Rethinking “Irishness” – definitions and symbolism

We have already seen how the unique geography of Ireland rules out some of the usual political options for solving its ethnic dispute, by making the redrawing of borders to match the ethnic divide impractical. But it also leads to problems defining an Irish identity, because unlike most other countries in Europe, it is not the people who define political geography, but the geography that defines the people.

20th century political philosophy accepts the idea that nations have the right to self-determination, that ethnic geography should therefore define political geography. This has led to the current ideal, best exemplified in Europe, of state borders being drawn along ethnic dividing lines. The ethnic patchwork that has taken shape organically over thousands of years is therefore taken as the starting point, and (in theory at least) political geography derives its legitimacy from it. The Danes are defined by their cultural identity, and Denmark is defined as the homeland of the Danish people. When the people did not match the territory (in Schleswig-Holstein) the eventual solution was to redefine Denmark.

But Ireland works the other way around. As an island, its borders are fixed. The Irish people are themselves fixed by the territory, i.e. those people who live (or were born in) Ireland. If you try to define “Irishness” on the usual cultural basis you create a second kind of “Irishness” in conflict with the first. The only way to resolve this ambiguity is to let go of one of these definitions. If one prefers the cultural version, then one defines an “Irishness” that does not cover all natives of the island, so what then does one call the other natives? If we do not call them “Irish” then we implicitly question the legitimacy of their presence. But if we do call them “Irish” then we are guilty of forcing a cultural identity onto those who do not want it.

Alternatively we can choose the geographical definition of “Irish”, but then there must be several native Irish ethnic groups, of which the majority group is just one. We are not short of names for these groups, so long as we are not easily offended: Taig, Hun and Pavee. We thereby place the island’s majority ethnic community on an equal footing with the native minorities (and implicitly also with immigrant minorities), and reserve “Irish” to describe the whole.

Some things which are conventionally identified with Irishness may then be found to be relevant just to the majority Taig ethnic group. In particular, the novel symbols of nationhood deriving from the Home Rule and independence period have no meaning for Huns while older symbols, such as those deriving from the legend of St. Patrick, continue to have broad relevance to all Irish people. The Irish language also has a personal relevance to many Taigs that most Huns do not share.

We see therefore, that neither standard interpretation of modern Irish symbolism is entirely correct. The standard Taig view of independence-era symbols such as the tricolour and anthem is that they are the national symbols of Ireland (the island), even though this was an ideal that was never realised. The standard Hun opinion is that they are the symbols of the Republic of Ireland, despite the strong allegiance they continue to attract from inside the North. It would be more accurate to say that they are the national symbols of Taigs, for if we recognise the right of people to self-identify then we must also recognise their right to show allegiance (or not) to symbols of that identity. By a similar argument, most supposed Northern Ireland symbolism is effectively Hun symbolism in disguise.

It should not come as any surprise that political symbols now have de facto ethnic meanings not intended by their creators, nor should it be any cause for concern. Separating symbolism from politics is one way of defusing tensions – while even politically moderate Huns will balk at any symbolic suggestion that NI “belongs” to the Republic (as flying the tricolour is often viewed), acceptance of the distinct identity of Taigs is mainstream. If existing flags and symbols could come to be accepted as markers of ethnicity rather than political ideology, much of the heat could be taken out of the symbolism debate. This would also then leave the way open for new NI and all-Ireland symbolism to be developed that is free from ethno-political baggage.

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