Dictionary definitions

Sir,

Darach MacDonald (June 12th) makes a spirited defence of the dictionary definition of “unionism”, and rightly points out that purity of blood is a fiction in the modern world. But culture is not transmitted through the genes, and anyone observing an Orange parade should be left in no doubt of the existence of “unionist” culture.

The constitutional question is far from the “single common identifying policy” that unites Unionist political parties. Support for monarchism, the Orange Order and Scottish cultural heritage, together with disdain for the Irish language, Gaelic sports and (historically) the Catholic church have long been commonly held positions. None of these follow automatically from the dictionary definition, so the dictionary definition must be incomplete.

It is unfortunate that a political term has come to have a non-political meaning. “Protestant” is equally inaccurate, and “Hun” is potentially offensive. But whatever name we decide to use, most people understand it to mean more than just a single policy position. It also identifies a distinct, shared worldview that can be difficult to fully appreciate from the outside, leading to a gulf in understanding that perpetuates conflict.

It has never been just about the Border.

Yours,

Andrew Gallagher

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

In praise of secular education

I wrote a letter to the Irish Times today.

Sir,

Patrick Davey (May 30th) claims the right to have his children educated in a religious school. This is as unattainable a “right” as the right to live in a religious town, or to work in a religious factory. A “right” that can only be realised if others are denied their own rights is no right at all. The idea that the majority have more “rights” than minorities do is tyranny, and the removal of a right through effective unavailability is as much a violation as if it were explicitly denied in law.

Secular education is compulsory, and religious education cannot be. By conflating the roles of state school and church school we have created inequality between those of the majority faith and those of other faiths or none. The only way to respect everyone’s rights equally is to separate the roles of Church and State, leaving schools to teach a full secular curriculum to all regardless of faith, and allowing each church to supplement this with its own particular teachings outside school hours as parents wish and free from state interference.

Separation of Church and State is not an attack on religion. It releases everyone, religious and irreligious alike, from the shackles of pretence and hypocrisy. People of faith should follow the example of their brethren other countries and embrace a secular state as the means of their own liberation.

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,
ANDREW GALLAGHER,
Trimbleston,
Dublin 14