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 their own names and which, if discussed at all, tend to hide behind the names of related but distinct things. This is a more difficult problem than the above examples, because dealing with it is not as simple as mentally substituting “Derry” for “Londonderry” – one must often expend some effort to unpick what the speaker actually intended to say.

One such example is the ambiguity between the island of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Careful speakers will make the effort to disambiguate them, but it becomes tricky when using derived terms such as “Irish”. Still, it is a well-known problem and that awareness prompts people to call for clarification when the speaker has been sloppy.

I have been reminded recently that there is a less-appreciated, even insidious, blind spot in our terminology, and that is for words describing the communal divide. It used to be common practice to use “protestant” and “catholic”, but in recent years it is more acceptable to use “unionist” and “nationalist”, despite the obvious limitations. This has prompted the emergence of the horrendous terms PUL/CNR1, but even those fail to capture the essence of the concept.

To help explain, please indulge me in a personal reflection.

I am not a Protestant. I am not even a Christian. Whatever way I’m wired, I don’t have the capacity for religious belief. I understand the desire for certainty, hope and joy, but religion does not fill that void.

I am not a Loyalist. I’m not a paramilitary, but neither am I an Orangeman or a monarchist. Orangeism leaves me unmoved and its arguments ring hollow. I have no interest in royalty or its trappings, and although I can tolerate the monarchy as a purely symbolic institution, I am strongly against both inherited power and the establishment of any church.

Nor am I a Unionist. I am comfortable with the current constitutional arrangement, but I would not die to defend it, and I strongly believe in making the border as invisible as possible. But neither am I a nationalist – although national identity can sometimes be a useful basis for political organisation, in Ireland nationalism (of both flags) has failed us disastrously.

And yet, I still came from somewhere. I grew up in a PUL family, went to a state school, played in a marching band (for two weeks; I was lazy), watched the parades until the Tunnel riots (my dad didn’t quit, but he never walked with the Orange again). I don’t pronounce the “H” at the beginning of “H”. I’ve had to bite my tongue on at least one occasion to stop myself saying “that’s a bit more protestant looking”. It’s all still a part of me, no matter how far I’ve strayed from the true path.

Am I British then? Obviously, but it’s too broad a term that does not convey the particular Ulsterness of PUL culture. And I am equally (maybe more so) Irish – perhaps helped by the great age of my grandfather (born 1889) my family was steeped in Irish culture and history. The language was a step too far, mind (that caused at least one argument with my dad).

So (to return to the point) the question I am asking is: what are you left with when you take the P, the U and the L out of the PUL boy (or equally, the C, N, and R out of the CNR)? What do you call the tribe, the community, the ethnic group, when you are deprived of the usual shorthand? Don’t we need precise names for the things we are discussing, rather than easily-misunderstood euphemisms?


^ 1. Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist or Catholic-Nationalist-Republican. A textbook case of increased complexity without increased usefulness.

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