Plenty has been written already about Owen Polley’s article in the Newsletter last week. I have no wish to reopen the debate over his support for the Irish rugby team, which is entirely his business. But I must pull him up for making one the most basic schoolboy errors that Unionists normally accuse others of.
He has conflated Englishness with Britishness. Or rather, he has conflated anti-Englishness with anti-Britishness.
Brexit has of course dredged up a lot of feeling south of the border, much of it visceral and some of it ugly. Even so, he wildly overstates the extent to which this goes beyond facepalming incomprehension at the motives and competence of Brexiteers. As a No Deal Brexit approaches this is indeed turning to anger and frustration, although again most of this is directed at the Brexiteers in particular rather than at the Brits in general. When Fintan O’Toole links Brexit to latent racism he says nothing that hasn’t been said (less eloquently perhaps) by commentators from the other side of the Irish Sea. Much of the other comment in the Irish broadsheets is a reprint of comment from the Guardian and the FT.
This is not an Irish broadside against the Brits. It is a Remainer broadside against Brexiteers.
But not everyone aims for the Brexiteer bullseye. On this, Owen has half a point at least – there is a significant degree of old fashioned nationalist antagonism at the angry end of the spectrum, much of it of the “Brits are at it again” variety.
Yet we must remember that “Brits” means something completely different depending on the listener. When most people in the Republic hear “Brits” they understand it to mean “English”. When Ulster Unionists hear “Brits” they understand it to include themselves. When Irish people complain about the Brits, precisely none of them think it includes Nicola Sturgeon. And Sturgeon probably concurs.
The confusion arises because the only people on the face of the earth who truly understand, in their hearts, the difference between Englishness and Britishness are the Scots, Welsh and Ulster Unionists. Nobody else, including the English themselves, truly understands because nobody else finds that particular faultline running through the centre of their own sense of identity.
We have all heard the aphorism that Britain and America are two great nations divided by a common language. Gas, fall, biscuits, fanny packs. When we hear the accent we automatically run the words through the universal translator, and then hold them up to ridicule as appropriate. But we often forget that even though the Irish and the British are linguistically closer to each other than to their transatlantic cousins, there are still entries in the dictionary, particularly in the ethnopolitical section, that remain false friends.
How can we expect outsiders to come to grips with a multifaceted, multinational identity that the English themselves barely acknowledge? British (or is that English?) pop-culture icons from the Doctor to James Bond have been notoriously sloppy with the distinction. And even when Britishness is extended to the Welsh and Scots, the Ulster British are often an afterthought, if they are thought of at all. Who would have thought “The Great British Bake Off” could be so exclusionary?
Americans in particular seem almost wilfully ignorant. “British accent” is as discordant this side of the pond as “biscuits and gravy”; while in non-English-speaking countries “England” is used with blissful abandon, just as we blithely use “Holland”. Fogginess about the identity of the Other is a universal law. Nobody understands us, we don’t care.
The result is that anyone uttering the word “Brit” should be aware that they are as doomed as a husband whose wife just told him she was “fine”.
– The Brits are at it again I see.
= What did you just say?
– Well of course I didn’t mean you. Unionists have much to offer the…
= Are you saying I’m not British!?
So the anti-Britishness that Owen sees is mostly a badly-expressed anti-Englishness, and anti-Englishness is a sentiment to which the Ulster British are not immune. The devolutionist wing of Unionism, represented by the Paisleyite wing of the DUP, springs at least partly from the same fount of anti-Englishness that exercises Irish Nationalism, even if its conclusions differ.
But there is also an anti-Unionist sentiment afoot, and this is subscribed to by more than just the anti-Brit green crayon brigade. And here Owen has a solid point. People outside of Ulster Unionism simply do not understand those within it, and even many within Ulster Unionism fail to understand the DUP.
And it is so easy to give up trying to understand the DUP these days. Many have uncritically assumed that outcome equals intent, and that despite their protestations the DUP secretly want a hard border, all the better to save Ulster from sodomy, abortion and bilingual road signs.
Yet whatever you may think of Arlene Foster and Jeffrey Donaldson, they are not stupid. They can understand an opinion poll just as easily as the rest of us. What they are is trapped. That they are trapped by their own cleverness, like Bloom and Bialystock betting on a sure failure, may be justification enough for some schadenfreude; but neither of them actually wants a hard border, and nor do any of their voters – at least none of the ones brave enough to stick their heads above the parapet.
They just don’t have a clue how to achieve it without invoking the forbidden C word (compromise), and so have fallen back on the standard NI default of blaming themmuns. Perhaps we should have expected no better from a party of protest still struggling to grow into its role as a party of government. This does not absolve them of responsibility, but we should endeavour to feel a little bit of sympathy.
After all, the Brits may be safely over there on the other side of the sea, but the Ulster Brits ye will have with you always.
(This blog was originally published on Slugger)