The ethnic basis of “Unionism” and “Nationalism”

Seems I’m on a roll. I wrote another letter to the Irish Times…

Sir,

Cian Carlin (June 10th) repeats one of the cardinal errors of Irish politics when he reduces “Unionism” to a mere political preference. The divisions in Northern Ireland span not only politics but also culture, religion, history and ancestry. “Unionist” and “Nationalist” have become shorthand names for Ulster-British and Gaelic-Irish ethnic groups, each with their distinct mythology and cultural norms. Pretending that a word when uttered by someone else means only that which you would prefer it to mean is dishonest and serves only to derail the argument.

To believe that one ceases to become “Unionist” if one votes for a United Ireland is to reduce the entirety of a culture to a single issue. If changing your mind about a particular policy also implies wholesale abandonment of your culture and history, then it is no wonder that Northern Ireland politics is so dysfunctional. For too long we have pretended that a struggle for ethnic supremacy is a mere political disagreement, perhaps because we fear the implications of admitting that our problems are not amenable to quick fix solutions.

More thoughtful politicians and commentators prefer to use “pro-union” for the political viewpoint in order to clearly distinguish it from cultural “Unionism”. It is quite possible to mix and match political and cultural labels – there is a distinct body of “Unionist” opinion that would prefer an independent Northern Ireland state, and many “Nationalists” are content to be part of the UK.

So many fruitless arguments hinge on the misinterpretation of ambiguous terms. Just as “Ireland” can mean either the 32-county island or the 26-county republic, so can “Unionism” and “Nationalism” have multiple, distinct meanings depending on context. Debates devolve into slanging matches where opponents aim their rage past each other, each using the same words but meaning different things by them.

Perhaps it’s time we stopped using the words “Unionism” and “Nationalism” altogether, as they seem to create more confusion than enlightenment.

Yours,

Andrew Gallagher

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