I recently had the pleasure of visiting New Zealand, and was quietly impressed by the way in which the minority Maori culture has been embraced by the majority Pakeha (i.e. white) population. That is not to say that NZ is blissfully free of ethnic tension, but such tensions seem to revolve around affirmative action and guaranteed representation rather than a cultural gap.
This is exemplified by the extensive Maori carvings that decorate Auckland airport – at one point just past immigration new arrivals walk under a replica of a Maori village gateway, metaphorically identifying the entire country with a traditional pa. Pakeha are not merely tolerant of expressions of Maori culture, but for the most part welcome them, perhaps seeing their value as part of a national identity distinct from their bigger Australian neighbour.
So why can’t we manage something similar in Northern Ireland? “Irish” and ”British” culture are not so far apart as Maori and Pakeha, which originate on opposite sides of the planet. Is it too much to ask that Unionists embrace Irish culture as part of NI’s distinctiveness, even if they do not identify with it personally, or for Nationalists to look more favourably upon Ulster-Scots? The Scots themselves have managed to integrate Highland and Lowland heritage into a cohesive whole over time. Is it fanciful to think that Irish and Ulster-Scots might be similarly reconciled a century hence?
But maybe our close similarity is a barrier, not a bridge. A Pakeha with a Maori tattoo is obviously just that, whereas a Prod wearing a GAA top is visually indistinguishable from the real thing. Culture becomes a marker of identity, not for its own sake but for its ability to amplify invisible political differences. Do we need to resolve political mistrust before the cultural gulf can be bridged, or should it be vice versa?