And man created the nation in his own image

When we say we belong to a particular ethnicity or nationality, we are implicitly saying that we share traits in common with the other members of this group. Or are we saying that the other members of this group share traits in common with us? There is a subtle but important distinction.

In the popular imagination, the formation of an ethnic or national identity is an objective process whereby the members of the group find commonalities amongst themselves and thereby come to regard each other as kinsmen. But people are rarely objective. Our views of ourselves do not necessarily match those others have of us, and our views of them will not always match their self-image.

This is particularly problematic when disparate groups come (or are forced) together to form a larger grouping. Group A may see themselves as kinsmen of group B, but the feeling may not be reciprocated. This is because even though A’s self-image may correspond to their image of B, B’s self-image may not correspond to their image of A. This error can come about in two ways – either one does not fully understand one’s own identity and fills in the blanks from an outside source (so-called “false consciousness”), or one does not fully understand the identity of others and projects one’s own identity onto them. This can be illustrated by considering the relationships between the English, the Scots, and Irish unionists and nationalists (being aware of course that these terms are woefully inadequate).

Many people consider the English and the Scots as kinsmen in a British nation. But if you ask a sample of Englishmen and a sample of Scotsmen to define “Britishness” you will get a wide range of answers. John Major’s famous response to this question – long shadows on cricket grounds and warm beer – would strike most outside observers as a description of Englishness rather than Britishness. In this case an Englishman has projected an English identity onto Britain as a whole. The Scots and the Welsh are less likely to make this error, having a heightened awareness of their relative size and status.

Unionists are often accused of a similar offence, although this time as a minority projecting their own identity onto a much larger group. It has been remarked that the Ulster-Unionist vision of Britishness is not the same one that the English or Scots see, Orangeism being one notable divergence. In addition, many unionists self-identify solely as “British”, without even any regional qualification. This has led to accusations of false consciousness, of adopting another’s identity to replace their own.

But this is a misunderstanding – one only has to watch an international football match to understand that unionists are viscerally aware of the distinction between their own identity and that of the English, Scots and Welsh. The adoption of “British” as a self-identifier is not due to the lack of an identity, but partly at least to the lack of a better name. Euphemisms exist, but none of them are accurate. Bluntly descriptive names exist, but none of them are considered polite.

And yet there is still confusion over symbolism – Union flags and GSTQ are used as local identifiers by Englishmen and unionists alike (in contrast to the Scots and Welsh), suggesting that there is still something partially-formed about both identities. This confusion is infectious – in the Republic, it is my experience that many people think that unionists believe themselves to be English. But then, people in the Republic have an understanding of the term “British” that no unionist would recognise.

Similarly, nationalists have often been accused of projecting their own identity onto all Irishmen, unionists included. Indeed, the fear of ethnic homogenization was one factor behind the creation of a distinct unionist identity out of previously separate (monarchist) Protestant and (republican) Dissenter factions. Accusing all Nationalists of operating a cultural steamroller is preposterous, not to mention insulting. But the unionist fear of it is very real, and this also drives the adoption of the larger, more powerful, British identity in preference to any local equivalent.

The challenge to both political Unionism and political Nationalism alike is how to build a common identity that can transcend both Ulster Britishness and northern Irishness, when both those local identities define themselves in opposition to the other’s chosen collective identity. “Ulster is British!” and “the Six Counties are Irish!” are both statements of a larger political conflict, where rival states clash over territory. But they are also simultaneously about a smaller identity conflict, where each group refuses on principle to conform to the other’s expectations.

(This article originally appeared on Slugger)


Shibboleth and sibhialtacht

The Irish-language issue is back in the headlines again. Despite the best efforts of campaigners such as Linda Ervine, it is still the case that most ethnic-unionists define themselves at least in part by their rejection of the Irish language. Never mind that some of their ancestors must have spoken it, as evidenced in many cases by their own surnames. Unionists have abandoned the mother tongue of their ancestors in much the same way that German-descended Americans have abandoned theirs.

While other Americans cling proudly to their double-barrelled identities, German-Americans are now identifiable only by their names, and their culture is simply called “American”. Much of this was down to anti-German sentiment during the First World War, when “liberty sausages” were the original “freedom fries”. German-Americans were forced to choose between their past and their future, and their history became the price of their prosperity.

The Gaelic Irish ancestors of today’s unionists had a similar choice imposed upon them, and they too gave up their language (and religion) in order to secure their place in a hostile environment. The melting pot that eventually became unionism inherited not only the Planter’s disinterest in a language that held no cultural resonance, but also the ex-Gael’s conviction that the Irish language, like the Catholic church, was a prison from which they had been liberated.

Ethnic-unionists don’t just happen to not speak Irish. They are partly the descendants of those Gaels who intentionally left the language behind, and this active rejection, clouded by the passage of time, became part of the founding myth of unionism. When campaigners argue (correctly) that the Irish language is part of our shared heritage, they’re not being as persuasive as they think they are. Unionists know this already. It’s precisely what they’re afraid of.

One commonly-proposed “compromise”, that Irish should only be used or promoted in those areas where it is wanted, is merely another example of the shared-out future that has allowed politicians to evade the hard but necessary decisions. Instead of tattered flags flying from lampposts, ethnic ghettos would be identified by shiny, state-funded signage. It is hard to see how this would help to bring communities closer together.

Surely it would be better for Nationalists to compromise on the extent of any ILA in order to ensure that it comes free of any taint of segregation. Not every victory has to be achieved in the first campaign. An explicit commitment that English would remain the first language of NI would cost nothing. Campaigners should also be careful not to conflate cultural preservation with anti-discrimination. They may overlap, but they are not the same.

And it would be wise of Unionists to back down from their not-an-inch opposition and debate the legislation on its detail, rather than its symbolism. For the immediate future, the direction of change in NI is inevitably going to be away from Unionism’s comfort zone. The rebalancing of power between Unionism and Nationalism is not yet over, and political Unionism does not have a stellar track record of managing expectations.

Like all the rest of NI’s most intractable problems, the issue here is not some technicality that can be engineered around. It is a matter of face, perception, status and fear.

(This post appeared originally on Slugger)

The limits of transactional politics

Contract law is a vast subject, but at root, it is the process of making and enforcing agreements between two parties that do not fully trust one another. Any mutual mistrust is compensated for by mutual trust in some other mechanism.

This could be a dispute process set up by the contract, an authoritative third party such as the courts, or simply the ability to abrogate the contract and walk away. Contracts and agreements are transactional – each party accepts responsibility for a well-defined action, but that responsibility is only valid so long as all other parties live up to theirs.

When the contract is completed no further action is required, and when a contract is abrogated all responsibilities are void. Everybody pays something and gains something else in return. It would be foolish to do otherwise, for fear of being seen as an easy mark. Contracts and agreements are thereby one of the basic foundations of civilisation. But they are not a foundation of society.

Civilisation relies on written records, objective norms, and a system within which strangers can coexist. But society predates civilisation. At the heart of society are interpersonal relationships, informal conventions and, most importantly, mutual trust.

One does not normally rely on the law when dealing with family and friends. We constantly perform small favours for each other in good faith, and only rarely keep a running tab. When a personal relationship becomes subject to a court of law, it is a sign that something fundamental has gone wrong.

One also does not normally sign a contract before entering a shop, playing a game or crossing the road. All these things are subject to the law, but only as a last resort. We are trained from childhood to say thank you, pay what we owe, take our turn, and generally assume that other people are trustworthy until they prove otherwise.

We all subconsciously obey the golden rule and only occasionally need to be reminded of it. Even in lawless parts of the world (perhaps especially in lawless parts), informal norms function as a vital social glue. Honour and dignity survive and thrive in places where barely anything else can.

Northern Ireland is not a lawless land today, nor was it at the height of the Troubles, even if at times it may have appeared so on the evening news. It does not lack laws or institutions, imperfect as they are. It does, however, lack trust. Not trust at the level of entering a shop or crossing the road. If anything, NI is more open and genuine than the stereotypical modern society – but only on the condition that certain subjects are avoided. These are the shibboleths that can instantly turn a social gathering cold, and render politicians incapable of rational thought.

I don’t need to name them. We all know what they are.

So while some troubled parts of the world have a strong society at a personal level and a weak civilisation on top, NI finds itself with a strong civilisation but a weakened society underneath. The former may not seem so strange – in honour-driven societies, there are of course subjects such as religion that is best avoided. But it is rare to find a politically stable country where the most urgent political arguments remain socially taboo.

For the majority of the time, we can live as equals in one social space. Shopping, working, eating out, even having a pint (in certain pubs). But when the touchstone political subjects come up, we declare that the person we sit beside for eight hours a day five days a week is one of Them, and that we cannot talk to Them directly, only through Their political representatives.

Just like an estranged couple lawyering up in preparation for an ugly divorce, we politician up in expectation of an argument that we can’t bear to engage in personally. It is, of course, a defence mechanism. But once we politician up, nuance and compromise are treated as deadly weaknesses. Politics at one remove becomes as transactional as a contested divorce, a corporate acquisition, or a strategic arms treaty. The countless delicate relationships of society are reduced to line items. The grace and generosity that we take so much pride in vanish like the morning mist.

It was memorably said of the Republic’s equal marriage referendum that it was the result of honest conversations around kitchen tables in every town in the state. A once-controversial issue was discussed directly, and in good faith, at the personal level. Many of these conversations were difficult and uncomfortable. But they were made possible because the people on either side of the issue shared, and continue to share, a kitchen table.

The necessary strong social relationships were already in place to build a frank political discussion upon. There were no spokesmen, no politicians in these thousand tiny debating chambers. Society moved, and civilisation followed. Nobody demanded that the losing side was entitled to compensation.

Around whose kitchen table will Northern Ireland’s divisive political issues be honestly discussed? Where are the enduring social bonds that can support the difficult compromises required? When will we stop insisting that any change is a concession to Them that must be paid for in full?

(This article originally appeared on Slugger.

Our son of a bitch

The headline of Doug Beattie’s article in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday illustrates how sloppy language and sloppy logic hinder rather than help the process of understanding. Leave aside the article itself for now; one sentence in the headline alone (“Republicans weren’t victims, they were victim-makers”) contains a prime example of both.

Firstly, the sloppy language of “Republicans” fails to distinguish between the Provisional IRA and those people who never picked up a gun but would still regard themselves as Republican. In the same vein, when people blame “Unionists” for the actions of Unionist politicians or “Brits” for the actions of the British Government, it can be argued that a commonly understood shorthand is being used – but in Northern Ireland the use of imprecise language is an open invitation to misunderstanding that many will enthusiastically accept.

This is a common ambiguity in the English language, the infamously context-dependent bare plural. When a statement is made about “Republicans” it can be read as “particular Republicans”, a few hundred members of the PIRA, but it could also be taken to mean “all Republicans”, a two-digit percentage of the electorate. It is probably safe to say that Beattie (or his subeditor) intended the former, and it is also probably safe to say that a significant percentage of actual Republicans took the other meaning.

Secondly, the sloppy logic of the false dichotomy implies that one cannot be both a victim and a victim-maker. It should not take much effort to think up an endless list of counterexamples. One can be both a victim and a perpetrator of violence, and indeed being a victim of violence can encourage one to subsequently become a perpetrator. This is not rocket science, but it is conveniently forgotten in the heat of argument.

But all this is just one example of excessive generalisation, a common rhetorical flourish that produces pithy soundbites but poor analysis. And when it is used like this to apportion blame upon others, the danger is that instead of singling out the guilty one has lumped the guilty in with the innocent.

“Unionist”, “Nationalist”, “Republican”, “British”, “Irish”… each one of these terms is not just an abstract category, but an identity that is clung to by hundreds of thousands of people each. When you apportion blame to hundreds of thousands of people in one sweeping statement the instinctive reaction is not going to be that obviously you only meant to blame some of us. Guilty and innocent are treated alike, blurring rather than sharpening the moral lines.

As the apocryphal Roosevelt quote goes, “he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Under fire, identity trumps all. And so people who may not otherwise have much in common find themselves standing side by side. If the intent was to drive a wedge between guilty and innocent, the exact opposite has now been achieved. “Brits out!” may not have been intended to mean everyone who identifies as British should be driven into the sea, but that’s how it was understood, and it only strengthened the Unionist British identity. Every troubles-era Unionist should know this in their bones, but too often an equally thoughtless, sweeping soundbite makes its way back across the barricade and galvanises the other side.

With every general statement blaming Unionists for discrimination, Republicans for terrorism, Brits for state brutality, the separate identities of Northern Ireland are wound more tightly in shared indignation, and actively driven apart.

(This article originally appeared on Slugger

Anthem anathema

My letter in the Irish Times today. Spelling mistakes all mine, unfortunately.

Sir, – John B Reid seems to be labouring under the mistaken impression that the Irish rugby team is the national team of the Republic of Ireland. If this were the case, then it would be only proper for Amhrán na bFiann to be played at all matches, irrespective of location. But it is not.
As with many other sports, rugby is organised on an all-Ireland basis and the Irish team is not just the team of the Republic, nor even of Irish nationalists, but of the island of Ireland as a whole. Ambiguity between the island and the State is a constant cause of controversy, but the IRFU has correctly recognised that Irish rugby draws support from all traditions on the island.
The current policy that Ireland’s Call be played at away matches is entirely proper, as it reflects the cross-jurisdictional nature of the sport and does not favour one jurisdiction over another. To play the anthem of the Republic in addition at away games would reintroduce politics into a sport that has made a virtue of remaining above the constitutional question.
Amhrán na bFiann is played at home games in the Republic in honour of the State. The only inconsistency in this policy is that no State anthem is played in Belfast, which implies that games in Ravenhill are not “home” games. The honourable solution to this inequity is to play Danny Boy at Ravenhill in the same capacity that Amhrán na bFiann is played in Lansdowne Road’s Aviva Stadium.
Whether or not one finds Ireland’s Call sufficiently rousing, it performs a vital function in keeping divisive politics out of Irish sport. – Yours, etc,
Dublin 14

The moment of quickening

Patsy McGarry has an interesting article in the Irish Times on the surprisingly fluid nature of the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion:

… some of the church’s greatest teachers and saints believed no homicide was involved if abortion took place before the foetus was infused with a soul, known as “ensoulment”. This was believed to occur at “quickening”, when the mother detected the child move for the first time in her womb. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV determined it at 166 days of pregnancy, almost 24 weeks.

St Thomas Aquinas (died 1274) held “the vegetative soul, which comes first, when the embryo lives the life of a plant, is corrupted, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, which is both nutritive and sensitive, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this is corrupted, it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without (ie by God)”.

Centuries of enlightened thinking (yes, even in the Catholic Church) understood that there were nuances of life, that human development was a process of many stages rather than an instantaneous event. He did not have access to our scientific knowledge, but nothing we have learned since has refuted Aquinas’s basic hypothesis. We now know the exact stage of embryonic development when the central nervous system forms, and have a fair idea when awareness of stimuli such as pain develops. It is no accident that Pope Gregory’s moment of quickening is similar to commonly defined abortion limits, because they both derive from the same logical considerations. The transition from “vegetative” to “animal” states of being is grounded in hard evidence, even if the line between “animal” and human consciousness continues to evade us.

It does seem strange then, that some time in the 19th century – just as scientific advances were shedding light on the moment of conception – the irrational notion of an instantaneous beginning to human existence began to take hold. One moment, there are apparently just a few cells swimming around and in the next a perfectly formed human soul appears, even though nothing much physically has changed. Perhaps it is just our instinctive aversion to ambiguity – we humans do like our tidy mental pigeonholes. Whatever the source of this gut feeling, it is difficult to muster a logical argument to back it up. If mere clusters of human cells were a human person, then HeLa would be a person, or the precipitate from your last blood test. If personhood were defined by a unique combination of DNA, then my twin nieces would not be two separate people. If it were the particular expression of that DNA, then how can you say that different organs constitute a single person? The only consistent way to define a “person” is through the presence of a mind. I think, therefore I am.

Without a mind, and by extension a brain to contain it, a person cannot exist. We already accept that braindead adults are no longer people and so can be unplugged and grieved for in peace without the law getting involved. If a living thing that no longer has a working brain is not a person, then surely a living thing that never had a working brain is not a person either?

(This post originally appeared on Slugger O’Toole)

A people without a name

It seems to me that the root of many of Northern Ireland’s problems is that Huns do not have a well-defined sense of communal identity. For the last hundred years or so it boiled down to the Orange Order – understandable given the Order’s involvement in the foundation of NI and the UUP’s political hegemony. But the OO is too narrow a strand to support the weight of an entire culture, and is in many ways a relic of a bygone age.

Huns opposed the Irish-nationalist thesis, but at the same time they also rejected wholesale the idea of separate identities. Not only did they stand apart from the “Irish” (Taig) ethnic identity, but they did not expend much energy developing one of their own, instead falling back on religious (Protestant) or political (Unionist) identities; or the vague concept of “Britishness”. But to most, the shared “British” identity is one that is (to varying degrees) held in addition to their ethnic ones – there are many black and Asian minorities in England who would never consider themselves English but are quite happy to be British, as to them it is bereft of ethnic overtones.

To Huns however, Britishness became by default their ethnic identity. The English share this confusion, but they have the excuse of being numerous. When the English decide to define Britishness, the others have the option of either going along or (increasingly these days) opting out. When Huns attempt to define Britishness, the others look at them funny and wonder if they fell on their heads trying to kiss the Blarney stone. By failing to define their own ethnic identity, they have ended up in the uncomfortable place where outside forces define their identity for them.

That’s why we Huns need a name, so we can start defining ourselves for a change.

(This post is based on a comment I made on IJP’s blog)

The Sporting Banner of the Emerald Isle (“The Power and the Glory”)

The Sporting Banner of the Emerald Isle

Ireland (the island) presents an inconsistent face to the world. At all-Ireland sporting events a variety of symbolism is in use, while most countries make do with only one or (sometimes) two distinct flags. Confusion between Ireland the island and Ireland the sovereign state results in the alienation of many Unionists from all-island sporting organizations. This has led to many sports adopting more inclusive symbolisms, however these have been done on an ad-hoc basis and suffer from a lack of consistency and design impact. The result is a confusing assortment of State, organizational and unofficial flags being flown, producing a fragmented brand and a divided community of supporters.

A similar problem with anthems led to the commissioning of the song “Ireland’s Call” by the IRFU, which has since been adopted by other sporting organizations, thus becoming a de-facto “sporting anthem”. We are therefore motivated to design an analogous “sporting banner”, with a view to unifying the disparate symbolisms currently in use and presenting a distinctive, common brand.

Design brief

  1. Must represent the island of Ireland across multiple sporting disciplines
  2. Should avoid divisive or controversial design elements
  3. Should be distinct from existing flags, Irish or otherwise
  4. Must be bold and readily identifiable from a distance
  5. Must be able to command broad allegiance
  6. Should be based on existing symbology

Prior art

Most of these can be found on Wikipedia.

  1. IRFU flag
    Pro: already in use, uncontroversial (2,5)
    Con: poor design quality (4), non-universal (1)
  2. Irish Hockey flag
    As IRFU, marginally cleaner design
  3. Irish Cricket flag
    As IRFU, but even worse design
  4. The four-provinces flag
    Pro: widely recognizable, already in use (1,2,5), explicitly represents island of Ireland
    Con: confused design, lack of Unionist engagement
  5. Tricolour
    Pro: in use, recognisable
    Con: politically divisive
  6. Geraldine (“St. Patrick’s”) cross
    Pro: simple, bold design
    Con: obscure, lack of Republican engagement
  7. Harp on green field
    Pro: simple, bold design
    Con: already in use as flag of Leinster
  8. Harp on blue field
    Pro: simple, bold design
    Con: already in use as RoI presidential standard

The above can be broken down into the following pool of design elements:

  1. Green field
    Most commonly used element – uncontroversial and universally recognizable.
  2. Blue field (“St. Patrick’s Blue”)
    Less common, somewhat archaic alternative to the above
  3. Flags of the Four Provinces, in combination
    Explicitly all-Ireland (possible negative connotations for some Unionists)
  4. Orange
    Ironically, the presence of (supposedly Protestant) orange on much Irish symbolism serves to alienate Protestants, whereas green is broadly acceptable.
  5. White
    Commonly found as secondary element
  6. Harp
    Uncontroversial, easily recognizable
  7. Shamrock
  8. Red saltire
    Originally arms of FitzGerald, repurposed as ersatz “St. Patrick’s cross” in 19th C. Slight bias towards unionists (and Blueshirts) but also found in establishment contexts across Ireland


The starting point of our preferred solution is to explicitly draw parallels with “Ireland’s Call”, as the banner and the song are intended to solve similar problems and be used on the same occasions. Linking the banner with the song also helps to underline its design brief as sporting rather than political symbolism.

The lyrical theme of “Ireland’s Call” is one of teammates from the four provinces standing together to face their opponents with pride – the second verse is devoted entirely to poetic descriptions of those four provinces. It would seem natural then to start with the Four Provinces flag (pool element 3), however it suffers from serious design flaws – by combining four complex, disparate designs, one ends up with a whole that is graphically much less than the sum of its parts.

This is not an insurmountable problem – many flags balance the competing requirements of symbolic inclusivity and graphic simplicity by defacing a bold primary design with a complex coat of arms – the flag of Croatia is particularly apposite. We have therefore chosen to include the Four Provinces symbolism in the form of a shield defacing the main flag.

The primary element of the main design was chosen to be a green field (pool element 1) – although St Patrick’s blue (element 2) has an older pedigree, green is more readily associated with Ireland, particularly in sporting contexts where Ireland competes in a green strip. At this stage, we could construct a design similar to the current hockey flag, but such a flag lacks any bold design elements and therefore appears bland and is hard to identify from afar (brief point 4). As brief point 4 is arguably the entire purpose of having a flag, we cannot disregard it.

Orange (element 4) is reminiscent of the republican flag, and therefore too politically charged for our purposes. We have already chosen to deface our flag with a design that includes a harp (element 6). Shamrocks (element 7) would not stand out against the field unless rendered in an unnatural colour. The only element left in our design pool is the Geraldine cross (element 8), but by a stroke of luck it fulfills our requirements perfectly – it is bold and distinctive; the red saltire is nowhere else seen against a green field; and any perceived pro-Unionist bias may be regarded as an appropriate counterweight to any perceived pro-Nationalist bias of the Four Provinces shield.

When the final design is assembled, the Four Provinces stand powerfully at the centre (“shoulder to shoulder”) while the red saltire (with customary white fringing) appears to radiate gloriously outwards. Together these themes draw multiple parallels between song and banner, hence our suggestion that a nickname be lifted directly from the lyrics of Ireland’s Call in order to emphasise a unity of purpose.

To minimize stylistic clashes (and printing costs!) we have reduced the colour palette down to a set of six commonly used bolds. Connacht forgive us.

Although the design is straightforward (green + red saltire + four provinces), bonus symbolism can be milked if one is motivated. The green, white and red colour scheme is partway between the green-white-orange of Nationalists and the red-white-blue of Unionists. The white fringing can be regarded as a white saltire in its own right, a Dissenter counterpart to the red saltire of Anglicans and Gaelic green. The four green triangles visible between the arms of the saltire can be read as a secondary symbol of the four provinces.

By using pre-existing all-Ireland symbols in the design (to wit, various defacements of a green field; red saltire; Four Provinces flag), we also unify those symbols in a coherent brand, so that familiarity with the sporting banner automatically implies familiarity with the components when taken individually. The introduction at an event of even a small number of sporting banners amongst a population of Four Provinces, St Patrick’s crosses and official IRFU flags (say) would likely have a disproportionate effect on brand image, with the other three flags appearing (to the uninitiated) to be special cases of the sporting banner. Thus the combined effect is one of a single brand with complementary strands, rather than an assortment of disconnected brands. This brand is further reinforced by tying it into the lyrics of Ireland’s Call – the aim being that the audio and visual symbols should each invoke a mental image of the other.


vert a saltire gules fimbriated argent, centred an escutcheon quarterly; 1st or a cross gules centred an escutcheon of pretence argent, a dexter hand gules; 2nd azure three crowns or; 3rd per pale first argent a dexter half eagle displayed sable, second azure a sinister arm embowed fessways holding a sword all argent; 4th vert a harp or

Adobe Illustrator source file

16×28 units green field (1:sqrt(3))
red saltire width 2u, white fringing width 1u
shield 6.5x8u, centered, black border 0.2u

four equal area quadrants
centred on quadripoint
upper quadrants square aspect
clockwise from top left: Ulster,Munster,Leinster,Connacht
U cross width 1/8 shield width
U shield 1/4×3/8 s.w.
U hand height 1/4 s.w.
M crowns 3/16×3/16 s.w.
L harp height 7/16 s.w.
L harp turned so strings vertical (to avoid curve of shield)
C eagle height 7/16 s.w.

Pantone (CMYK) palette:

gold: 116C (0,16,100,0)
red: 186C (0,100,81,4)
blue: 281C (100,72,0,32)
green: 364C (65,0,100,42)


The files presented in this post contain some public domain elements from wikimedia commons. All other designs and design elements in this post are hereby released into the public domain.

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.

The supposed fragility of “Unionist” identity

Alex Kane is on the warpath again:

Sinn Fein has been inviting all sorts of non-republicans to address their ‘uniting Ireland’ conferences.

They would have you believe that it’s part of their ongoing mission to persuade us that we would be better off outside the United Kingdom and that we would have nothing to fear inside a united Ireland.

Well, we wouldn’t have a political identity or a constitutional purpose. We would be denied a mechanism for reversing the decision at another time. We wouldn’t have any structures to protect and promote our core values, or determine our own destiny. Republicanism, it seems, can be given a voice and a chance to secure its end goals inside Northern Ireland: but unionism would never be given the same rights within a united Ireland.

I can think of no reasons or circumstances in which unionists in Northern Ireland would ever vote for a united Ireland. Even ‘turquoise unionists’ – those who indulge the fancy that you can be both Irish and British – would probably come to their senses and realise that once the border went, their Britishness would go with it!

Apparently it is the border that defines Huns, and without it they would cease to exist. The constitutional link with Britain is the sum total of Ulster-British-Protestant identity and is therefore a precious, fragile thing. This is a classic refrain, and one that is accepted by many without question. It is a negative, reactionary line that is born not of pride or self-confidence, but of fear and an assumption of weakness and inevitable failure.

It is a pernicious idea because it implies that an individual’s identity, his self-image, derives not from his own qualities but from an external source. It tells you that your identity can be taken away from you by others, that it depends on political permission. And this has historically suited the purposes of political Unionism, because it sustains the communal block vote.

Nobody argues that Scots ceased to be Scottish after 1707, just because a border was redrawn. Scots are currently an even smaller minority in the UK (8%) than Unionists are in Ireland (15%), yet Scots maintain an identity beyond mere politics, one that survived the loss of their independent state and is in rude health today. The “Unionist community” has never been defined by its own members in such a robust fashion. At times it seems to hang from a thread, its entire existence deriving from a line on a map. This is largely the fault of political Unionism itself, which invested all its energy in building defences against Irish nationalism, and precious little in working out who it was defending.

Ethnicity is not defined by politics. One can be a Scottish Unionist or a Scottish Nationalist, and still be equally Scottish. But political Unionism has not yet understood this. It does not believe that there can be a difference between political Unionism and its ethnic counterpart, as evidenced by Kane’s quote above. Four hundred years of Ulster-British-Protestant history, culture and identity are reduced to a single political issue barely a century old. If there were a united Ireland, political Unionism may well die. But the cultural legacy beneath it would continue to exist after Unionism, just as it existed before Unionism.

And this is where Unionism is failing those that it purports to represent. By framing the constitutional debate in apocalyptic terms it may galvanise the faithful, but it also gives unrealistic hope to its enemies. If one vote for a United Ireland will make the Huns disappear into the mists of history, then there are many who will cheer the process on. A political movement that survives by making its supporters fearful and its opponents confident is probably best described as parasitic. A significant proportion of its own voters believe Unionism will eventually fail, and this lack of confidence can be seen at the root of many of Unionism’s neuroses.

A healthy political culture would not constantly tell itself that it sat on the edge of a precipice. It would try to give its people confidence in their own future security, come what may. But would it still be Unionism?