Una Mullally is a high profile Irish Times columnist: a gay left-wing feminist (although I have never seen or heard her describe herself as a socialist) who is particularly popular among the young. This is not surprising given that one of her recurrent themes is that young Irish people (idealistic, open-minded, liberal in gender and identity politics, probably Sinn Fein inclined) are mobilising to take over the running of this country from old Irish people (reactionary, narrow-minded, Catholic Church-influenced, probably Fine Gael and Fianna Fail voting). Earlier this month she wrote a long column following the controversy over the the Republic of Ireland women’s soccer team chanting ‘Ooh, Ah, Up the Ra’ after their defeat of Scotland to qualify for the World Cup finals next summer.1
It was an extraordinary article. She started by stating the self-evident: “There is a question about whether it’s objectively offensive to chant ‘Up the Ra’ and the answer is pretty obvious: yes it is. It is offensive to victims of the Troubles-era IRA.”
However she went on: “But the broader question is, why does a context exist in which it is not just still chanted, but in fact becoming more common?” She then attempted a wordy explanation which led her into the dubious territory of moral ambivalence about and rationalisation of republican violence. “The evolution of contemporary rhetoric, terminology and discourse is driven by youth culture. But in Ireland we have a situation where younger people are reclaiming and reinventing republican sloganeering and are then admonished by many within older generations, which is a weird exercise in political correctness in reverse.” I fail to understand that line: why is admonishing young people for chanting slogans in support of a secret army that killed nearly 1800 people “a weird exercise in political correctedness in reverse”? I would have thought it is taking a straightforward moral stance on the use of violence for political ends.
The “scary thing” for older people, Mullally wrote, is that “an incredible amount of young Irish people identify as republican…Younger generations are aware of the older generations’ squeamishness regarding republicanism, and this in turn consolidates their gravitation towards republicanism, because it allows for something every generation wants: a differentiating factor between generations that evokes defiance.”
“The shocked-and-appalled reactions to cultural realities [I assume she meant by this the chant celebrating the killing of all those unfortunate people] are also tedious to many young people,” she continued. “Additionally, the context that has been created for Irish republicanism to be culturally connected to new generations is also to do with how many of the tropes that previously made Irish republicanism unfashionable, and which many in older generations still think of when it comes to republicanism – macho culture, violence, sectarianism, Catholic fundamentalism – have been dismantled.” Have all those ugly realities (surely not tropes?) been dismantled in Northern Ireland? I have serious doubts about that.
She also wrote: “anti-Britishness is increasingly acceptable socially in Ireland, but that also has a context. It’s about disliking the British state and establishment – not British people.” Young people, in particular, have a “lack of deference” towards Britain, which “has to do with an Irish pride that is rooted in confidence, not fear, or shame, or feelings of inadequacy created through comparison.”
“Younger generations are embarking upon a decontextualisation of republicanism that is messy, complex, and to some, wrong-headed and shocking. But it is happening because we are living in a culture where Irish republicanism is ascendant…What a lot of the media and political establishment doesn’t understand is how dominant Irish pride, patriotism and indeed republicanism is as a backdrop to new generations in their thinking, identity and in their popular culture.”
She said many journalists think Sinn Fein is popular despite their republicanism, and their primary policy of Irish unity. “I understand why this mental gymnastics is happening, because it would be overwhelming for many people to actually contend with the reality that Sinn Fein’s overt republicanism is part of their popularity.”
“Contemporary Irish nationalism is complex, but it does dovetail with an optimistic, forward-looking pride”. She went on: “This pride, I believe, is non-sectarian, and yet the framework of national pride that we have to work with historically was sectarian, was anti-English, and did orientate around republicanism and concepts of Irish ‘freedom’. It is inevitable that as this pride morphs and evolves and is distanced from the past, things will become distorted, twisted and there will be weird outcomes, such as a group of young women footballers in a dressing room with a Spotify playlist that’s just as likely to contain the Wolfe Tones as it is Taylor Swift.”
She said the accusation that young Irish people don’t know their history is “ridiculous” (she objected strongly to a British broadcaster wondering whether the young Irish soccer players had been educated in recent Irish history). She claimed that young Irish people are “profoundly engaged with the past” (a claim I would strongly question.)
“Yes, of course time passes. The memories of the Troubles are not live for new generations. How could they be? That can be incredibly difficult to take for people who lived through that time, suffered during it, were victims of it, and lost loved ones to IRA violence. It requires reminding that IRA violence – as abhorrent as it was – had a context. That’s not a defence, but it’s a reason. It requires reminding that the IRA wasn’t the only entity maiming and killing people. There is a strange, even hurtful positivity in the contemporary context. Republican slogans and memes and chants being said, sung and shared by post-Belfast Agreement generations demonstrate the bitter-sweet evidence of the absence of frequent sectarian violence on this island, that the potency of these slogans has been lost because the violence has waned.”
“We are witnessing a profound cultural shift in this country that has emerged from a confluence of factors underpinned by generational change, one that is under-recognised and misunderstood. Patronising young people for their engagement with republicanism – through meme, song, philosophy, history, messy reinterpretations, culture, frivolousness, seriousness or otherwise – is wrong-headed and out of touch.”
“Unless those appalled by that [‘Up the Ra’ slogan] begin to understand the contemporary context, how Irish culture is moving, and where the politics impacted by that culture is going, they will feel even more discombobulated as Irish republicanism and Irish nationalism grow.”
The best reply to Mullally (replete with irony) came from Chris Fitzpatrick, the outspoken Dublin obstetrician, writing to the Irish Times as “a 65-year-old soccer fan and nationalist”: “Clearly I need to get some grinds in contexts and decontextualisations and how to confront things that scare me, before, as Mullally depressingly predicts, I become ‘even more discombobulated as Irish republicanism and nationalism grow.’ I need to accept that IRA atrocities of our recent past had a ‘context’ and a ‘reason’; so best not to think too much about the victims and their families. It’s hard to believe that I could have been so misguided, and so old, to have ever thought that chanting ‘Up the Ra’ by the Irish women’s soccer team could have been disrespectful, offensive and appalling.”2
Another letter writer, Anthony Hartnett from Cork, said: “One of the most disturbing features of contemporary Ireland is the almost universal ignorance among the younger generation of the Northern Troubles, in particular an ignorance of the shocking number of murders and bombings committed by the Provisional IRA in the name of the Irish people.”
One party will be delighted with Mullally’s column, and that is Sinn Fein. They now know that young Irish people believe violent republicanism is worth supporting, however mindlessly, through pro-IRA chants and songs. They can be reassured that young people support them, not for their commitment to solve our housing and health problems, but for that violent republicanism. Similarly, they will be pleased to hear that young Irish people have joined Irish republicans in going back to the anti-Britishness that was a central part of our national ethos for 80 years up to the turn of the century (and of course for centuries before that), but was happily (if temporarily) on the wane after the Irish and British governments worked together to forge the Good Friday Agreement and try to make it work.
We are moving towards a society where this kind of rationalisation (and eventually defence) of IRA violence is going to become more and more common, as Sinn Fein become a (perhaps even the) power in the land. As a moderate constitutional nationalist (and socialist) in my early seventies from a Northern Protestant background, I personally find Una Mullally’s vision of violence-rationalising republicanism – and young Irish people’s support for it – a frightening one. I fear for the kind of ‘united’ Ireland that will emerge out of it.
PS Three days after Mullally’s article, Fintan O’Toole wrote a powerful column entitled ‘The full unexpurgated version of ‘Up the Ra’, in which he listed some of the most egregious atrocities carried out by the IRA.3
It contained lines such as: “Up massacring those mourning the dead of two World Wars. Up Gordon Wilson trapped in the rubble of Enniskillen with his daughter Marie, holding her hand and hearing her last words. Up ‘Daddy, I love you very much.’ Up timing bombs in pubs for the right hour on pay night when they’d be full of young working-class couples. Up incinerating the members of the Irish Collie Club so thoroughly that their bodies were beyond recognition because, well, those were Protestant dogs. Up hunting down the last of the Graham brothers after you’d got the other two, then driving through the town roaring ‘Yahoo! Yahoo!’ Up putting bombs on school buses full of children. Up killing Irish policemen and soldiers. Up executing a young mother for the crime of delivering census forms” and so on and so on.
All I can say is: Thank God for the voice of truth, decency and humanity that is Fintan O’Toole. But then Fintan is 64, so what does he know?
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.