“Every voyage is intensive, and occurs in relation to thresholds of intensity between which it evolves or that it crosses.”
— Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari
It’s interesting how Tommy Tiernan has moved from raucous bad boy of the Irish comedy stage, to a sort of father confessor, conscience of a nation figure on his recent interview programme, The Tommy Tiernan Show (most of it is available globally).
That’s partly because from the first episode he’s wanted to ‘horse into’ each interview without rehearsals, or preparation. He, almost more than any such entertainer I’ve seen do similar things, lives on his wits and it usually ends up worth watching.
The spontaneity of the occasion uses a sort of stochastic approach to interviewing can be profoundly generative in ways that our often over planned, tightly controlled by spinmasters/mistresses media space just aren’t any more.
The effect of his conversation with another of my comedic heroes, Paddy Kielty is electric largely because it brings such fresh air to what has become a stale, formulaic and deeply uninformed debate about the prospects of a unified Irish state.
The power of Tommy’s approach is that he’s quite happy to let his guests surprise him and quite happy for the audience to see that he’s been surprised enough to not even be sure what his next question is going to be. This is a key moment from Kielty:
A fascinating exchange between @PatricKielty and @Tommedian last night.
Kielty brings the audience and presenter to an awkward silence after challenging the "Up the 'RA" culture that has emerged in Ireland. pic.twitter.com/HVyRGyHks5
— Mr Virtue Signal (@MrVirtueSignal) January 15, 2023
Paddy, as noted by some on Twitter, paid a high price for his insight, but it’s not his past experience that give him his that intelligent grasp of the slippery dilemmas that keep the island apart, but what he’s done with it and where it’s taken him.
Thankfully, RTÉ have made a transcript (which is worth reading and retaining) publicly available. It’s worth reading the whole way through (as well as watching, because the audience reaction is almost as important as what he says).
This for me is the crucial bit:
…what I’m saying is that you can’t physically unite the island and have nearly a million Unionists up the road joining this country without changing some furniture to make those people feel welcome,” Kielty explained.
“What do you think they’d like?” asked Tiernan in a comedic voice.
“I think you could probably start with not singing, ‘Oooh ah, up the ‘RA’ in the changing rooms maybe,” offered Kielty.
“That’s so harmless, that’s harmless,” Tiernan opined.
“I know it is, but, you know, what’s funny about it is that if you were asked to rejoin the Commonwealth and you saw the Northern Ireland Ladies’ Team up there singing they’re up to their neck in Fenian blood and singing the Sash, you’d sit there and think to yourself, ‘Jeez, I’m not sure about that’. You see? Right?” asked Kielty.
“What I always say is, it’s a lot easier to sing a rebel song about a united Ireland than not sing it to have it,” he continued.
“Than to have the maturity to deal with the fact that it may actually be happening and it’s going to affect people’s lives in the Unionist population, that it’s going to affect their lives in such a huge way. That we have to have the maturity and love to make that as okay as we can for them,” said Tiernan. [Emphasis added]
I got taken to task a few months ago for suggesting that there was an innocence in the women’s football team rendering of the Oooh Ah, Up The Ra chant that was altogether missing from the cynical paramilitary body they were supposedly celebrating.
I get it, but you also have to get just removed this younger southerners is not simply from the bitter legacy of the Troubles, but a certain kind of remoteness from Northern Ireland itself. This is nothing new of course and it’s partly a function of partition.
In 2005 a Behaviours and Attitudes survey of under 40s living in Republic found that whilst 50% had visited Northern Ireland this was only marginally ahead of Scotland (44%), Wales (43%), NW England (41%) and dwarfed by visitors to London (84%).
But in spontaneous mentions, Northern Ireland trailed all four of those off island UK regions. This is probably one reason why polls consistently show people in the south do not want to change their national lives in the significant ways a UI might bring.
Back to Paddy again. He starts with a killer line too few in nationalism have taken the time or the headspace to consider: unionism isn’t asking anyone else to change beyond the terms of the Belfast Agreement:
“Unionists don’t need to convince anybody down here to join the UK. If there’s going to be a border poll, the way that’s going to work is that someone’s going to have to convince Unionist people that their future is here. So there’s going to have to be certain things, you know, mood music, whatever that is.
“I mean, like, the idea of, you know, how many Unionist TDs will be down here? You know? Like, the idea of Sinn Féin is the number one party in the north, the number one party in the south, but if they can’t form a government there, Ireland will probably end up be[ing], you know, a united Ireland, may well end up being governed by a rainbow coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Greens, and Unionists.
“You can’t ask people to come and join the country and not actually say, ‘You’re part of the country’. There’s nobody up the road needs conversion therapy. They know they’re British, the way that when I was growing up I knew I was Irish.
“If there’s going to be a united Ireland, that Ireland is going to look different.”
As it happens, my old mucker Trevor Ringland had a piece in the News Letter saying something not entirely dissimilar but quoting the words of Lord Carson from the summer of 1913 :
Sir Edward Carson words to parliament on the 10th of June 1913. He emphasised that constitutional outcomes should never be promoted “by any means other than those… of persuasion. You must choose and explain to them (unionists). What is your case for turning them out of the United Kingdom and you must show them in addition what you never profess to show them. What is the advantage they’re going to gain when they’re turned out?” These words remain good advice now.
Those words were ignored then as they are still largely ignored now. But Kielty has given such arguments a little more heft with an audience so unfamiliar with the realities of the north than they’re clearly deeply impacted its simple human sense.
If a politically united island is ever to happen it will emerge from a simple, gentle (generously) unfolding synthesis. If the bloody follies of the last fifty years have taught us anything useful, it’s surely that forcing the matter is deeply counterproductive?
“The nature of reality is transactional.”
— Alan Watts
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