It seems to me that the root of many of Northern Ireland’s problems is that Huns do not have a well-defined sense of communal identity. For the last hundred years or so it boiled down to the Orange Order – understandable given the Order’s involvement in the foundation of NI and the UUP’s political hegemony. But the OO is too narrow a strand to support the weight of an entire culture, and is in many ways a relic of a bygone age.
Huns opposed the Irish-nationalist thesis, but at the same time they also rejected wholesale the idea of separate identities. Not only did they stand apart from the “Irish” (Taig) ethnic identity, but they did not expend much energy developing one of their own, instead falling back on religious (Protestant) or political (Unionist) identities; or the vague concept of “Britishness”. But to most, the shared “British” identity is one that is (to varying degrees) held in addition to their ethnic ones – there are many black and Asian minorities in England who would never consider themselves English but are quite happy to be British, as to them it is bereft of ethnic overtones.
To Huns however, Britishness became by default their ethnic identity. The English share this confusion, but they have the excuse of being numerous. When the English decide to define Britishness, the others have the option of either going along or (increasingly these days) opting out. When Huns attempt to define Britishness, the others look at them funny and wonder if they fell on their heads trying to kiss the Blarney stone. By failing to define their own ethnic identity, they have ended up in the uncomfortable place where outside forces define their identity for them.
That’s why we Huns need a name, so we can start defining ourselves for a change.
(This post is based on a comment I made on IJP’s blog)
In my previous post, I argued that we need new words other than “Unionist” and “Nationalist” to describe the ethnic (as opposed to political or religious) divisions within Northern Ireland, and that we already had perfectly good words in “Hun” and “Taig” if we were willing to overlook their origin as tribal insults. But are these really the best options available?
“British” and “Irish” are completely unsuitable – a significant proportion of people in NI consider themselves both, to varying degrees. “Ireland” – and by extension “Irish” – is already an ambiguous term (“island of” vs. “Republic of”), and “British” can also mean different things to different people (“Brits out!”).
“Ulsterman” is not a tribal label, and its history as an inaccurate synonym for “Northern Irishman” is unhelpful. “Fenian” is a political pejorative, not an ethnic one. As an archaic synonym for “Irish Republican” it is still useful in a historical context; and in a modern context it is almost universally followed by “bastard”, from which it may be difficult to disassociate. “Jaffa” implies a connection with Orangeism, and thus has political undertones. Loyal Orders are a declining pastime amongst Huns, so it is also increasingly inaccurate. And it’s not even a good insult.
No, there are no good alternatives. The only option left is to invent completely new terms, so that we can avoid any personal discomfort. But in doing so we throw away the unique selling point of “Hun” and “Taig” – they convey the tribal divide clearly to the target audience without the need for footnotes or lengthy caveats.
And pejoratives are redeemable – minority communities often adopt the insults directed at them, as an act of defiance. But we must be careful to avoid the fate of the N word, which is acceptable for a black person to say, but must never cross the lips of whites. It is good then that “Taig” and “Hun” are both insults, for the sake of parity of esteem.
So it is conceivable that they might one day be adopted by their respective tribes. Perhaps they could even be allowed into respectable conversation. In this blog I will assume the latter, although I will be careful to use both terms in each post lest I be accused of bias. It is far too soon to utter them in the pub or on the street. One step at a time.
But the true test will be whether rehabilitating these words is useful. I hope to demonstrate in subsequent posts that it is.