Irish nationalism. But I only learned how to type a fada last year. It takes a micro-second. If we start the clock as an 18 year old undergraduate, that’s 21 years writing about politics without being arsed to type Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil properly. That’s shocking. It’s not the end of the world. But it does speak to a laziness, even a casual disrespect, that I would never have considered myself to have had. It assumes a neutrality of the English language that is not real.
This is what Irish language activists are trying to tell us. It’s not about domination or humiliation. It is a request for unionists to reflect on how taken for granted their cultural expressions are. And a request for some redress, to institutionalise and protect, and yes, fund, Irish cultural expressions too. This request, polite at the beginning, has become noisy and insistent. Because, well, it’s fair dos. And it’s not an Ulster-Scots Act that is needed to ‘even things up’ with an Irish Language Act. It’s an Irish Language Act that is needed to even things up with the pervasive Britishness of our institutional culture.
The fact that unionists seem to have a cloth ear about their still favoured cultural position is worrying. They say that ‘neutral’ issues like the cost of an Irish Language Act, or the higher priority of health-care are the stumbling blocks. Or that it’s just republican agitation. All worth discussion. But these are the veneer, not the root, of the impasse. I wonder if the root is many unionists’ inability to even conceive of their continuing privilege, never mind being willing to concede some of it.
I understand completely that Sinn Féin and the DUP are having a parallel conversation right now. One about power and strategy. That they are playing the Irish language in a wider poker hand. But they don’t own this debate. We need to talk about it too. Whether it’s deal or no deal. And we get to talk about it in our own terms.
These are my terms: Nobody is saying that unionists are bad, or that they need to be sorry for being unionists. White privilege is not the same as racism. And unionist privilege is not the same as bigotry. In both cases it’s often very nice people simply assuming that the world they move through is neutral. When it’s just not.
I think it’s probably too much to ask for unionists to become radical intersectionalists overnight. But I do think it’s reasonable to suggest that more unionists might consider choosing not to be offended. To question their humiliation. To give an inch, because they have more inches squirrelled away.
Claire Mitchell is a freelance writer, and community editor at Slugger O’Toole. Formerly senior lecturer in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. She is a member of the Green Party of Northern Ireland, but all views are her own. More at www.clairemitchell.net