Northern Ireland started as a temporary bodge but by 2021 it has become permanent fixtures

Whatever thinking or writing we do, however we choose to couch it and whatever our explanatory ambition, we do it from the midst of things, not from above or beyond the fray. There are different ways of articulating that relationship – more remote or more immediate – but no way out of that situatedness. – Adam Tooze

On Slugger we are trying to make sense of things in a world where everything screams at you to take it more seriously than you’ve ever taken anything in your life before. As my old friend Shane Richmond once put it:

The internet removes the time barrier. Without it, we never stop, and still we’re never completely right. But everything can be changed. Publish what you know now; learn more, add more. It’s never finished and it’s never completely right.

So when a controversy like the one at the weekend blows up that shows up profoundly different perspectives around how different people perceive radically different things in the same event, there’s an opportunity for review.

Marcus Leroux is a native of Northern Ireland, now living in London. His long read on Medium is probably the best piece I’ve read on the whole subject of Northern Ireland’s centenary, and one of the best attempts to put it in context.

He does it by comparing the two foundation myths for Northern Ireland or “comforting narratives that owe more to the contours of the national psyche than they do hard facts”. The point, he says is not…

…to reduce the debate into the habitual tit-for-tat exchange ricocheting through history to the arrival of the Normans in Ireland — a historical version of the he-started-it protestations of the playground. Rather it is to too highlight how unionism and nationalism were animated by mutual fear — a fear that was perhaps irrational, to recall Trimble, but certainly not unreasonable.

The nationalist founding myth runs…

In response to the moderate demand for Home Rule — granting Ireland a degree of self-rule within the United Kingdom — Ulster’s unionists threatened civil war in 1912. Their over-reaction to constitutional nationalism’s legitimate demands stoked the revolutionary sentiment that burst into flames with the 1916 Rising and led to the rise of Sinn Fein in the 1918 elections, the War of Independence and the bodged, supposedly temporary partition of Ireland in 1921. Partition itself led to a bloody civil war between pro- and anti-treaty republicans and the discriminatory state built by unionists in the north laid the kindling for outbreak of the Troubles in 1968.

All in all, the “argument looks sound”, until you consider what (and who) is missing. So on to Founding myth number two, ie the Unionist one:

The half a million Ulstermen and women who signed the 1912 Ulster League and Covenant feared rule by Dublin. Home Rule would be deemed a stepping stone to leaving the United Kingdom. They also feared for the future as a Protestant minority under a Catholic, God-fearing parliament. And, as the most economically developed part of Ireland, they also feared for their standard of living.

As he notes:

That origin story earned an unlikely endorsement from Mary Lou McDonald, the president of Sinn Fein, in 2018 when she said: “Let me say to our unionist brothers and sisters — the promise of a Republic of equal citizens was betrayed. You were right. Home Rule became Rome Rule.”

So two stories: “Northern Ireland as powder keg and Northern Ireland as redoubt”. Two versions of history, each rooted in fact “even if they skirt inconvenient truths”. Yet not irreconcilable as they seem at first sight.

He quotes David Trimble’s Nobel speech in which he highlights a “dialectic of fear that governed Irish politics in the 20th century”:

“Each thought it had good reason to fear the other”, he said of unionists and nationalists following partition. “As Namier says, the irrational is not necessarily unreasonable.”

We tend to remember James Craig’s infamous claim that Northern Ireland was a “Protestant state” and Stormont a “Protestant parliament”, but ordinarily ignore the comments from Eamonn de Valera to which it was a rejoinder: “we are a Catholic nation”.

In 1917, de Valera had said unionists — whom he characterised as “not Irish” — would have to succumb to Dublin rule or “they would have to go under”. De Valera later mooted population transfers. From our vantage point in the 21th century we can see with unsettling clarity where this sort of rhetoric ends.

To this very day this fear marks our stubborn inability to get past obstacles, to continue pushing forward even when events stand in the way. Fear is not a useful state for undertaking a journey in which the ultimate destiny is unknown.

And on the nomenclature row, he offers this insight:

The glib predictions of Northern Ireland’s demise — and there have been many in the years leading up to the centenary — fail to engage with the Good Friday Agreement.

Earlier this year there was a row over the use of Seamus Heaney’s image to mark the centenary. Heaney’s neat rhyme — “be advised my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised /To toast the Queen” — was quoted to death. (Less so the dense, layered political meditations of North but there’s no accounting for taste.)

But Heaney was the perfect choice in his own way. After the Agreement he did indeed raise a glass to the Queen at a state dinner at Dublin Castle. “Ted Hughes had just died and the Good Friday Agreement had just come in to force, so at that time I thought — come on now, do the decent thing here”, he told Mark Carruthers later.

He talks in that interview of a specific northern, Ulster identity and adds, “as a concession or realisation of the new times I call it Northern Ireland”.

[Oh dear, has no one told An tUachtaran? – Ed] Anyhoo, one of the most interesting aspects of Marcus’ argument is that how he takes the arbitrary nature of the setting of the border (by county boundaries) and shows how…

…temporary bodges become permanent fixtures; over time lives take shape around arbitrary lines on a piece of paper. The border became real. Circumstances helped ossify it: it was hardened by hardline unionism, Free State hostility to the nascent Northern Ireland and republican violence.

The metamorphic pressures are internalised through different work patterns, school and tax systems, even currency (in Ireland’s case) after 1979. He draws on research from France on how administrative units dictate locality.

…85 per cent of French mobile phone calls and texts were within an administrative region — a proportion that changed only modestly, to 75 per cent, at the peripheries.

And highlights just how this was evidenced in the periodic northern nationalist complaints against the insouciant indifference of southern society to their miserable fate in the wee north…

Through the tortuous Brexit negotiations, the border’s economic permeability was naturally emphasised. (Including by me). As was the experience of border communities. But the emphasis on the soft border glossed over its cultural profundity.

Northern nationalists aren’t thin-skinned when they decry partitionist mindsets they encounter in the south, they’re observing the effect of what for most people on the island has been a century of diverging experiences.

There’s a lot more to the piece but this is a key point. Driven by a mutual disabling dialectic of fear, almost all that nationalists and unionists have achieved in the last 100 is to reinforce the conviction that the other is ‘out to get us’.

The line in the map is arbitrary (as Marcus recalls stories from his Leitrim born Protestant grandmother), but that doesn’t mean that it is temporary, any more than the temporary wooden construction of the first border posts were.

After 100 years you’d think we’d have learned that already. Unlearning is tough. It takes tenacity, stamina, preservation of energy and the humility to admit we haven’t got it right, to overcome Freud’s “narcissism of small differences”.

In explaining that startling idea, Freud also wrote:

…it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.

With this in mind, last word to Marcus…

Its critics are free to think of Northern Ireland as an abomination. But a real conversation is impossible until we accept that Northern Ireland was never an aberration.

But do read the whole thing

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