Cormac Lucey, a columnist in the Irish edition of the Times of London laid out a useful analysis a week or two back, excoriating the reliance of Sinn Fein and DUP on a culture war which if not explicitly ruled out by the Belfast Agreement, was explicitly discouraged (£).
The Good Friday agreement expressly stated: “All participants recognise the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland.”
But, as he notes:
A strong case can be made that the political settlement has encouraged and strengthened the political extremes while eviscerating the political centre. With Northern Ireland politics structured as negotiations between unionists and nationalists, voters on each side of the divide have an incentive to vote for the toughest exponent of their position to shift the outcome of negotiations towards their side.
The parliamentary voting system doesn’t reward the political centre-ground: for contentious decisions, the rules require the support of a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists in the Stormont assembly but make no reference to those who are cross-community, such as the Alliance Party, or those who do not wish to be unionist or nationalist.
Former Trades Unionist and Irish Senator Joe O’Toole lays out the rules:
We know that game. One plays the Gaeilge card and the other hammers it with Ulster Scots. So we watch frustratedly, as Gaeilge is weaponised and politicised to the chagrin of lovers of the language.
Then one leads with the poppy and the other trumps it with the lily. And so it goes shamrock versus the sash, Tricolour versus the union jack
Then the righteousness around Amhrán na bhFhiann and God Save the Queen as what were meant to be national anthems for all the people deteriorate into narrow nationalist anthems. Because nationalism will always divide.
Bit simplistic you might say, but accurate enough to cover most of the important bases. These have been the major conflict points of the battle a day DUP-Sinn Fein duopoly.
A duopoly, it should be said, that was borne as much of government policy, when the Blair administration decided it suited it to have David Trimble’s UUP carry the can for not being able to force the IRA to decommission (as per the GFA, by May 2000).
After an excoriation of nationalism in all its forms (British, American and Irish) O’Toole makes a suggestion:
It is also past time to revisit and dismantle the convenient convention that anyone who favours a United Ireland be branded a nationalist. Apart from being clumsy and in many cases inaccurate, this is also unfair.
It dismisses a huge block of reasonable and moderate citizens whether they favour union with Britain or a united Ireland, but who, in seeking to advance their objective, shun extremism.
Such people who believe in parity of esteem, mutual respect and reasonable compromise would include the Social Democrats, Socialists, Greens, Communists, middle of the road unionists and the Alliance and SDLP parties.
In short, people who would prefer to share rather than impose their culture, history, language, customs and beliefs with those of a different persuasion and who are prepared to be enriched by such intercultural engagement.
These are the people who personify the spirit of the Belfast Agreement but have little influence in the Stormont talks.
Nationalism has divided our schools, our communities, our hospitals, our graveyards and more. Of course any arrangement which keeps the tribes apart suits the political leadership and it continues.
Consider the latest proposal that new recruitment to the PSNI be strictly half-and-half Catholic and Protestant. As ever it is a perfect formula for maintaining difference and mistrust. The peace walls are perfect examples also. In the short-term they prevent violence but in the long-term they block normal social engagement and intermingling.
Any one of these developments on its own might seem reasonable and practical because “we are where we are” but how regressive are they in a modern developed democracy.
The fact is that if we aspire to an island of tolerance where “Catholic, Protestant and dissenter” among others can not only live in harmony but be enriched by each other’s different cultures and traditions, then an investment of our hopes in nationalism is counter-productive.
As Davy Hammond noted back in the 90s, this tendency to polarise and alienate one culture of culture from another is a counterfactual all of its own. Belfast people, he insisted shared cultural influences:
We must rid ourselves, Micheal, of one thing, [that is to] think that there are only two communities in Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, Nationalist Gael and Planter. That never happened.
I don’t believe in that simplistic notion of history. I don’t want revise history either, but it was never as clear-cut as that. There weren’t these divisions.
So this melting pot in Belfast, things swarmed in: humbled, tumbled, packed in. Jostling, no elbow room in this city at all, into little streets, little red-bricked houses and all that. And somehow or other, traditions came with them.
It also came in at the same time from Lancashire and Yorkshire when the textile workers were drafted in to teach us as well. And I do think as well, you can actually identify this raucous ‘tang’.