One of my all-time favourite novelists John Le Carré passed away in December of last year; he was 89 years old and had written some of the most telling insider tales of British identity formation in the post-WW2 period. During lock-down I have been rereading his novels, addictively, along with his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel.
Anyways, I was a little miffed to discover that this most diligent of researchers, who went to serious lengths to get his landscapes correct, his local (and global) politics right and his cultural backgrounds in believable shape, should in one of his novels, make a couple (I think I am right in saying) of, if not blunders exactly, shall we say, ‘miscues’ which strain our belief ever so slightly.
In A Delicate Truth (2013) the lead character, Toby Bell searches for the truth in the tragically botched British quasi-official military intelligence raid on a jihadist gun runner (‘Operation Wildlife’) in Gibraltar, organised and funded by a shady right-wing American corporate foundation. In his search, Toby interviews the wife of one those who took part in the disastrous raid which led to the killing of an innocent refugee mother and her baby.
The ex-soldier’s wife is called Brigid and she turns out to have been a member of the RUC but has retired to a life in England. Brigid? Hmnn. She also curses a lot and I do mean a lot in her cameo role. She also curses a lot and I do mean a lot in her cameo role: ‘God knows, what I am’, she says. ‘Fucking Prot, I’m told’. Anyone heard of ‘Protters”? I guess Le Carre meant ‘Prods’.
This started me thinking about the way in which Protestant and/or Unionist representation in English media tends not to differentiate very much about the relatively distinctive naming iconography of Northern Ireland. Certainly, it has manifested an increasingly detached interest in said ‘Protters/Prods’ who by now must be considered one of the more unloved communities among the political and cultural elites of these islands, and quite likely further afield too.
Banging his own drum recently, Max Hastings got it badly wrong when, in basically cutting the unionist community adrift from the mother ship in which he looks like a fairly comfortable passenger, he referred to what he calls ‘proddies’: ‘Two minorities still see virtue in keeping Ireland partitioned.
The first is composed of a diminishing number of stubborn Protestant Unionists, who dominate their own community, but would become marginalised in a united Ireland. Meanwhile, some Southern politicians are privately fearful of the perils of absorbing several hundred thousand embittered ‘Proddies’. Violence, so long an Irish tradition, remains very close beneath the country’s skin, and every Irish politician knows it well’. A bit rich, what, coming from an historian of Britain’s empire and world wars?
Spooling back, however, and one finds George Osborne, the ineffectual co-sponsor of the Brexit referendum and, currently editor-in-chief of the London Evening Standard, rattling the unionist playpen with his egregious reference to the ‘unleashing [of]English nationalism, Brexit has made the future of the UK the central political issue of the coming decade. Northern Ireland is already heading for the exit door’.
He went on to say: ‘By remaining in the EU single market, it is for all economic intents and purposes now slowly becoming part of a united Ireland. Its prosperity now depends on its relationship with Dublin (and Brussels), not London. The politics will follow. Now [the unionist] short-sighted support for Brexit (and unbelievably stupid decision to torpedo Theresa May’s deal that avoided separate Irish arrangements) has made those fears a reality. It pains me to report that most here and abroad will not care’. ‘Pain’ is right.
Such public comments brought me back to an experience I had in the mid-1990s when, returning from a conference in Prague on the cultural impact of the nascent western enlargement of the European community, and awaiting our flights to be called, the English wife of one of the contributing lecturers asked me what part of Ireland I was from, when I replied Belfast, she threw her eyes to the ceiling and said something like: ‘So parochial a place, we couldn’t wait to see out [her husband’s] contract and get back to England. It was all so much looking backwards; never forward’ and then she went off in search off the Duty Free.
I can’t recall where home was for them but something spiky in her tone of voice remained until we parted at the gates. Was it an example of ‘not caring’ in Osborne’s sense or was it simply an understandable desire to be back in a village, a town, a city, that she could call her own with her own community of accent, aspiration and assumption all in the one place, sharing experiences in common: her home?
On the other side of that question, it is only fair to note Coleraine actor Jimmy Nesbitt’s read on his motivation: ‘I’m not the first artist, for want of a better word, to feel the need to become an exile. I suppose there was a bit of me that felt constrained by Northern Ireland.
I was someone who was proud of Protestant culture, but the rest of the world was viewing the people of my identity as very dour, immovable, frightening strait-jacketed unionists.’ A sentiment the present writer can identify with from well back in the Seventies, when these matters took on a dangerously fraught personal and cultural life all of their own.
I’m sensing a little more of that mood coming from within the English media. Although it might just be my reading too much Le Carré there seems to be, among various (and during the Brexit ‘debates’, conflicting) social groups, a converging search going on in England for their roots and the images, metaphors of foundational narratives which go deeper than the Downton Abbey-Antique Roadshow version. And that this search is emerging more publicly on radio, television, in newspapers and social media (a world with which I have very little contact).
Ralph Fiennes superb acting couldn’t really save the recent Netflix film ‘The Dig’ from its predictability. As we looked down at the emerging hulk of a rediscovered Anglo-Saxon ship (not Viking, as first thought), just before it would be re-buried as Spitfires shoot through the darkening skies overhead, I couldn’t help but think: maybe this time around, since we are finally in post-Brexit Britain, those with ambitious political futures in mind in England (and who tend to be those who have not been around to know how long it took, and torturously difficult it was, to create some degree of stability in a fragmented Northern Ireland), that maybe they too want to ‘get back to England’ and release from their exchequer and their mental spaces the call of ‘the Proddies’.
Which would, of course, be the very kind of subject-matter John Le Carré would have written, perhaps with some of the current cast as characters in their very own troubled fiction.
Gerald Dawe is a Belfast-born poet. He was professor of English and fellow of Trinity College Dublin until his retirement in 2017. He has published twenty collections of poetry and literary criticism, including most recently, The Last Peacock and The Sound of the Shuttle: Essays on Cultural Belonging & Protestantism in Northern Ireland.