No Passports

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Complexity needs a voice (this also applies to newer emigrant groups on both islands). Politics and autobiography, politics and culture, can drift too far apart. Gaps in the public discourse of the UK and the Irish Republic allow ethnic assertion to punch above its weight. And then there is poetry. ( 5,000 words)

Edna Longley
8 January 2013

Don’t mention Northern Ireland

‘Entwine’ is a benign metaphor. Among its synonyms are ‘braid’, ‘interlace’, ‘embrace’, ‘plait’ and ‘weave’: words that evoke feminine crafts or gentle contact, words remote from the workings of power. ‘Lives Entwined’, like the former propaganda image of Britannia with her protective arm around Hibernia, softens the blows of history. Even so, the metaphor may be less a euphemism than a measure of what can now be said. Independent Ireland is no longer consumed by the ideological or rhetorical need to maximise its differences from the British state. As for the border: a Polish friend who crossed it in the 1980s was amazed to find no passport needed there or at any other Irish-British frontier. We forget how remarkable this is – even despite the suspicion of Irishmen travelling to Britain during the Troubles, airline protocols since 9/11, and current immigration controls in both jurisdictions.

Modern Irish autobiography, a prolific and increasingly studied genre, is often shaped by a sense that its author’s story contradicts a powerful national narrative. One factor is certainly the hazy zone between Irishness and Britishness: criss-crossed by countless family histories. I sometimes see Northern Ireland as the archipelago’s unconscious: the repository of awkward history it wants to forget. Irish experience in the World Wars is a case in point. Historians, biographers, autobiographers, novelists, poets and dramatists have explored its facets so insistently as to affect the politics of Irish commemoration. Poppies are still unlikely to be worn in west Belfast, and not every Unionist or Nationalist politician wants to make joint trips to the Somme. Yet quite a few (including politicians from the Republic) have visited the battlefields and cemeteries.

Of course, for practical as well as ideological reasons – because we live where we do – we lose or suppress elements in our background. Or we may deliberately recover them to assert a particular identity. The so-called ‘Irish in Britain’, with their variables of generation, class, religion and region, occupy every shade of the spectrum from what is termed ‘ethnic fade’ (assimilation into the host culture) to ethnic assertion. Individual shades fluctuate too: one person might run through the spectrum in a day. The liberating concept of ‘overlapping identities’ is as relevant here as in Northern Ireland. 

The Belfast Agreement itself simplifies shades of identity by assuming a permanent dualism of Orange and Green. When liberals object, they are told that there is no political alternative. Yet complexity needs a voice (this also applies to newer emigrant groups on both islands). Politics and autobiography, politics and culture, can drift too far apart. Gaps in the public discourse of the UK and the Republic allow ethnic assertion to punch above its weight. 

Political limbo 

Living in Belfast, that pandemonium of ethnic assertion, I sometimes feel Irish in Britain, sometimes British in Ireland, usually neither. This seems fine – although it also means I inhabit a political limbo. A little autobiography may explain why I support devolution all round; why I am sensitive to gaps between lived culture and ‘national’ politics; and why another of my images for the North is as a corridor (with innumerable doors) between Ireland and Britain. I came to Belfast (in 1963) from Dublin, a city whose British links are manifested in a very different way. The poet Louis MacNeice salutes Dublin as: ‘Fort of the Dane, / Garrison of the Saxon, / Augustan capital / Of a Gaelic nation, / Appropriating all / The alien brought ...’ 'Dublin' (1939). A refrain in the poem dwells on Dublin’s Augustan architectural heritage: ‘grey brick upon brick’. Yet I feel at home in redbrick Belfast, despite lingering culture shock, because the city’s tangled affiliations match my own. My father, a Catholic from Cork who taught at Trinity College Dublin, left the church because the then Archbishop of Dublin pronounced it a mortal sin to attend that historically Anglican institution. As a result, my sister and I attended a Protestant school (where we wore poppies in November), although my father’s anticlericalism kept religion out of the house. No doubt I also absorbed his belief that Ireland should not have stayed neutral in 1939, and his preference for the BBC over RTE. He remarked that, whatever was happening around the globe, RTE radio news always began with the doings of some Catholic prelate. In fact, my father was influential in reconciling Trinity with Eamon de Valera and the Irish state. But, for some people then, his attitudes would have defined and condemned him as a ‘West Briton’. 

My mother was a ‘North Briton’: a Presbyterian from Glasgow. Both families resented and delayed my parents’ ‘mixed marriage’. Owing to this prenatal brush with sectarianism (another premonition of Belfast), I never see it as only a Northern Irish or Protestant disease. Sectarianism was integral to post-Reformation relations between Britain and Ireland and to the islands’ role in Europe’s religious wars. The Rangers and Celtic fans on the Belfast–Stranraer boat are not only interested in football, nor are their Glasgow peers. Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern inadvertently sided against the Reformation when, on an official visit to Glasgow, he declared himself a Celtic fan. In the early 20th century, large-scale Irish Catholic emigration to the west of Scotland sparked off Protestant bigotry and tribal clashes. Both have diminished, but the Scottish Executive is currently trying to eradicate their subtle and not-so-subtle traces. The secularisation of society in the archipelago, if uneven across time and space, is surely underrated as a force in Irish-British rapprochement. There was a time (still not entirely over) when Catholic Ireland refused to liberalise legislation in areas such as reproduction and divorce, and exported problems to Britain. There was a time when the (Anglican) Church of Ireland wondered whether its members should leave the country. There was a time when the Church of Scotland complained that Irish Catholic immigration was threatening Scottish ethnicity. I should have wondered why my father never accompanied us on holidays to Scotland. 

As a child, I knew Belfast only as the place to where you took a train to catch the Scottish boat. The North was literally a corridor then. My husband, born in Belfast to parents who had migrated from London, entered the corridor at the other end. His mother was half-Jewish. Given our children’s genealogical mix, I like the fact that Belfast, up to a point, lets you live in three places at once: Northern Ireland, Britain, the Republic. As local and Irish-British media intermingle, you can move, mentally at least, to another public domain when a particular set of voices becomes too annoying. This is what it means to inhabit a European borderland, even if not every citizen reads every newspaper or has the inclination or freedom to culture-surf. The downside is that you can be politically depressed in three places at once. 

But when Dublin or London metropolitans think of ‘Britain’ and ‘Ireland’, they rarely have Belfast’s mixed messages in mind. They picture ‘England’, even southern England. They picture southern or western Ireland. It took time before the ‘Anglo–Irish’ Agreement of 1985 was renamed ‘British–Irish’: the hyphenation that now covers all intergovernmental dealings, if not the Irish–Britishness of Northern Ireland itself. People in the Republic are as liable as the English to substitute ‘England’ for ‘Britain’. In Through Irish Eyes someone says of Northern Ireland: ‘It’s very English though. It’s been under English rule for so long that I’d say they’re more English than Irish.’ That’s bad news not only for those Protestants who call themselves ‘Ulster Scots’ (see below) or ‘Irish Unionists’, but also for northern Nationalists. Such misperceptions have several sources: the Republic’s memory of the Anglo–Irish ‘ascendancy’ class; Anglo-centrism in the UK itself; the locations and dominant accents of the sovereign governments; the fact that Irish emigration to England has been more noticed than Irish emigration to Scotland (much of the latter came from Ulster); the historical bias of Anglicanism and Catholicism against nonconformist northerly regions. Confusion between Britain-as-island and Britain-as-state does not help. In Ireland it’s not always clear that ‘British culture’ means different things to Gregory Campbell and to the British Council. 

Celtic twilight

Ireland versus England is a seductive antithesis. It produces creativity and comedy – it’s a form of entwining – but it also reproduces stereotype. Even when English stereotypes of the Irish are criticised from a post-colonial angle, each term of the antithesis magnetises the other. For instance, Declan Kiberd begins his well received book Inventing Ireland 3 by saying: ‘If Ireland had never existed, the English would have invented it.’ Delighting in such ‘Anglo–Irish’ paradoxes, and oblivious to ‘Britain’, Kiberd does not so much condemn as continue the notion of England and Ireland as each other’s ‘Other’. This notion derives from 19th century race theory. Matthew Arnold was one of the theorists who notoriously portrayed the ‘Saxon’ as energetic, worldly, phlegmatic and successful; the ‘Celt’ as poetic, spiritual, mercurial and melancholy. These qualities actually attracted him, as they did other authors who promoted the complex of ideas known as ‘Celticism’. George Bernard Shaw laughed at all this in John Bull’s Other Island(1904), as when Larry Doyle tells the Englishman Broadbent: ‘When people talk about the Celtic race, I feel as if I could burn down London ... Do you suppose a man need be a Celt to feel melancholy in Rosscullen?’ More solemnly, post-colonial criticism has argued that Celticism was complicit with Unionism, since Arnold’s ‘ineffectual Celt’ was clearly incapable of self-government. The jury is still out as to whether race theory really affected politics, but its ethnic assumptions were themselves shaped by European power relations. Imperial-industrial Britain was then a success story (to which, of course, the Irish, Scots and Welsh contributed). The French, defeated by Germany in 1871, were seen as a bunch of Celtic losers. To come up to date: it has taken the Republic’s economic boom to turn the Celtic twilight into the Celtic tiger (the stereotypical tide may now have turned once again). 

Yet the Celtic twilight never ceased to affect images of Ireland and Britain – not always to Ireland’s disempowerment. It seems that Celts can gain the world without losing their soul. MacNeice asks in Autumn Journal4, ‘Why do we like being Irish?’ and his answer remains apt: ‘Partly because / It gives us a hold on the sentimental English / As members of a world that never was, / Baptised with fairy water’. Despite Shaw’s efforts, English Hibernophilia is a neglected topic that should have its place alongside English Hibernophobia. The Celt is sexier than the Saxon. In a New Age orchestrated by Enya, it does not benefit Ulster Unionists to boast their ‘Saxon–Scot’ heritage as they once did. Indeed, Scottish tourism is now cashing in on Celtic mystique. Similarly, the editors of the anthology Across the Water: Irishness in Modern Scottish Writing5 see ‘Irish’ qualities in Celtic terms: ‘a come all ye swagger and an elegiac sombreness.’ In a contrasting anthology, The Wee Book of Calvin6, the Scottish poet Bill Duncan attacks neo-Celticism. Satirically proposing to rehabilitate the bleak Calvinist ethos of north-east Scotland, Duncan deplores ‘the Axis of Evil, the unholy amalgam of Zen, Californian, chilled-out, ethnic, post-Hippie, laid-back, Celtic and New Age.’ His anthology both calls up a long cultural history, and makes a contemporary point about the power of deep-laid ethnic ideas. 

Historians also find that powerful assumptions about ‘the English’, ‘the Irish’, etc., are hard to dent. Yet they persevere with their empirical studies, as when micro-history exposes the varied textures of ‘entwining’. The regional geography of the ‘Irish in Britain’ (as of ‘the British in Ireland’) is now being minutely and comparatively mapped. Donald MacRaild’s Culture, Conflict and Migration: the Irish in Victorian Cumbria7 is a micro-study that comes to broader conclusions. MacRaild criticises historians who fail to appreciate how Irish immigration, including the neglected phenomenon of Irish Protestant immigration, has affected British life structurally. He questions excessive stress on the ‘ethnic fade’ pole because, in the 19th century at least, Irishness was not ‘an expatriate identity easily broken down and subordinated to the socio-economic and political imperatives of the wider working class.’ He continues: ‘The idea that Irishness – whether the bullish ultra-loyalism of the Orange brigade or the militant defiance of the Catholic nationalists – might be passed from one generation of migrants to the next, is seen unconsciously ... as an affront to the mythical homogeneity of British life.’ 

Irish ethnicity, not always in tandem with the Irish question, has influenced British politics. For instance, in the 20th century, the Labour Party became the preferred party of Irish Catholic immigrants. Several strands entwined, with historical irony, when John Reid, from the Scottish quarter of that hinterland, became Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In 2002 Reid made a speech designed to allay Unionist fears that Northern Ireland was becoming ‘a cold house for Protestants’. In response, the cultural critic John Wilson Foster charged Reid and Tony Blair not only with failing to assure Protestants of their continuing Britishness, but also with failing to understand that Britishness itself – ‘a complex community of past and present experience’ – does not exist ‘only on the mainland’: ‘What British politicians don’t get is this: all the fundamentals and many of the incidentals, and most of the history, of their culture constitute unionist culture.’ 

For MacRaild, obvious immigrant centres such as Liverpool are far from the whole story. Yet consider a tale of two cities, Liverpool and Belfast. These cities are complementary in their British-Irishness and Irish-Britishness, in the mutations and conflicts produced by unusually intense interpenetration, even in the impacted phonetics of their accents. The Liverpool voice has been called ‘a mix of Welsh, Irish and catarrh’; the Belfast voice (by Philip Larkin): ‘a Glaswegian after two weeks in the United States, screaming for mercy’. Nineteenth-century Belfast, too, was an immigrant city. Catholics and Protestants arrived from rural Ulster (with faction-fights in their baggage) when Belfast, originally a modest Presbyterian town, began its exponential growth amid the industrial-commercial bustle of Lagan, Clyde and Mersey. Liverpool and Belfast once boasted their entrepreneurial, outward-looking profile as ‘Atlantic cities’. This, together with their religious make-up, has fed the notion that they are anomalous in their respective contexts, semi-detached from England or Ireland. In Through Irish Eyes one speaker surmises that ‘most people in Liverpool are hated by the English’ – and Boris Johnson’s notorious attack on the city’s ‘victim culture’ certainly carried traces of anti-Irishness. But Irish immigration to northern England also spanned Cumbria and Northumbria, and Liverpool is ‘English’ in the very fact that it was shaped by conflict between English anti-Catholicism and post-famine Irish immigration. Liverpool Tories played the Orange card until municipal politics became less sectarian after World War Two.

The feeling that Liverpool and Belfast are in the wrong place really stems from what MacRaild calls ‘mythical homogeneity’. This mind set, which equally afflicts nationalist Ireland and metropolitan Britain, wants to deny the fact of interpenetration. For example, Belfast is mostly absent from two kinds of study where it belongs: comparative studies of the Irish in British Victorian cities, and wider historical studies of those cities themselves, such as Tristram Hunt’s Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City8. In the 1960s, Belfast and Liverpool coincided in post-industrial, post-imperial decline. They also coincided in a small piece of cultural compensation when they became the sites of unexpected poetic movements. Individual talents apart, it’s possible to distinguish between the collective aesthetic tilt of the Liverpool poets (Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten) and of the Belfast poets (Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley). The Liverpool poets were immersed in urban popular culture, allied to the Beats and the Beatles. The Belfast poets stressed formalism and high art; their poetic landscapes were at once urban and rural; they preferred classical music, jazz or traditional Irish music to rock. But the two groups shared some of the same influences, and they were alike in being consciously part of a regional resurgence in ‘British poetry’. This mainly northern revolt against metropolitan arbiters also took various shapes in other Victorian redbrick-university cities: Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. And in 1960s Belfast, regional literary self-assertion challenged the authority of Dublin as well as London. 

Poetry as example: lines entwined 

As poetry is language at its most concentrated, it is also ‘entwining’ at its most finely textured. It is a form of micro-study. So ‘Northern Irish’ poetry – a term that some would dispute – epitomises the problem of marking where Ireland ends and Britain begins. 

This does not just mean that poets come from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. Nor does it mean that poets or poems have never taken political stances. To say that literary boundaries are blurred is simply to notice the range of cultural materials that poets exploit in their work. These materials include poetic structure. Seamus Heaney has written: ‘Ulster was British, but with no rights on / The English lyric’9. By playing on ‘British’ and ‘English’, Heaney distinguishes between ‘Britishness’ as a jurisdiction or as Unionism, and the free circulation of English language poetry. There is a sense in which poets from Northern Ireland have collectively remade the ‘English lyric’ – although following in the footsteps of another modern Irish poet who did so, W.B. Yeats. Here Louis MacNeice was a bridging figure. MacNeice’s poetry moves between the islands, between the 1930s poetic movement in Britain and the impact of Yeats. Northern Irish poetry since the 1960s belongs to the same archipelagic orbit in that it picks and mixes from Irish and British traditions – although not only from these. For example, Heaney’s early pastoral landscape has absorbed the imagined Monaghan of Patrick Kavanagh, the imagined Yorkshire of Ted Hughes, and the imagined New England of Robert Frost. His response to such influences was itself influenced by the complications on his Co. Derry doorstep. A darker example of the ‘English lyric’ mutating in the context of Northern Ireland is that poets have also remade the ‘war poem’.

If Northern Irish poetry since 1960 is collectively important – Mark Ford in The Guardian recently spoke of ‘a golden age’10 – this has something to do with the immediacy of difference in the society. Difference should not always be understood antithetically or as competing identities (Ireland versus England). One way in which poets find their own aesthetic (their identity as an artist) is through being alert to affinity and strangeness in other poets’ work. The mix of overlap and distance between the Northern Irish communities has stimulated poets both to define their artistic ground and to extend its horizons. 

Take language. The language question may be conceived in relation to Gaelic, in which some poets write, which some poets translate, and which lurks behind English language poems by Ciaran Carson and others. Or it may be conceived in relation to the Gaelic and Scots idioms that make northern Hiberno–English an unusually rich ‘variety of English’ – a variety with internal variations. Thus all poets are liable to deviate from ‘standard English’. But no real poem is really written in standard English, and poets from Scotland and northern England also tune into regional dialects and phonetics. (Northern) Irish poets may indeed take greater linguistic liberties because they feel at once inside and outside English. Such feelings are sometimes ascribed to the loss or consciousness of Gaelic. Yet not all Irish poets are haunted by Gaelic, and it may be more significant that English itself has acquired new contexts, associations, shades and possibilities. (Yeats, who had no Gaelic, saw his Hiberno–English idiom as distinct from the inferior language available to English poets.) In Ulster, for instance, the proximity of Catholicism to several brands of Protestantism has affected the metaphysics of word and image in an almost seventeenth-century manner. Finally, at every linguistic level the poetry involves intercultural conversations. This occurs both within and between poems. 

Language questions tend to be complex in poems, simpler in raging debates about culture and politics. Similarly, although there are ‘no rights on the English lyric’, literature may be co-opted for political purposes, including nationalistic purposes (the British Council cannot escape a tinge of suspicion here). Yet literature may also threaten a nation’s ‘mythical homogeneity’. The Irish Revival was attacked by those nationalists who looked to Gaelic, rather than to literature in English. It is one measure of change that linguistically based Irish cultural nationalism, a partly rhetorical form of self-differentiation from Britain, has lost ground. Literary pluralism prevails. Yet this makes careful protocols all the more necessary in the English language sphere. Consider the titles of poetry anthologies. Heaney made a celebrated protest when his work was included for the third time in an anthology with ‘British’ in its title: The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982). Heaney wrote a verse-letter that included this rebuke: ‘The passport’s green. / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen’. 

Yet Heaney’s passport did not really draw a line in the sand. The main result of his intervention – a good result – is a crop of contemporary anthologies with ‘British and Irish’ or ‘Britain and Ireland’ in their titles. I myself edited The Bloodaxe Book of 20th Poetry from Britain and Ireland (2000). My title refers to islands, not jurisdictions, and it does not imply that every poem belongs decisively on one or other side of the Irish Sea. When compiling the anthology, I read across the islands as well as the century. I found myself comparing varieties of pastoral and varieties of city poem, tracking the mutations of war poetry, observing how religious backgrounds shape poetic vision. There are both likenesses between, and differences within, the poetry of both islands. (To appreciate all the regional permutations requires a historical anthology, one that includes the Celtic languages as well as Scots.) Of course, ‘national’ anthologies would provide different contexts for the poems I chose. The value of the ‘from Britain and Ireland’ anthology is that it reveals poetic qualities and meanings less visible in the national anthology – or the international ‘modern’ anthology. One result, indeed, is to highlight national distinctiveness where it genuinely exists. 

‘Our islands’ 

If poetry epitomises ‘entwining’, compiling an anthology epitomises the problem of how to think about ‘Britain and Ireland’. In recent years, historians have been discussing the merits of ‘archipelagic history’, ‘Atlantic history’, or the ‘new British history’: that is, history written from multiple perspectives rather than from a single national viewpoint. In his influential The British Isles: A History of Four Nations11, Hugh Kearney argues: ‘To concentrate upon a single “national” history, which is based upon the political arrangements of the present, is to run the risk of being imprisoned within a cage of partial assumptions, which lead to the perpetuation of ethno-centric myths and ideologies.’ Even today nations are not necessarily homogeneous – the Scottish critic Cairns Craig maintains that all nations are ‘suspended civil wars’. Archipelagic history attends to regions and subnational units, to migrations and diaspora: an approach that happens to illuminate Ulster’s role at various crossroads of British–Irish history. The historian Jane Dawson has said that, in seventeenth century studies, Ulster ‘helps to shift traditional mental and geographical maps.’

The same principles apply to literary history. If national narratives of Irish or Scottish literature fail to tell the whole story, one reason is that they exclude works that are – in whatever sense – Anglo–Irish or Anglo–Scottish. As Cairns Craig notes, this allows ‘the English literary tradition’ to seem more coherent, and the literature of the other countries more fragmented, than is actually the case. Craig argues: ‘We need to escape from the bloated digestive tract of a conception of English studies and “British” history that falsifies both itself and its related cultures in an effort to see them as branches on a single rooted tree’. Irish-Scottish studies have become one means of escape, as they offer an alternative axis. Yet part of the Irish-Scottish enterprise must be to compare experiences in the ‘digestive tract’.

A third way of understanding British–Irish relations is in ‘post-colonial’ terms. Insofar as post-colonial thinking focuses on power, it might be a corrective to ‘entwining’ (like ‘digestive tract’). But insofar as it ignores the specifics of archipelagic history, it might be a blunt instrument. In fact, there is a difference between post-colonial thinking that is cultural nationalism by other means, and post-colonial thinking that questions nationalism along with empire. The latter is closer to an archipelagic framework in that it focuses on interaction, mutation and hybridity. In Ireland and Empire12, Stephen Howe criticises post-colonial critics who draw analogies with the third world. He places Irish history in the context of internal European colonialism and nationalism, and concludes: ‘A colonial past, then, yes; though one that took unique hybrid forms, involving extensive integration and consensual partnership as well as exploitation and coercion.’ 

Post- or anti-colonialism is also a state of mind. One reason why Irish (and Scottish) intellectuals are attracted to this form of thinking is because, as Cairns Craig implies, power in their own sphere of operation has been so weighted towards the metropolis and the English academy. Perhaps it’s more an issue of province and metropolis than of colony and metropolis. Ireland’s size means that Dublin can never become wholly independent of London media. To cite literature again: if Ireland and Britain comprise a literary free trade area – with Heaney and Muldoon having held the Oxford Chair of Poetry, with Irish novelists eligible for the Booker prize – it should also be remembered that London publishers, editors and reviewers have more clout than their counterparts in Ireland or Scotland. It does not always change things if the former are expatriate Irish or Scots. 

To place Irish-British relations in a European context is not necessarily to make them easier – although it reinforces the argument that the EU is crucial to their resolution. To quote Howe: ‘we can perhaps see the conflict in Northern Ireland not so much as a belated anti-colonialist struggle on the Afro-Asian model, but rather as a precursor of the renewed battles over identity and sovereignty which have since 1989 disfigured more and more of Europe’s south-east and east.’ Northern Ireland is the reason why post-colonial thinking, in the Irish context, merges with cultural nationalism. Perhaps all debates come down to a choice between seeing Northern Ireland (and Irish-British relations) as either very simple – the workings of colonial power, a zero-sum ‘battle over identity’ – or very complex. Poets from Northern Ireland obsessively juxtapose images of simple duality and images of multiplicity. For instance, Paul Muldoon’s recent poem ‘Whitethorns’13 a hopeful parable of the peace process, contrasts ‘paling posts’ hammered into the ground to separate two fields ‘more than thirty years ago’, with what the posts have now become: ‘maxed-out, multi-layered whitethorns, affording us a broader, deeper shade / than ever we decently hoped to know’. 

A decade before the Good Friday Agreement, poetry influenced what was called the ‘cultural traditions’ (later ‘cultural diversity’) concept. Although government-sponsored, and thus suspect to some, the concept interested many constituencies at a time when politicians were not really speaking. And it produced many tangible outcomes such as the Irish language body Ultach Trust and cultural programmes initiated by district councils. The spirit of that time can be gauged from the proceedings of conferences such as ‘Varieties of Irishness’ (1989), ‘Varieties of Britishness’ (1990) and ‘All Europeans Now?’ (1991)14. But the problem with debating culture in lieu of politics is that politics take it back. Whitethorns become paling posts again. While Northern Ireland’s complex strands have indeed been exposed and explored, some politicians now use ‘tradition’ as a weapon of cultural cold war. Take language again. Ultach Trust struggles against Sinn Fein’s politicisation of Gaelic; attention to the Scots elements in Ulster speech has renewed the Unionist ethnic ideology of the ‘Saxon-Scot’ or ‘Ulster Scot’. This polarisation denies Protestants’ historical involvement with the Irish language. It denies that the speech of Catholics may be inflected with Scots.

The Unionist claim to Scottishness, like Sinn Fein’s version of Irishness, is an ingrown product of the Northern Irish culture war. It ignores contemporary Scotland, together with the fact that historical criss-crossings between Ulster and Scotland cut two religious and linguistic ways. Scotland contains Celtic fans and Gaelic-speaking Presbyterians, and, in its devolutionary mode, is far more attracted to the Irish Republic than to the sectarian history it shares with Northern Ireland. At the same time, there is much traffic between Northern Ireland and Scotland, and a new migration of Ulster Protestants into Scottish universities. One reason why Unionists reach for the Scottish strands in the Anglo-Scottish patchwork of British settlement in Ulster is because Presbyterianism (also numerically larger than Anglicanism) serves to distance them from the Republic where most Protestants are Anglicans. But the Ulster Scots phenomenon also belongs to a broader context: the scenario that Tom Nairn dubbed ‘the break-up of Britain’. The increasing literature on this theme mostly agrees that the old Britishness has collapsed, and that only the English and Ulster Protestants cling to its wreckage. Certainly, the metropolitan centre and the contested frontier are most vulnerable to the collapse of any ideology that binds a multinational state. A more dubious proposition is that, having relied (for different reasons) on Britishness as an overarching identity, the English and Ulster Protestants now need to work on their own ethnic or cultural credibility. The death of ‘Britain’ may be exaggerated. And to assert an English or Ulster-Scottish ethnicity would be another dead end – given the entwined, entangled strands that make up England and Northern Ireland, let alone ‘our islands’. 

In fact, the more entwining the better. Debates about diversity are no longer confined to Northern Ireland. When people in Britain and the Republic confront newer issues of ethnic or religious identity, perhaps their thinking should be informed by the Northern Irish debates; by British-Irish history; and by awareness of how political interests can freeze identities. 

About forty years ago the Republic of Ireland emerged from an identity-fixated deep freeze. As Tom Garvin puts it in Preventing the Future15, nationalist Ireland tried to ‘build up the country behind tariff barriers and cultural barriers.’ One problem with Through Irish Eyes is its concept of the Republic’s ‘successor generation’: economically confident and thus able to face Britain without hang-ups. There have been at least two-and-a-half successor generations since the founding of the Irish state, and I am a slightly jaundiced member of one of them. The British and Irish governments must remain focused on their new relationship, if they are to make up for the lost time that allowed the Northern Irish crisis to incubate. In Northern Ireland, a more culturally hybridised 'successor generation' has barely got underway. Sinn Fein and the DUP are still unable to write the long-mooted document 'A Shared Future': to put their incompatible 'aspirations' on the back-burner. And this political failure is a key reason why neither dissident Republicanism nor potential Loyalist violence has gone away.

1  Logue, P., ed, Being Irish, Oak Tree Press, 2000.

2  Devine, T. & Logue, P., eds, Being Scottish, Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

3  Declan Kibe, Inventing Ireland, Jonathan Cape, 1995.

4  Louis MacNeice, Autumn Journal, Faber, 1939.

5  McGonigal et al., eds,  Across the Water: Irishness in Modern Scottish Writing, Argyll Publishing, 2000.

6  The Wee Book of Calvin, Penguin, 2004.

7  Donald MacRaild, Culture, Conflict and Migration: the Irish in Victorian Cumbria, Liverpool University Press, 1998.

8  Tristram Hunt, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, Orion, 2004.

9  Seamus Heaney, ‘The Ministry of Fear' from the sequence, 'Singing School' in North, Faber, 1975.

10 Mark Ford reviewing To a Fault (Faber) by Nick Laird, a young poet from Northern Ireland,  The Guardian, 12 February 2005.

11  Hugh Kearney, The British Isles: A History of Four Nations, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

12  Stephen Howe, Ireland and Empire, Oxford University Press, 2000.

13  Paul Muldoon, Moy Sand and Gravel, Faber, 2002.

14  Conferences organised by the Cultural Traditions Group of the Community Relations Council in Northern Ireland.

15  Tom Garvin, Preventing the Future, Gill & Macmillan, 2004.



For the full version see this article first published in 2005, in the first volume of the British Council series, Britain and Ireland: Lives Entwined. The fourth volume was commissioned by openDemocracy Editor Rosemary Bechler in autumn, 2012.  She would like to thank the British Council Northern Ireland, the British Council Ireland and the authors, for the chance to republish here a selection of articles from the series. 


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