The Rorschach Test

inkblot

I argued in an earlier piece that the word “Unionism” should be handled with extreme care, because it has become overloaded with far too many overlapping yet inconsistent meanings. For slightly different reasons, we should also avoid using the phrase “United Ireland”. “Unionism” refers to a collection of existing things that can, with effort, be distinguished from each other. “United Ireland”, or its modern euphemism “New Ireland”, means nothing much at all, because it refers to a hypothetical something that … Read more

The great Shibboleth

I have a confession to make. As a card-carrying letsgetalongerist and liberal Eurotrash it feels like an admission of failure, even treason. But after reading this article in the National Geographic (an advertorial, but even so), the spirit moves me. I despise “Derry~Londonderry”. Not the place, of course. I have nothing against the buildings, streets or burghers of the city, and even if I did the old saying “people who live in Portadown shouldn’t throw stones” comes to mind. No, … Read more

Deconstructing “Unionism”

Tray bakes

I have long maintained that the terms “unionist” and “Unionism” as currently used in Northern Ireland are an obstacle to discussion and understanding. Because there is much more to unionists than Unionism. Indeed, there is much more to Unionism than Unionism. What have tray bakes and soda farls got to do with the constitutional question? The same words are used for multiple related yet distinct things, and the capital letters that one can use for disambiguation in print(*) are worthless … Read more

The end of the world

Sea cliffs

In the 19th century national identity in Europe was more deeply entwined with religion than it is today. Witness the creation of Belgium in 1831 from the remains of the Spanish Netherlands, when formerly Hapsburg areas seceded from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands to form a Catholic-majority, multilingual state with a French-speaking aristocracy. In the 20th century the focus of national identity shifted: the same Belgian state is now hoplessly riven between French- and Dutch-speakers, regardless of religion. The … Read more

Clean hands

Nato Conference Room

FitzJamesHorse pithily describes the formality that Irish is the “first national language” as Ireland’s “first national hypocrisy”. But Ireland is not short of hypocrisies. Its second national hypocrisy has long been the pretence that Ireland is somehow free of the sin of abortion. And to this list we should add a third, the conceit that Ireland is a “neutral country”. The second and third national hypocrisies are remarkably similar. In both cases Ireland has dodged a controversial issue by washing … Read more

The vast, terrifying vista of boundless possibility.

Storm clouds approaching

The slippery slope argument is a well-known logical fallacy for two reasons. Firstly, it is almost universally wrong. Secondly, it is almost universally believed. This is because human beings are innately loss-averse, preferring the certainty of the here and now (however imperfect) to the unknown possibilities of change. It is only when the here and now crosses a significant threshold of imperfection that uncertainty begins to look inviting. The mildly discontented compare the known and the unknown and say “don’t … Read more

Surf and turf

Boats with EU, UK flags sailing in opposite directions

As blogger David Allen Green has pointed out, whoever produces the first draft of a legal document has the advantage. While the EU has been criticised for its backstop-Brexit draft, the UK has conspicuously failed to produce any draft at all, and shows no signs of doing so. The final transition agreement is thus unlikely to differ from the EU’s draft in anything other than some finer details and cosmetic language. This was of course predicable and widely predicted back … Read more

And man created the nation in his own image

When we say we belong to a particular ethnicity or nationality, we are implicitly saying that we share traits in common with the other members of this group. Or are we saying that the other members of this group share traits in common with us? There is a subtle but important distinction. In the popular imagination, the formation of an ethnic or national identity is an objective process whereby the members of the group find commonalities amongst themselves and thereby … Read more

Blind spots in cultural terminology

One long-standing problem in Northern Ireland is the fact that many things have multiple names, the choice of which can be both revealing and controversial. Derry/Londonderry is the most well-known example, and the name of Northern Ireland itself (or the avoidance of it) can also cause friction. However, such problems can be glossed over by simply ignoring the speaker’s choice of terminology, as it does not introduce ambiguity into the discussion. Less obvious are those things that do not have … Read more

Shibboleth and sibhialtacht

The Irish-language issue is back in the headlines again. Despite the best efforts of campaigners such as Linda Ervine, it is still the case that most ethnic-unionists define themselves at least in part by their rejection of the Irish language. Never mind that some of their ancestors must have spoken it, as evidenced in many cases by their own surnames. Unionists have abandoned the mother tongue of their ancestors in much the same way that German-descended Americans have abandoned theirs. … Read more

The limits of transactional politics

Contract law is a vast subject, but at root, it is the process of making and enforcing agreements between two parties that do not fully trust one another. Any mutual mistrust is compensated for by mutual trust in some other mechanism. This could be a dispute process set up by the contract, an authoritative third party such as the courts, or simply the ability to abrogate the contract and walk away. Contracts and agreements are transactional – each party accepts … Read more

One thing that unionists might want

In a previous article, I made the bold assertion that “Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants”. What I should have said was “Northern Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants, and Nationalism in general has nothing that Unionism wants… yet”. While Northern Nationalism may still not have much to attract Unionism, after 30th March next year the Republic will have something that unionists may quickly find themselves jealous of. MEPs. While their colleagues in Stormont and Westminster get seemingly endless airtime, … Read more

Our son of a bitch

The headline of Doug Beattie’s article in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday illustrates how sloppy language and sloppy logic hinder rather than help the process of understanding. Leave aside the article itself for now; one sentence in the headline alone (“Republicans weren’t victims, they were victim-makers”) contains a prime example of both. Firstly, the sloppy language of “Republicans” fails to distinguish between the Provisional IRA and those people who never picked up a gun but would still regard themselves as Republican. … Read more

Making friends with the cat next door

One of the most disappointing things to come out of recent NI political history was Sinn Féin’s much-vaunted, but quickly forgotten, Unionist Outreach project. In theory, this had a lot of potential. In practice, it was like a toddler trying to make friends with a cat. To make friends with a cat, you have to make no mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many nice noises you make, or how nonthreatening you make yourself appear. One wrong move and the cat … Read more

Onwards and inwards

One theme that comes up disappointingly often in politics, and Northern Irish politics in particular, is the strategic retreat into metapolitics. If you fear that you’re losing the argument, change the subject so that the argument is now about how well or badly the argument has been conducted. This is particularly powerful if the original argument had itself been about who had been badly treated in an even earlier argument. If done carefully, one can effectively prevent any conclusion from … Read more

Reek Sunday claims its price again

The Irish Times reports that thirteen people, including a ten year old boy, had to be rescued from Croagh Patrick yesterday during the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage. I climbed Croagh Patrick a couple of months back in aid of the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, and in memory of one of my wife’s ex-colleagues who passed away last year. While it is within the capabilities of a slightly out of shape adult (i.e. me), it is absolutely not a Sunday … Read more

There is no way for NI to remain in the EU after Brexit. Alternatives exist, but they all come at a price.

Last week, Kevin O’Rourke wrote in the Irish Times: It is logically coherent, if lunatic, to argue that Ireland should quit the EU and join the UK customs union. (Leaving the EU would on its own obviously not suffice to avoid a North-South border: our exit from the EU would have to be of the red, white, and blue variety.) It is also logically coherent to argue that Northern Ireland should remain within the EU, and I wish it would. … Read more

After Brexit: the options

As time went on, speculation reached fever pitch. The internet was full of crazy theories about developments that would overturn everything we knew, seemingly convincing timelines of events that would soon unfold, and ingenious analyses proving that things were either nowhere near as bad as they seemed, or much worse than anyone imagined. I am of course talking about Game of Thrones. And in the end (no spoilers, I promise!) the vast majority of these excitable scribblings fell away, shown … Read more

Sorry Séamus, but there can be no such thing as retrospective democracy.

Séamus Mallon has a speech transcript in the Sindo today. In it he takes his usual stance on the counterproductive futility of armed republicanism. But one fundamental contradiction sticks out like a sore thumb. Early on he says: In that spirit let me say I applaud current efforts to make 1916 commemorations truly inclusive. In the event, the men and women of 1916 received a retrospective democratic endorsement which more recent violence including against this State has never obtained. But … Read more

A flaxen revolution

ENOUGH OF THE MISTY ABSTRACTIONS: Removing the Border from the competency of the Assembly was supposed to make normal politics possible. It did not. The constitutional question “went away”, but the parties merely found something else to fight over.