Populism and publicity

Whether Peter Casey deliberately indulged in a little bit of demagoguery as a last resort to save his dying campaign, or stumbled upon it by happy accident in an unguarded moment, only Peter Casey knows for sure. But enough has been said about the particulars already, and this post will resist adding further to the noise. Given sufficient time and numbers, there will always be someone who crosses the line. The more important issue to consider is society’s response, and in this instance we have seen that Ireland is unexceptional.

The paradox of the news is that it consists mainly of newsworthy events, but events that are commonplace are not newsworthy. News is by definition unrepresentative of reality. Rare events such as plane crashes and natural disasters are vastly over-represented, while everyday occurrences are ignored. “Politician says something sensible” will never hold the front page, but “politican causes outrage” will be splashed across every screen.

The news thereby acts as a positive feedback mechanism, where each trip around the news cycle boosts the perceived importance of the issue in question – so long as there is something different to be said each time. The greatest hurdle on the way to domination of the headlines is getting onto the publicity merry-go-round in the first place.

Publicity is just another form of wealth and, like all forms of wealth, you need to have it to make it. Seed capital is everything, and when you are a relative minnow the trick is to stand out from the pack. In a civilised democracy, the easiest way to break free of the political peloton is to say something mildly uncivilised.

And if your momentary newsworthiness pushes you significantly ahead of the rest, the news cycle will multiply your lead – so long as you can keep saying newsworthy things. If you already had meaningful ideas, you can quietly drop the uncivilised stuff after it has done its job of getting you onto the front page. Many otherwise serious politicians succumb to this temptation now and again.

But there are also those who don’t have anything much to say beyond cheap scandal. Their only recourse is then to keep saying uncivilised things to ride the publicity of outrage. And these are the ones who are dangerous, because after a while the Overton window moves, and mild incivility becomes normalised. Ever more outrageous incivility is required to stay newsworthy.

How can democracies resist the positive-feedback cycle of publicity power? We can draw parallels with monetary power, where the rich are taxed heavily to pay for wealth redistribution. But in this imperfect analogy the demagogues and populists would still ride in the vanguard of opinion; the goal should surely be to prevent populism from gaining traction in the first place.

Some would have the news media simply ignore populists and demagogues, to avoid giving them the oxygen of publicity. But this asks news media to act as gatekeepers of acceptable political opinion, which runs counter to the fundamentals of liberal democracy.

I don’t have the answers. But these are the questions we should be asking urgently, before Ireland falls prey to a competent populist like Orban or Trump. The Republic’s political class would be well advised to examine the history of Northern Ireland politics from the 1960s onwards, because part of Ireland already has fallen for demagoguery, and it took half a century to row back from the edge.

This article was originally published on Slugger.


The great Shibboleth

I have a confession to make. As a card-carrying letsgetalongerist and liberal Eurotrash it feels like an admission of failure, even treason. But after reading this article in the National Geographic (an advertorial, but even so), the spirit moves me.

I despise “Derry~Londonderry”.

Not the place, of course. I have nothing against the buildings, streets or burghers of the city, and even if I did the old saying “people who live in Portadown shouldn’t throw stones” comes to mind. No, it is the name that makes my hackles rise every time I see it written down – or worse, hear it spoken.

For not only is it an offence against both language and typography, it contains in its seventeen bytes a microcosm of everything that is broken with Northern Ireland.

Its double-barrelled structure displays the shared-out, zero-sum vision that gave us two First Minsters (itself a hate crime against mathematicians), two teacher training colleges, and two jubilee cities. We can’t share, so we’ll have one each. Never mind that neither side is really as bothered about the name as they like to pretend (ask an Orangeman to sing the Sash). It’s all about going through the motions, like the strutting-peacock changing of the guard at the India-Pakistan border. We enjoy it. It’s sport.

But even the double-barrelled name is broken, because it doesn’t represent a synthesis. It’s not just less than the sum of its parts, it’s less than one of its parts. Rather than an embracing union of heads and tails, night and day, or old and new, it’s a quantum superposition of existence and nonexistence. To London or not to London, that is the question. And because you can’t have half a London, the only way to be fair is to have two Derrys. Derry~Derry.

And that tilde. Or is it a swish? Either way, a symbol used only by mathematicians, dictionaries and Unix programmers (I’m at least two of those three). A diagonal stroke would evoke the linguistic frivolity of the late Gerry Anderson, hardly the image of a city trying to be taken seriously. Hyphens are abrupt. Derry-Londonderry. Too fast. Automatic fire. Can’t have that. But there’s a hesitance about a tilde, a questioning that gives one pause, like an apostrophe-riddled scifi planet that needs a mental dry run before committing to.

The unsquarable circle of unstoppable Micks and immovable Prods requires that some compromise is made. But every time I see “Derry~Londonderry” (ugh, I wrote it again) I can’t help but think that the wrong compromise was made. Trillions have been poured into branding and promotion, so I’ll have to live with it. But I wish they’d asked me first, because the solution is of course blindingly obvious.


This article was originally published on Slugger.

Deconstructing “Unionism”

I have long maintained that the terms “unionist” and “Unionism” as currently used in Northern Ireland are an obstacle to discussion and understanding. Because there is much more to unionists than Unionism. Indeed, there is much more to Unionism than Unionism. What have tray bakes and soda farls got to do with the constitutional question? The same words are used for multiple related yet distinct things, and the capital letters that one can use for disambiguation in print(*) are worthless in speech.

This use of insufficiently precise terminology has had two separate, but equally destructive effects.

Firstly, it has served to drive a wedge between the Union and those not from a Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist background, and severed Irish Republicanism from the Dissenter tradition that gave birth to it. Once “Unionist” and “Nationalist” became markers of identity rather than mere political descriptions, the idea of a “Catholic Unionist” or a “Protestant Republican” became almost paradoxical. Those who refuse to order from the political set menu are seen as ridiculous, or even dangerous. And it has become impossible to discuss political ideas on their own terms without the accumulated moss of cultural identity, and vice versa.

Less obviously, but perhaps more importantly, it has also led to many people from all sides believing that without the Union, “unionists” would in some way cease to exist. That without the defining embrace of the UK, the people themselves would wash away. This fantasy has fuelled both Unionist paranoia and Nationalist triumphalism. But if you build a definition upon sand, it is the definition that is unsound, not the objective reality you are trying to describe.

This is why academics and specialists are constantly creating new jargon and terminology. Lack of precision becomes crippling when discussing malleable things, because for every single thing that can be defined at a given instant, there are multiple different ways that it can behave under different circumstances, depending on how the definition was constructed. One can say that A is the same as B, but will that always be the case? What happens when A changes? Will B change also or will it stay the same?

If I say “the Mayor is tall” I am obviously talking about the current holder, who will presumably remain tall as a private citizen; while if I say “the Mayor chairs the meetings”, that applies to past and future individual Mayors, but only during their term of office. I can use disambiguation such as “the current Mayor” or “the then Mayor” or “the office of Mayor”, but it gets complicated very quickly. What if I say “the current Mayor owns a black car”? It depends on whether the car is personal, or a perk of the job. “The office of the Mayor currently owns a black car”? What if the car gets resprayed? “The office of the Mayor currently owns a formerly black car”?

Complex concepts demand simple, but unique names. What do you call a “unionist” who emigrates to England? Or Dublin? What do you call a “unionist” whose family have lived in Donegal for generations? What if there is a future United Ireland? “Unionists” wouldn’t just disappear. They don’t stop being who they are, or forget where they’re from. But the term “unionist” loses its meaning when shorn of its native context. The word no longer corresponds to the concept that it was intended to represent. When you talk about “unionists” in a hypothetical United Ireland, are you talking about those people who are currently “unionists”, or just those who will continue to be “unionists”? Or “Unionists”?

At bare minimum, we need a name for small-u cultural “unionists” that captures the identity of the group but which still retains meaning outside the particular context of 20th century Northern Ireland. “Protestant” isn’t a solution – not all unionists are Protestant, or even Christian, and the vast majority of Protestants in the world have never set foot in Belfast. “PUL” merely smashes three equally inaccurate terms together into a meaningless TLA. “Hun” is pithily accurate but unacceptable in polite society. “Anglo-Irish” means something else entirely, as do “Scots-Irish”, “Ulster-Scots”, “Ulster-Irish” and “British-Irish”. “Northern Irish” is both too broad in one direction and too narrow in another. “Ulster(wo)man” is equally inaccurate, and a gender bear-trap.

“Ulster-British” is probably the best that can be constructed without resorting to pejoratives or acronyms.

And what of big-U “Unionism”? It has become common to see “pro-Union” used to distinguish the narrow issue of the Union itself from the “Unionist” political parties, but this may not be sufficient by itself. Unionist parties are unlikely to rename themselves for the sake of an academic debating point, but the concept of big-U “Unionism” is far from monolithic.

Set aside the economic and social policy differences that are irrelevant to the constitutional issue, and never mind the UUP/DUP split that owes more to the Anglo-Irish/Ulster-Scots cultural division than it does to policy of any kind. The “Unionist” parties are divided within themselves even on constitutional matters – between Ulster Nationalists, British Nationalists, integrationists, federalists, Liberal Unionists and even the occasional Irish Unionist. At one time in the 90s there was a repartitionist faction. The only thing that seems to unite them is a shared antipathy to Irish Nationalism.

For some (such as the integrationists and liberals) it is nationalism of whatever flag that is more offensive, while for others (such as the Ulster Nationalists) it seems to be Irishness, particularly the Gaelic flavour. Anti-Nationalism and Anti-Gaelism are distinct trends even though many individual big-U Unionists subscribe to both. And these trends often pull against each other, leading to an epidemic of doublethink. The logic of Anti-Nationalism is to embrace all those who would be content to live in a multi-national state, regardless of their cultural heritage. The logic of Anti-Gaelism is to resist any such blurring of the communal lines and maintain the cultural distinctiveness of the Planter heritage.

Despite these internal tensions, big-U “Unionism” remains a valid identifier for as long as Unionist organisations remain part of an identifiable movement opposed to Irish Nationalism. If Unionist parties don’t always act as outsiders might think “Unionists” should (on a literal reading of the name), that is not enough to invalidate the word. Names don’t have to be literally descriptive.

But given that big-U “Unionism” remains useful, small-u cannot. Using the same word conflates cultural and political identities that can be subscribed to independently. Small-u is therefore best avoided, particularly when discussing hypothetical futures. It is an oxymoron to talk of a “unionist” identity in a consensual United Ireland, but that doesn’t mean that the Ulster-British culture that we call “unionism” would be meaningless. We should be careful to remember that Unionism and Ulster-Britishness are not the same thing, and using the same word for both only perpetuates the tribal, set-menu vision of Northern Ireland.

(*) Capitals aren’t even that useful in print, given that the first letter of a sentence is always a capital…

This post was originally published on Slugger.

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)