Dictionary definitions


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.


Andrew Gallagher

The ethnic basis of “Unionism” and “Nationalism”

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


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.


Andrew Gallagher

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)

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?

The island of Ireland is a political straitjacket

One of the great ambiguities about modern Ireland is the confusion between Ireland the island and Ireland the independent state. Both officially go under the same name, although one can often avoid ambiguity by using prefixes (Republic of Ireland, island of Ireland). This actively contributes to Ireland’s political problems, because it closes one of the escape valves normally used to resolve ethnic conflict – redefinition.

When Austria-Hungary was divided up into its component parts after WWI, the border between Austria and Hungary was redrawn. A sliver of land which was traditionally part of Hungary had over the years become majority-German speaking. On independence, this area (today known as the Burgenland) was transferred to Austria so that the border more closely matched the ethnic divide. Effectively, the words “Austria” and “Hungary” were redefined to suit changed reality.

That option is not open to Ireland. Unlike land frontiers, coastlines cannot be altered at the stroke of a pen. The Ulster Unionist movement redefined the boundary between the UK and newly-independent Ireland by creating a Burgenland of their own, Northern Ireland. But the escape was not clean – the word “Ireland” stubbornly remained in use for the entire island, and was included in the name of the new state (despite the efforts of many to adopt “Ulster” instead).

To confound matters, the sea boundary between Ireland and Scotland also forced NI to be defined maximally so as to ensure a viable territory – by contrast, the Burgenland is only 5km wide at its narrowest point. If NI had been created merely as a two- or three-county state the ethnic balance would have been much more equitable, but politically it would have been less stable. Consider a counter-factual – if Scotland and Ireland were connected to each other by a land bridge, it is likely that the frontier between them would have shifted back and forth several times in history. The plantation of Scots in Antrim and Down would have been expansionism, not colonisation. An eventual redrawing of the Ireland/Scotland frontier a few miles further into Irish territory would likely have been (reluctantly) accepted as the price of peace, as it was in Hungary.

But the North Channel is an immovable frontier, and Ireland’s status as an island is thus a political straitjacket. Its extent is fixed by the sea in perpetuity, and an equitable repartition would leave NI as an unviable state. In addition, the island as a “natural” political unit has both an economic logic and a romantic appeal – it is no accident that ethnically-divided islands provide more than their fair share of the world’s intractable conflicts. Ethnic nationalism can sometimes work if practical frontiers can be found. But islands frustrate this process, and in Ireland no such practical frontiers are possible.

One cannot define an ethnic Irish identity, because the geographical Irish identity is in conflict with it, and cannot be altered to match. Ethnic nationalism is thus doomed to failure in Ireland, because ethnic-Unionists (“Huns“) cannot submit to an Irishness based on ethnic-Nationalist (“Taig“) identity, but neither can they escape it. Political and cultural neurosis is the inevitable result.

Ethnicity in Northern Ireland

In my previous post, I argued that the terms “Protestant community” and “Catholic community”, as used for fair employment monitoring in Northern Ireland, are merely proxies – it is not your personal faith (or even your personal political beliefs) that are being monitored, but your ethnicity. And the only words we have that accurately describe these ethnicities are the pejoratives “Hun” and “Taig”.

But what is an ethnicity, and how does this apply to Northern Ireland? From Wikipedia:

An ethnic group (or ethnicity) is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage, often consisting of a common language, a common culture (often including a shared religion) and/or an ideology that stresses common ancestry or endogamy.

The “two communities” in NI obviously qualify in terms of self-identification, religion and endogamy. Common ancestry was also a key component of the Gaelic revival, as was the restoration of a dying common language.

But here we see a key difference between Taigs and Huns – while the former have a clear sense of their own ancestry, the latter sometimes appear to struggle. This may be due to the eclectic origins of Huns amongst English and Scots planters, Huguenot refugees and Penal Law converts – groups who have historically shared little in common except the Reformed faith. Contrast this with the older roots of Taigs in the Gaelic population, whose origins are shrouded in mist, spiced only by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy and the occasional Viking, both well-integrated come the time of plantation. Thus Taig identity draws heavily upon language, legend and location, while Hun identity focuses more on religion and politics, with King Billy being the closest approximation to a founding mythology.

But there is another native people who pass the ethnicity test, and that is Irish Travellers or (since I am decrying euphemisms) Pavee. Long neglected, there is an increased awareness of their distinct identity, with the census in NI now counting them as a separate ethnic group. Although Pavee are mainly Catholic and probably descend from Gaelic ancestry, they are strongly endogamous and maintain a nomadic culture equally alien to both Huns and Taigs.

So with this in mind, perhaps the next NI census form should read:

□ Hun
□ Taig
□ Pavee
□ English
□ Scottish
□ Welsh
□ Polish
□ Chinese
□ Indian
□ Black
□ Mixed
□ Other

And maybe instead of “Mixed” we should be allowed to tick more than one box? But that’s an argument for another time.

Whatever clothes befit the times…

I found this a while ago and forgot about it. It seems apposite now, considering that I recently mentioned the fluidity of the labels “Unionism” and “Nationalism”:

Since its formation, the Orange has tended to undermine constructive unionism and bolster its regressive wing.  Indeed the Order, which might present itself as a stalwart of the Union now, took a while to be convinced of its merits.

Senior Orangemen were leading proponents of Dublin rule for the first part of the nineteenth century.  Government from Westminster threatened to introduce a modern form of citizenship which, they rightly feared,, might even extend the franchise to Catholics.

So the Order stayed neutral on the Union and a substantial section of its leadership actively advocated a return to a Dublin parliament.  British allegiance wasn’t allowed to trump anti-Catholic prejudice.

As I said earlier, the underlying ethnic conflict wears whatever clothes are befitting the times.

Are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?

If you have ever been employed in Northern Ireland, you will have come across the following question:

Regardless of whether we practice religion, most of us in Northern Ireland are seen as either Catholic or Protestant. We are therefore asking you to indicate your community background by ticking the appropriate box below.

□ I am a member of the Protestant Community
□ I am a member of the Roman Catholic Community
□ I am a member of neither the Protestant nor Roman Catholic Community

If you do not complete this questionnaire we are encouraged to use the “residuary” method which means we can make a determination on the basis of information on file/application form.

Translation: we know this question is inaccurate and potentially offensive, but we are required by law to ask it anyway. If you refuse to answer, we will make something up.

It is inaccurate is because religion is being used as a proxy for something else, something it is afraid to name. That is why it does not ask if you personally are a Protestant or a Catholic, but whether you come from that-community-which-is-mostly-Protestant or that-community-which-is-mostly-Catholic. These are not names, they are circumlocutions. Replacing “Protestant” and “Catholic” with “Unionist” and “Nationalist” is not an improvement – they do not really want to know what your personal political beliefs are. They want to know which tribe you are from. It would be more straightforward – and honest – to ask the following instead:

What is your ethnic background?

□ Hun
□ Taig
□ Other

The words may be shocking, but they cut to the chase. We are not potential victims of discrimination because of our religion, but because of the ethnic origin that membership of a particular denomination implies. Our personal politics are no defence either – a Hun who professes to be a Republican merely invites increased suspicion from both sides.

The old story of the Belfast rabbi being asked “are you a Protestant Jew or a Catholic Jew?” is well worn, precisely because it contains an important truth. “Protestant” and “Catholic” in this context don’t actually mean Protestant and Catholic. What the questioners are really asking, in an inarticulate way, is “we don’t care what religion you are, are you a Hun or a Taig?” When expressed using blunt language, the absurdities are cast aside and the truth exposed.

Taigs and Huns – no better option?

In my previous post, I argued that we need new words other than “Unionist” and “Nationalist” to describe the ethnic (as opposed to political or religious) divisions within Northern Ireland, and that we already had perfectly good words in “Hun” and “Taig” if we were willing to overlook their origin as tribal insults. But are these really the best options available?

“British” and “Irish” are completely unsuitable – a significant proportion of people in NI consider themselves both, to varying degrees. “Ireland” – and by extension “Irish” – is already an ambiguous term (“island of” vs. “Republic of”), and “British” can also mean different things to different people (“Brits out!”).

“Ulsterman” is not a tribal label, and its history as an inaccurate synonym for “Northern Irishman” is unhelpful. “Fenian” is a political pejorative, not an ethnic one. As an archaic synonym for “Irish Republican” it is still useful in a historical context; and in a modern context it is almost universally followed by “bastard”, from which it may be difficult to disassociate. “Jaffa” implies a connection with Orangeism, and thus has political undertones. Loyal Orders are a declining pastime amongst Huns, so it is also increasingly inaccurate. And it’s not even a good insult.

No, there are no good alternatives. The only option left is to invent completely new terms, so that we can avoid any personal discomfort. But in doing so we throw away the unique selling point of “Hun” and “Taig” – they convey the tribal divide clearly to the target audience without the need for footnotes or lengthy caveats.

And pejoratives are redeemable – minority communities often adopt the insults directed at them, as an act of defiance. But we must be careful to avoid the fate of the N word, which is acceptable for a black person to say, but must never cross the lips of whites. It is good then that “Taig” and “Hun” are both insults, for the sake of parity of esteem.

So it is conceivable that they might one day be adopted by their respective tribes. Perhaps they could even be allowed into respectable conversation. In this blog I will assume the latter, although I will be careful to use both terms in each post lest I be accused of bias. It is far too soon to utter them in the pub or on the street. One step at a time.

But the true test will be whether rehabilitating these words is useful. I hope to demonstrate in subsequent posts that it is.