Archive for April 25th, 2006

Cashier

In front of us at the supermarket checkouts there are two black women queuing with their shopping. The first one pays for hers and heads off, and the second one moves round to the end of the checkout where you normally pack your bags. The checkout attendant lifts the first of her shopping from the conveyor belt, starts passing it through, and asks us if we have a club card. We point out that the shopping is not ours. “Oh sorry,” says the checkout attendant to the woman standing waiting and looking rather puzzled. “I thought you were with the other woman.”

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Northern Irishnesslessness

This is the last post I am going to write on Northern Ireland/the North for a while, because:

  • It is depressing;
  • It induces the most egregious mental contortions, without much reward, as you get the impression you are saying a lot when in fact you are saying very little;
  • I have far more important things to write about, like burglar alarms and Fidel Castro biographies and stuff

Anyway. Further to my, ah, painstaking research conducted yesterday, here are some possible reasons why practically no-one writes about Northern Irishness on the internet:

  • No-one is interested in being Northern Irish;
  • Anyone interested in being Northern Irish is not interested in the internet;
  • Anyone interested in being Northern Irish is too busy looking at Ice Hockey websites;
  • There is no such thing.

I suspect that the last is the most likely reason. I suppose I am interested in this because you have to have nationalism, in the general sense, before you can have a nation. Talk of Northern Irishness would indicate that there was some sort of Northern Irish nationalism, and by extension, some possibility that you could have a Northern Irish nation like you have an English one or a Scottish one.

You can argue that nations are very messy affairs, and many are, but they do help to lend cohesiveness to a society, and a sense of common enterprise. They also facilitate public discourse, and the idea of a nation allows people to talk about what ought to happen with the space they live in and the people they live with. Unchecked, certain types of national evolution may also lead to the invasion of Poland or the subjugation of entire continents, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of a nation – whether it has a corresponding state or not – is a bad thing in itself.

In England, the idea of the nation unifies people because they are able to sit about stroking their chins wondering about what Englishness is and getting all dewy-eyed about the Queen. In the Republic of Ireland, the idea of the nation unifies people because they able to blame foreigners for the carnage on their national roads.

In Northern Ireland, there is no common nationalism, but two competing nationalisms, and this is one of the reasons why the place can be such a dump. One of the best things that can be said of Irish nationalists is that they generally hold that unionists are their countrymen. OK, so some among them might have been inclined to bomb same countrymen from time time, but it’s the thought that counts, innit?

On the other hand, political unionism seldom considers Northern nationalists as their countrymen, even though most were born in the same country. Or, they can be their countrymen, but they have to become unionists first. Sometimes you get the feeling that unionists are kind of embarrassed about Northern Ireland. They talk about Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom, where Britishness is preserved and Britishness can be anything you want it to be, but they don’t seem to have any other vision for it.

The above two paragraphs are a very rough sketch of how it works at the level of party political declarations, newspaper op-eds, Talkback phone-ins and weblog debates. It can be surprising to the outsider that this sort of thing doesn’t really hold at a more mundane, human level. There are plenty of unionists who get on perfectly well with nationalists and vice versa, at work and at social gatherings – the pub, the golf club, whatever – and have no problem seeing the ‘opposite side’ (a typical term in media and political discourse) as their countrymen, even though the country itself is far from defined.

This is not to say that it’s love unlimited, but the picture presented is simplified far too often. The problem is that progress gets halted -reversed even- under the current structure, where media, governments and political parties divide all things in terms of unionist and nationalist, British and Irish, and this division is seductive to lots of people, especially when it is the division itself that provides a path to power. Identity politics short-circuits any other form of politics, yet existing solutions seem to focus on a better form of identity politics through parity in ‘cultural’ subsidies, sectarian designations in assemblies, and so on and so forth. This is rather like saying that to overcome your drink problem, you should give up drinking WKD and get stuck into the Remy Martin.

Yet I don’t think that an NIO-sponsored Northern Irishness promoting soda farls, George Best and Van Morrison is the answer, any more than labelling everything as either British or Irish is.

Rather, and this is a crude way of putting it, I think there has to be some sort of willingness of people who see themselves as nationalist to engage with the more ‘British’ elements of what they see as their culture, and people who see themselves as unionist to examine the more ‘Irish’ elements of theirs. No-one living there is ‘simply Irish’ or ‘simply British’, and it is an act of cultural chauvinism and of historical denial to define oneself as such. Moreover, there is nothing to be lost -apart from aforesaid cultural chauvinism- in confronting and exploring the more complex currents and influences that make up one’s identity. By so doing, the future can be imagined in more liberating forms, rather than being manacled by the Easter Rising or the 12th of July.


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