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 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.

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.

In praise of pejoratives

I have complained before about the giant hole in NI cultural terminology. There are things that exist that do not have names, and because they do not have names we cannot discuss them. Instead we use euphemisms that mean different things to different people, and waste our breath fruitlessly arguing over semantics. To demonstrate, consider a recent exchange on Slugger:

unionists are for the union, pretty straight forward, Im sure there are some in the Alliance as well.

Unionism is a tribal identity and by using the term you are identifying with it.

The core of this is a fundamental disagreement over what “Unionist” means. To some it is a political ideology; to others it is a tribal marker. The two meanings have become confused because in recent history they have referred to (approximately) the same subset of people, but this does not mean that the same must be true always. “Unionism” and “Nationalism” no longer have universally-understood meanings, and so have outlived their usefulness as descriptive terms.

The problem with names

The name we choose for a thing can either illuminate its true nature, or obscure it. In particular, if we use the same name for two different things we implicitly obscure their differences. If these differences are not important, this can be very useful. But if these differences are crucial, then we have just hamstrung ourselves.

If we use the words “Protestant” and “Catholic” we imply that the core of the dispute in NI is a matter of religious interpretation. While this may have been true in the 17th century, it is an archaic dispute to most people today. If we instead use the terms “Unionist” and “Nationalist” it is in one sense an improvement, as it captures the surface detail of the conflict, but in another sense it is a step backwards, as it implies the disagreement is a rarefied, intellectual disagreement of individual conscience, not the visceral and tribal one we know it to be.

“Unionism” and “nationalism” are fluid terms that referred to different people in different ages – around the time of the Act of Union many Catholics were Unionist and Protestants Nationalist, because of the promise that the Union would bring about Catholic emancipation. Political labels mask the underlying problem, which has roots in plantation and confession, but which has survived for hundreds of years wearing whatever political clothes befit the times.

It’s worse than you want to admit

Imagine a country whose most lasting division is into two groups who rarely intermarry, and in some parts of the inner city barely even meet. Everyone brought up in one of these groups knows instinctively where this divide lies and what its history contains. They all know what side of the line they (and others) come from, no matter how hard they try to ignore it. Previous governments have used it as an excuse for repression, and the effects are felt even today in both politics and wider society.

I’m talking about blacks and whites in the USA, of course. But when we see this description applied to ourselves we put our fingers in our ears and insist it’s not an ethnic conflict. Aren’t we all the same race, after all? We may look the same, and yet I challenge you to tell the difference between a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot if you passed them on the street. We speak the same language, but then so did Serbs and Croats. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

We already have a solution – but you won’t like it

Since we don’t have names for such an ethnic division in NI, we delude ourselves into thinking it isn’t real. If something doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t exist. But despite all I have said above, we do have such names. They are perfect names because they describe the ethnic divide succinctly and precisely. Everyone in NI knows exactly what they mean, and they are used every single day. They’re just not considered polite.

Huns and Taigs.

Wait, I hear you cry. We don’t need these ugly pejoratives. They’re just synonyms for more polite, more acceptable words; they don’t have a distinct meaning. This is understandable, but it is nonsense. To prove it to yourself, consider the following four questions carefully, and answer them honestly.

1. If a Hun joins the Hare Krishnas, is he still a Hun?
2. If a Taig converts to Buddhism, is he still a Taig?
3. If a Taig joins the UUP, is he still a Taig?
4. If a Hun joins the SDLP, is he still a Hun?

The ordinary folk who are suffering the most from this ethnic conflict know exactly what its nature is, and have come up with pithy, descriptive terms for their everyday experience. Polite society recoils from pithy, descriptive terms, but it does not have adequate “polite” alternatives – perhaps because polite society does not want to admit the truth, that the intellectual concerns of polite society are a polite fiction. It’s not about the Pope, or the structure of church governance. It’s not about the constitution, or the role of monarchy in a modern society. It’s about what tribe has the upper hand.

Might as well get used to it

So we have established that there exist things for which the only accurate names are insults. This may not be so important, were it not for the fact that the Hun/Taig divide in NI is the single most destructive flaw in our society. If we want to fix it, we need to talk about it directly, not through shifty euphemisms such as “Protestant” or “Nationalist”. The first step to recovery is admitting the depth of our problem, and that means straight talking. Since there are no polite alternatives, we must reclaim the pejoratives and be unafraid to use them when no other word will do.

I plan a series of posts to demonstrate how pithy terminology can aid clarity of thought when discussing the conflict in NI. Please feel free to throw in your suggestions.