by Nick Wright
ON A DAY out along the Antrim coast in June this year I realised I was going native on Northern Ireland. It is not just the landscape, which is of unparalleled beauty, but the people. I am, of course, biased. Who wouldn’t be after the man with the Portstewart Maude’s ice-cream franchise gave me a free Poor Bears to celebrate my birthday.
I first went to the North in the mid-70s with a delegation of London trade unionists. We were met with great hospitality by each of the political parties. The one who made the strongest impression was the now predictably deceased leader of the UDA’s political front, who eventually lost his rag under my gentle probing to tell me that I was typical of the English who didn’t understand “us Irish” and that he did not understand us. It made me realise that I was British and he wasn’t. I suspect from the look of revelation on his face as he uttered the words that he did too.
Half a lifetime later, and married into a family from a town so Prod that even the leaves turn orange, I am beginning to understand how the complex web of myth and reality that for people in the Six Counties constitutes their identities is beginning to unravel.
For most people in Britain, Northern Ireland is a foreign land. It is not simply a question of politics. No British political party has any serious purchase in Northern Ireland, and the rhetoric of the political formations in the North has no resonance in Britain except among an Empire Loyalists trend more closely associated with fascism than any other ideology.
It is not simply a question of religion. For most people in Britain, religious institutions play little or no part in their lives, and religious belief does not shape their self-image or identity or guide their actions. This is not the case in the North.
An example: two middle-aged Protestant women I know from Co. Down pitched up to the ultra-loyalist protest about the Belfast City hall flag issue. They went with a group from their church in opposition to the loyalists. The significant fact is that they were mobilised through their church—almost inconceivable in Britain.
The truth is that the British identify with the Irish as a whole, and for most people in Britain the distinction between Irish and Loyalist is one that works to categorise the latter as the “other,” as different, as alien. And for that section of the population who remain attached to loyalism, the external symbols of their identity and, more importantly, the internalised character of their existential dilemma, serve to distinguish them from all that is essentially British.
Even around such superficially shared symbols of the Union as Remembrance Day and the wearing of the poppy, the differences between Northern Ireland and Britain are marked. Where wearing a red poppy is freighted with sectarian significance in Northern Ireland, in Britain controversy centres on arguments about whether or not wearing it can be read as support for Britain’s current foreign adventures.
Loyalists have nowhere to go within the British polity. Such privileges that accrued to Protestant workers under the crown have gone or are now disappearing under the blue flag and yellow stars of the EU.
A few years ago I pitched up in Tralee on holiday at the same time as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions was meeting. On a sweltering hot day I slipped into a town-centre bar for a pint and fell into conversation with a lad—a delegate from Belfast, as it turned out—who, unaccountably, was wearing a sweater with the sleeves rolled down. He had never been south before and was scared to show his regimental tattoos for fear that the Fenians would abduct him. Instead they tried with great humour, at his and their expense, to get him drunk.
Contrast his groundless fears with the uncomplicated thinking of the throngs of British hen and stag parties who nightly make Dublin hideous; or the millions cheering on the Irish as English high streets were decked out in green, white and orange in the World Cup after England, predictably, crashed out.
What does this mean for working-class politics? British trade unions increasingly treat their Irish membership as a separate category, thus reflecting the reality that the negotiating framework and the political context, including governmental institutions, operate under different conditions from Britain. And the less comfortable fact that Irish interests are inevitably marginal in their calculations.
Search for Northern Ireland on the British TUC web site and you get a report of a debate on the peace process from 1998, praise for British civil servants, and a statement from 2005 welcoming Northern Ireland’s smoking ban.
People in the North, but especially trade unionists, need to think strategically about the kind of future that is possible. Is it as supplicants to the British state, special pleading for a privileged provincial status, a kind of North Atlantic Falklands welfare state? Or is it something more sustainable in a globalised economy, where challenging the power of transnational corporations and the international bodies that underpin their power—the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Union, and NATO—depends more on genuine working-class internationalism, rational strategies that take account of the actual framework in which working-class action is most easily mobilised, and co-ordinated action across real borders?
Much of Loyalism’s political discourse seems, to a British observer, deeply unambitious. It is about securing or maintaining rapidly diminishing marginal privileges, claiming the symbols of a lost ascendancy, asserting a subaltern supremacy in a provincial pecking order that can have little purchase in a world where investment decisions that shape the character of production—and thus the shape of the working class—are not amenable to what remains, little more than local government.
At a subterranean level, many people in Northern Ireland understand the fragile foundations upon which the present arrangements rest. The business interests, always forward-thinking, see even in the midst of the Republic’s economic difficulties real possibilities. This goes as much for the notionally Unionist business community as well as the unashamedly cosmopolitan and transnational firms.
The City Hall flag-wavers, or rather the cynical elements behind them, are the redundant fag end of an era. They may be the last people on the island to see just how much their actions and words distinguish them from Britain and the British. But when they do they will understand just how Irish they really are.