“When you get natures stirred to their depths over questions which they feel to be overwhelmingly vital, you get the bad stirred up in them as well as the good; the mud as well as the water.”
— Alfred North Whitehead
Last week we had the disturbing news that a Belfast academic had received threats through social media. I have to admit though it would be more disturbing if it weren’t so commonplace these days. See my reasons for leaving Twitter in June.
It’s a coarse place with a profoundly coarsening effect on our public discourse. Abuse of course has always been a feature of our societies for many generations, and despite multiplying controversies (most of them profoundly trivial), life is better in NI.
A good example is that while there is no link between innocent chanting of “Uh Ah, Up The Ra”of a woman’s football team and the sectarian thuggery that saw an isolated rural Orange Hall burned to the ground. This has been ongoing for thirty years.
However the odd insouciance with which it was received in the Irish commentariat may have emboldened some wingnuts to add accelerant to their fire in the vain (and hopeless) hope to wipe Orange culture from that one small part of our island.
The plethora of excuses made was puzzling. Why so few Irish (as in Irish Irish as opposed to British Irish people) could bring themselves to say what the womens’ Dutch coach had little trouble saying out loud straight away: “it shouldn’t have happened”.
If you need an explanation of partition or why it has survived a hundred years – despite attempts to choke it at birth and shun its 100th birthday, Northern Ireland still survives – it’s the lack of a common understanding of history between north and south.
Take Una Mullaly’s attempt to find a reason why Uh ah, Up the RA has become so popular with a new generation of Irish youngsters. To many northerners it is form of disaster trolling, policed by an army of social media trolls who dismiss victims concerns as (and I quote) faux outrage.
Of course, this is not how it seems or how it feels in the south. Their IRA became state pensioners for lending their lives for the two brief years of the war of independence against what they see as the British. Una articulates this view as well as anyone:
It is a fact that 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.
When she says Ireland, she means what many of us still refer to as the section of the island under the authority of the Republic of Ireland. But in the bit that’s not (yet) Ireland, aka Northern Ireland, it is the British people here that the IRA targeted.
Even the accidentally British Irish people, by which I also mean Catholics (some good Irish language speakers when that was comparatively rate) who chose to serve their communities by joining the police, the judiciary or as a simple officer of the court.
It’s one of the unfortunate corollaries of partition. Sure the south had a ringside seat on the northern troubles that few of that older generation will forget, but the lasting impacts of the Provisional’s ill fated war against the British only affects the north.
It’s an attitude that’s been buoyed upon a false reading of the latest census figures which far from suggesting a Catholic majority as has become a commonplace term even in some elevated spaces like the LRB, instead merely suggests a plurality*.
It’s not that the attitude is dangerous per se, but it seems to indicate a moving away from the power sharing ethic of the Belfast Agreement towards a nationalist majoritarian view that the GFA can be superseded by plebiscite, when it probably can’t.
This dilemma has bound nationalism since partition. The British of the north are Irish, not as Gerry Adams once argued when they cease ‘trying to work out some kind of obscure notion of Irish Protestant culture’ and embrace another idea of Irishness.
Such conversion fantasies are far more damaging to the prospects of a unified island than a youthful chorus or three of Up the Ra. And those who fear to call it for what it is also miss the chance to move Ireland on from recidivist tribalism to comity…
“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.”
— Gregory Bateson
*the excess of votes received by the leading candidate, in an election in which there are three or more candidates, over those received by the next candidate (distinguished from majority).
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty