I have complained before about the giant hole in NI cultural terminology. There are things that exist that do not have names, and because they do not have names we cannot discuss them. Instead we use euphemisms that mean different things to different people, and waste our breath fruitlessly arguing over semantics. To demonstrate, consider a recent exchange on Slugger:
unionists are for the union, pretty straight forward, Im sure there are some in the Alliance as well.
Unionism is a tribal identity and by using the term you are identifying with it.
The core of this is a fundamental disagreement over what “Unionist” means. To some it is a political ideology; to others it is a tribal marker. The two meanings have become confused because in recent history they have referred to (approximately) the same subset of people, but this does not mean that the same must be true always. “Unionism” and “Nationalism” no longer have universally-understood meanings, and so have outlived their usefulness as descriptive terms.
The problem with names
The name we choose for a thing can either illuminate its true nature, or obscure it. In particular, if we use the same name for two different things we implicitly obscure their differences. If these differences are not important, this can be very useful. But if these differences are crucial, then we have just hamstrung ourselves.
If we use the words “Protestant” and “Catholic” we imply that the core of the dispute in NI is a matter of religious interpretation. While this may have been true in the 17th century, it is an archaic dispute to most people today. If we instead use the terms “Unionist” and “Nationalist” it is in one sense an improvement, as it captures the surface detail of the conflict, but in another sense it is a step backwards, as it implies the disagreement is a rarefied, intellectual disagreement of individual conscience, not the visceral and tribal one we know it to be.
“Unionism” and “nationalism” are fluid terms that referred to different people in different ages – around the time of the Act of Union many Catholics were Unionist and Protestants Nationalist, because of the promise that the Union would bring about Catholic emancipation. Political labels mask the underlying problem, which has roots in plantation and confession, but which has survived for hundreds of years wearing whatever political clothes befit the times.
It’s worse than you want to admit
Imagine a country whose most lasting division is into two groups who rarely intermarry, and in some parts of the inner city barely even meet. Everyone brought up in one of these groups knows instinctively where this divide lies and what its history contains. They all know what side of the line they (and others) come from, no matter how hard they try to ignore it. Previous governments have used it as an excuse for repression, and the effects are felt even today in both politics and wider society.
I’m talking about blacks and whites in the USA, of course. But when we see this description applied to ourselves we put our fingers in our ears and insist it’s not an ethnic conflict. Aren’t we all the same race, after all? We may look the same, and yet I challenge you to tell the difference between a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot if you passed them on the street. We speak the same language, but then so did Serbs and Croats. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
We already have a solution – but you won’t like it
Since we don’t have names for such an ethnic division in NI, we delude ourselves into thinking it isn’t real. If something doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t exist. But despite all I have said above, we do have such names. They are perfect names because they describe the ethnic divide succinctly and precisely. Everyone in NI knows exactly what they mean, and they are used every single day. They’re just not considered polite.
Huns and Taigs.
Wait, I hear you cry. We don’t need these ugly pejoratives. They’re just synonyms for more polite, more acceptable words; they don’t have a distinct meaning. This is understandable, but it is nonsense. To prove it to yourself, consider the following four questions carefully, and answer them honestly.
1. If a Hun joins the Hare Krishnas, is he still a Hun?
2. If a Taig converts to Buddhism, is he still a Taig?
3. If a Taig joins the UUP, is he still a Taig?
4. If a Hun joins the SDLP, is he still a Hun?
The ordinary folk who are suffering the most from this ethnic conflict know exactly what its nature is, and have come up with pithy, descriptive terms for their everyday experience. Polite society recoils from pithy, descriptive terms, but it does not have adequate “polite” alternatives – perhaps because polite society does not want to admit the truth, that the intellectual concerns of polite society are a polite fiction. It’s not about the Pope, or the structure of church governance. It’s not about the constitution, or the role of monarchy in a modern society. It’s about what tribe has the upper hand.
Might as well get used to it
So we have established that there exist things for which the only accurate names are insults. This may not be so important, were it not for the fact that the Hun/Taig divide in NI is the single most destructive flaw in our society. If we want to fix it, we need to talk about it directly, not through shifty euphemisms such as “Protestant” or “Nationalist”. The first step to recovery is admitting the depth of our problem, and that means straight talking. Since there are no polite alternatives, we must reclaim the pejoratives and be unafraid to use them when no other word will do.
I plan a series of posts to demonstrate how pithy terminology can aid clarity of thought when discussing the conflict in NI. Please feel free to throw in your suggestions.