Future Ireland: Alternative conversations about unity and the union

Over at Slugger, David McCann and I are running a series of articles on the topic ‘Future Ireland: Alternative conversations about unity and the union’. The gist of the project is here.

We’re trying to think about the possible constitutional futures of this place in a more imaginative way. It’s about creative problem solving, honest reflection and data-driven knowledge creation.

Many of us will take positions on unity or the union, but the overall body of work is wide open. We want to know how the future looks and feels as a mother, a farmer, a migrant, a loyalist, an atheist, a small business owner, a Dublin renter, a born-again Christian, an Irish speaker, someone with a disability, a GP, a worker…

The aim is to engage in a different way with a difficult topic. The only criteria is that articles have to look to the future, not just the past.

If you see this before 15th November 2015, there’s a writing competition.

Ideas and pitches still welcome after this date. Just email me at claire@sluggerotoole.com or David at deputy@sluggerotoole.com.

If you want to keep up with the conversation on Slugger, click here.

Future Ireland: Where Can The North Thrive?

Originally posted on Slugger O’Toole, 4th September 2018.

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Future Ireland: Where Can The North Thrive?

For some masochistic reason, I feel umbilically connected to the soil and the soul of this island.

Especially this messed up northern corner of it.

But there is no point in drawing borders in the soil, and driving flags into it, when it only has 60 more years of harvests left to give.

It occurred to me recently that the best case scenario for Northern Ireland, as things stand, is to have a mediocre Brexit, for Stormont to limp back, for orange and green politics to trundle along – outraged, binary, stuck. To ditch the petition of concern, squeak through equal marriage, and get some kind of limited abortion rights. To keep passing on cuts with a two year delay.

Surely we can do better than this?

My kids will be in their 60s when the soil packs in, unless something changes. They’ll have lived lives very different to mine. Digital, virtual lives. Entwined with artificial intelligence. They may not go to university like I did – who could afford it? Their work may be even more precarious than mine, if there is much work left for humans to do. Many of their friends will be refugees, or refugees will live behind a wall. Because that is what our current geo-politics and climate tipping-point suggest. 

I see my job as training my kids up to navigate this brave new world, to help the heart of it beat, or at least not to be the assholes. 

Literally the only question we should be asking in Northern Ireland right now, is how can we face this uncertain future best? How can future people live well here?

I am taking our overlapping identities and relationships here as given. We, as people, are so much less divided than our politics would have you think. Most of us actually like each other. We want to know each other better, and want pretty similar things for our kids’ futures.

I know it may not always look like this. That it benefits political parties to play identity politics. And that we’re numb to it now. But we actually don’t have time for it.

I’ve always been an armchair Dissenter. A Protestant who feels Irish and who wants Irish unity. But something has shifted. I now feel the need to say it out loud.

It’s not for unity’s sake. Or because I think Irishness is a superior identity. Or Brits out. Because there are many things I like about Britain. And part of me is that Brit.

It’s because this place of Northern Ireland has ceased to make sense to me. We are terminally neglected, happily corrupt and economically sinking. Our divisions have been artificially frozen by our governance. We exile many of our young, our creatives, our queers, our entrepreneurs, our thinkers. And who could blame them for going?

My politics is shaped by a desire for grassroots decision making. And so a lot my hope for Irish unity is about having a smaller unit of democracy. People being bigger fishes in a smaller pond. Inside a state that vaguely gives a damn.

It’s rooted in observing how Ireland has learned to have civic conversations with itself over the last decade. Its openness to changing its mind.

Some of it is environmental – seeing the island of Ireland as an ecological unit in a likely future of food and energy insecurity.

Some of it is Brexity. I want my EHIC card dammit. To be part of something outward looking rather than inward.

There are deep problems and ironies embedded in this kind of argument for unity. The Irish state is as broken as other European states. Like the UK, Ireland is big on corporate tax breaks and riven with deep inequalities. Climate chancers. No-one I know can afford to live in Dublin. Every air punch for an Irish success is followed by a face-palm.

But Ireland is changing. It’s a small open democracy, economically nimble, capable of grown-up civic dialogue and rapid cultural adaptation, as its current disentanglement with Catholicism shows.

There is people power afoot. The Citizens’ Assembly, referendums, the water charges movement, housing activism, divestment from fossil fuels. Successive Irish governments may not like it, but they’re slowly being forced to respond.

There are also positive things happening in the British left, that could change a lot of lives. But if there’s one thing we agree on in Northern Ireland, it’s that we’ll never be a priority for Britain. Brexit – estrangement by a thousand cuts – makes this clearer than ever.

But there is no point in talking about the future of Northern Ireland if we are not having a conversation about why we want unity or the union. If and how things could be better. We need to shape a conversation that places Ireland in the future not just the past. To talk about industrial strategies, ageing populations, renewables, housing co-ops, automation, mental health, food security, privacy and surveillance, universal basic income…

At this crossroads, unity makes sense to me. But ultimately we need to decide what will help future people thrive.

We can talk about who owns the soil all day long, but I’d prefer to know if anything will actually be able to grow in it.

What should I tell my kids about the 12th July?

Published on Slugger O'Toole, 13th July 2018. Talkback followed up with an hour's discussion on 16th July. It was an interesting debate, with plenty of depth.

If I had to write this again, I think I would focus a little more on the Catholic (and indeed Protestant and Other) exodus on 12th week. The fact that I have some Catholic friends who can never bear to be in town at this time of year. And I would push the critique of the Orange Order further.

But this is what got written in the moment, during the slightly dazed, tense, confusion of 11th & 12th nights.

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What should I tell my kids about the 12th July?

My kids always ask me what the flags are about. They find the black ones scary. But this year they were very impressed by the bunting and fresh Union Jacks in our area.

‘It’s making me feel very British’, said my five year old.

‘Me too, it makes me proud to be British’, added the seven year old.

‘That’s interesting,’ I said, thinking about their Irish passports in the drawer. And the fact that they tried to turn bath water into holy water last night.

‘Do you feel British?’, they asked.

How to make friends and influence people, Northern Ireland style.

‘A little bit’, I replied, ‘I mostly feel Irish. But it’s great that you feel British. And the good thing about living in Northern Ireland is that we get to be two things, Irish and British, whatever you want.’

A few days later, they asked to go to the 12th July parades.

I’d only been to the 12th, outside of work, once before when I was little. I remember my mum ate the face of my granda for taking us, as she was attempting to bypass the Troubles somehow, keep us out of harms way. It was the early 80s. I’d have probably done the same.

But, as a kid? Great craic. I was disappointed that future expeditions had been vetoed. Then slowly, over the years, I forgot it was quite fun. And this gave way to the idea that the 12th was pretty sinister, to be avoided. A sense which I carried around until I worked with loyalists, and saw how much of this was based on stereotypes and fear. And more than a little snobbery. Social class is as much as a division in this place as religion.

So this year, I decided, we’d go. I wanted my kids to absorb something of the ordinary 12th. To see loyalist culture as part of the warp and weft of life here. As texture and colour. Not as something to be avoided. I was pleased to learn via Facebook that we might bump into some friends from their Catholic school, who are in mixed marriages and had family in the bands. The Woodvale Festival, Greater Shankill Alternatives and Greater Shankill ACT were putting on great events. I was feeling the small ‘c’ in community.

And then it was 10th of July. And the Bloomfield Walkway bonfire, whose smoke I dutifully inhale every year, was too big and too close to the houses. So it was burned before it could be lowered. And the police vans came. Vans upon vans upon vans. And on the 11th July, the bomb scares started. And the Cluan Place bonfire was too close to the houses and had to be dismantled. By private contractors from outside Northern Ireland wearing balaclavas. And not because they admired the locals’ style.

Then the 11th night. A hijacked bus burning. The airport on shutdown. More bomb scares. Chaos all over Belfast, Newtownards and Bangor. Not to mention Derry, this time at the hands of dissident republicans.

I’ve spent too many summers feeling trapped by the 12th. The one where they stole a JCB, and bulldozed the local shop for its ATM. Which stayed closed for 6 months. The ones where you sleep on your mate’s sofa because you can’t get home. Or crap yourself rolling down the car window for random dudes to decide if you can get past or not, while cars around you burn.

And that’s just the tales of a cosseted middle-class Prod. It’s not like it’s my face on the election posters being burned. Or I’m a Catholic looking up at a banner saying ‘Kill all Taigs’. Or a nationalist hemmed into my house, listening to the heavy, steady drum beating outside my door.

I’ll never be at peace with the sectarian aspects of 12th July. Or the violence it often brings. There is no excuse in 2018 for illegal or dangerous bonfires. For people’s faces and effigies to be burned on them, like some messed up voodoo. No place for threats and intimidation. For criminal activity and inciting hate. For hijacking an Ulsterbus ffs - a scarce enough resource in a semi-rural area. One of the lowlights of the year was a tweet (now deleted) of people at the Sandy Row bonfire singing ‘We hate Catholics’, bizarrely to the tune of Tiffany’s ‘I think we’re alone now’. 

But when you’ve seen so many loyalists, including former paramilitaries, busting themselves to stop all these things, and provide viable alternatives for the kids in their areas, the picture starts to get complicated.

I have a knee-jerk reaction to the Orange Order, as a religiously exclusive organisation, but appreciate the structure and mentoring that the bands can give kids and young adults.

I also know the difference between ordinary loyalists and active paramilitaries.

The news said that half a million people were expected at the 12th. How many people orchestrated the 11th night’s violence and intimidation? 100s? How many more thought it was a good idea? 1000s, 10,000s? I don’t know. But it’s not half a million.

So that’s why, despite the horror of the 11th night, and a strong reflex to stay away, I took my five year old to see the parades on 12th.

He liked them.

And I was glad we went. Because it was kids and old people and friends meeting up. Twirling band members and embroidered banners. People letting off steam. Long before peak drunk. And it reminded me that this is how most people, including loyalists, want to experience the 12th.

Indeed it’s mainly loyalist areas that get wrecked by the shit stirrers. Whose asthmatic kids breathe in smoke from burning tyres. Loyalist teenagers who will get criminal records as a result of it all. One taxi driver told us he left a guy home to an estate on the 11th night after a major brain operation, people jumping on his bonnet and shaking the car.

Like or loathe the politics, loyalists are a largely structurally abandoned bunch. Brunt bearers of our broken legacy of mental health. Test cases for austerity. Thrown SIF money as a panacea, so no-one important has to feel bad about watching loyalist areas slowly drown. Wash our hands, let the lads sort it out. 

This is no excuse for violence. But it is context.

And here I have these tiny people, unaware of the pain of politics in Northern Ireland. In the relative safety of the daytime, they’re loving the flags and the flamboyance. They’re identifying this as a love of Britishness. And I’m up for exploring this with them, even if it’s not my cup of tea. I want us to know our neighbours, of all traditions.

But my kids will soon discover the news, and they’ll see the contradictions for themselves. They’ll see the dark side of the 12th. We drove past five burning cars on 11th. That’s why my seven year old refused to come to the parade. They’ll soon be able to identify that sound overhead as a police helicopter.

They’re blank slates now. But soon they will fill the category ‘Britishness’ up with meaning. The flags won’t just seem festive; they will demand a response.

So I look to the Orange Order, the DUP and UUP, and even the paramilitaries. And I think, what are you going to do about this? Does the leadership we saw this year from John Kyle, Gavin Robinson and Doug Beattie show the way? The silence from most others was deafening. Would it be rude to suggest that having a chaos button is handy? Or that silence works well for not losing votes?

Are your organisations going to lead your people out of chaos and sectarianism? Or turn a blind eye? Or throw twitter petrol on real life fires? What’s the long-term plan?

Because this 11th night bullshit does not represent, or serve, the loyalists I know. It will win no friends and influence no-one. It is simply an act of self-harm, inflicted on an already precarious union.

I voted for peace, and all I got was this lousy culture war

I posted this on Slugger last week, and was surprised how few people were angry with me this time. There is an edgy, awkward air in Northern Ireland at the moment. It's not going to be a conflagration. But everything is changing politically. And we haven't even found words for it yet. This article seemed to tap into the confused frustration that so many of us are feeling at the minute. It's hard to be patient.

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I voted for peace, and all I got was this lousy culture war

I found this week’s 20 year commemoration of the Agreement quite surreal. Maybe it was because I was sick at home in my pyjamas and missed out on the bling of the big events. No basking in the glow of disgraced elderly politicians for me…

Instead, I was more struck by how sad and stuck everything feels right now. It feels like we voted for peace, but all we got was this lousy culture war. By culture war, in this context, I mean this current mud fight between green and orange, ussuns and themmuns, my morality vs your morality, my symbols vs your symbols… Ad infinitum.

How exactly, I wondered, do you commemorate a peace accord on life support?

But then I realised… We’re not all actually engaged in this culture war. Only some of us are. Other stories are available. If largely unreported. I’ll return to this.

The structural reasons for our culture war are well known. Green and orange were built into the architecture of the 1998 Agreement. Designating as unionist or nationalist was incentivised by dishing out jobs and having cross-community votes and vetoes on that basis. Cultural goodies were handed out to each side, scrupulously ignoring the nothings, the neithers and the in-betweens. The green became brighter and the orange became deeper as each side shuffled towards the outer ends of the seesaw to keep the other in balance. The binary became frozen in time. 

But there was probably no other way to get the ball rolling. The two-community model was probably a necessary medicine.

And violence has plummeted. A vote for the DUP or Sinn Féin does not now mean what it once did. It’s not necessarily an endorsement of the past, or even the policies of the present. Some of them even still like each other. Just like we do. Surveys consistently show that regardless of our politics, we still want to mix more, and get to know each other better.

However, here we sit, many draped defensively in our flags, middle fingers up in the polling booths. Some awkwardly voting for parties they never thought they could. Whilst others shake their heads in bewilderment, seeing no way out. Some days it feels like our stereotypes of one another are worse than they have ever been.

What the hell happened?

Or maybe a better question is – what the hell didn’t happen?

For a start, we “forgot” to integrate all the things, as promised in the Agreement. After 20 years of peace, just 7% of schools are integrated. Which is ridiculously low. There must have been some serious resistance to this on the ground.

Oh wait… there wasn’t? 80% of the population would like more mixing in schools, 67% saying that they would specifically prefer a mixed religion school. Hmm.

Similarly, only a tiny handful of shared housing estates have been established. Timidly promoted, and barely protected from paramilitary threats. In contrast, 91% of housing estates in Belfast are classed as single identity. But again, that’s probably because there was no real appetite for mixing?

Nope. 77% of us would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood.

Isn’t it just as well our political leaders knew we were fibbing in surveys and didn’t want to mix after all. I dread to think what might have happened if they’d made a different call.

Or maybe our leaders just lost their courage? Or maybe the big parties simply realised that keeping people apart was a much cleverer politics. Dwindling resources could be hoarded into two big piles for two big ‘communities’. Some might say that this benefited certain people enormously.

Another thing that didn’t happen, is we didn’t deal with the past.

At some point we seem to have settled for our politicians being able to make eye contact in the same TV studio. We threw up shiny buildings, and thought we could maybe shop our way to normality, whilst ignoring the effects of the cuts in the areas most affected by violence.

And in our desire for normal life, we brushed the pain of the conflict under the carpet. We said we’d look after victims. But we didn’t. We thought we might look at narratives of the past, to explore finding empathy with people whose views exploded our brains. But we didn’t. Not you, community workers, you did. But our politicians didn’t. While Westminster whistled and looked the other way. Some might say that this benefited certain people enormously.

Do you remember the late 90s and early 00s though, when we gave it a try? That febrile moment at the start, when we tried to imaginatively get inside the shoes of people born on the other side of the wall, whose experiences differed radically from our own. Do you remember the painful honesty of BBC’s Facing the Truth in 2006? I’ll never forget sitting on my living room carpet, right up close to the TV, mouth gaping open as Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought victims together with their perpetrators, to hear each other’s stories. Can you imagine that now on mainstream TV? I can’t.

We were getting somewhere.

But it was sore. Very sore.

Too many political consequences.

So we just stopped talking about it.

And then we began to fill the silence, and the terminal neglect of our political health, with superstitions and stereotypes and yelling on twitter.

And because we don’t have mechanisms to talk about the past, many of us reverted to familiar stories, handed-down truths, the ones we know are true because we experienced it ourselves. But we’re not hearing from the other side of the wall. From people whose experiences are radically different. Opposite things that they know are true because they experienced it themselves. Both stories are real and true to the people telling them. But without process or catharsis, they are, at this current political moment, irreconcilable. 

But, as previously stated, other stories are available.

Paddy Kielty told a different story last week in his incredible documentary ‘My Dad, the Peace Deal, and Me’. His dad was killed by loyalist paramilitaries in 1988. But there wasn’t a whiff of culture war in that film. Instead Paddy instigated difficult conversations. Everyone’s pain was laid bare. Narratives clashed and were challenged. But people looked each other in the eyes as human beings and tried to push through their pain to get to somewhere deeper.

I hadn’t heard anything like this in a long time.

My friend Gail McConnell told a different story this week too. Gail watched as her prison governor dad was shot dead by the IRA when she was three. She talked about it in a Belfast Telegraph interview last week. And then she read her staggering poem ‘Type Face’ on Thursday night, at an Agreement-related arts event Just For One Day. You must read it in full, if you dare. Here’s a fragment, pulled unforgivably out of context –

Who did what to whom and why’s not for us to ask.
Act normal. Act as though the forty death masks
spelling HOPE at Short Strand/Albertbridge
are incidental. History’s tectonic drift, a moving ridge.
The word I’ve tried hard not to use is murdered
(it puts people on edge and sounds absurd
in my own mouth). Verbs downplaying agency
are best – diedwas killed and, most recently,
lost. All those Lost Lives. To lose one’s a misfortune,
two looks like carelessness. It may be a distortion
of Wildean proportions to say I lost my father
cos we’re all, you know, like part to blame and too far
into the future now, post-’98, to turn (again),
to see, in this decade of centenaries (dot com)
the terrible state of chassis still unmourned.
‘The whelming flood’. I was forewarned.

How is it that our political parties refuse to deal with each other, but that Paddy and Gail and Alan Black are the ones making us stop in our tracks? Forcing us to engage as human beings instead of peddling cultural certainties.

We need to pull our weight a little more. To push back against this lousy culture war. To realise if it’s politically constructed, it can therefore be politically de-constructed. To realise that if we want to hear different stories, we’re going to have to tell them ourselves. Loudly. Often.

But it’s not all on us…

The best thing the Agreement gave us, was permission to overlap. We agreed that we would try to live well together in a contested space. That Irishness and Britishness would be of equal value. We could even be both if we wanted. We agreed that all constitutional preferences were legitimate, and either constitutional outcome is possible. We agreed that the Irish language should be supported and represented. And that this should be in the context of respect for all cultural traditions, including Britishness and Ulster-Scots. All of these remain the right call.

But between refusing to integrate any of the things, making no institutional space for neithers, failing to look after victims or to have any catharsis, not following through on the Agreement’s promises, abusing community vetoes, it’s all gone quite wrong. It’s turned into a nasty fight. With many unionists fighting a psychological battle against Irish culture as a proxy for Sinn Féin and their own past pain. When I’m not so sure it’s really about Irishness at all. And many nationalists despairing that unionists will ever be able to grasp their perspective, because the DUP have so rarely had ears to hear the pain of nationalists or republicans, and seem in no hurry to enact the equality that was voted for.

As a result we’d vote for polarisation again tomorrow. Understandable. But the real mistake we’re making is to think that the most insensitive versions of the DUP and Sinn Féin are representative of all the people in those parties, never mind the people who vote for them. When they’re really not. They’re just ordinary people backed into the same shitty corner as you.

All that said, I’m actually not depressed about the future of this place. Not about us, the people. As far as I can see we’re lashing on with life. Most of us are getting on with each other pretty well. We’re making lemonade. There is no will to go back to violence. Most of us were biting back tears during that Madonna song in Derry Girls – remembering, galvanised, resolute. When a new dissident republican group launched this week, rather than freaking out, we collapsed in laughter at their choice of lilac gloves.

So this is not really a note to you, long-suffering people of the north. It’s a message for the top table. Integrate the things. Let the neithers in. Tell the truth. Have ears to hear different truths. Stop broadcasting division on a feedback loop. Stop stirring shit for votes. Rediscover your spines. We’re waiting.

Take Back Control – of our Ulster-Scots histories

This was on Slugger O'Toole yesterday. For 24 hours now people have been sending me stories of Protestant cultural diversity. Free Presbyterian tracts being handed out in Dublin as Gaeilge; unmarked dissenter graves of blacksmiths and ordinary workers; a Gaeilgeoir film-maker who made a doc for TG4 about Ulster Scots; The Wolfe Tones song 'Protestant Men' which confused the life out of drinkers in a Dundalk pub; stories about openness and generosity between communities. 

I love every single one of stories. We need to keep talking like this. Closing the gaps. With every story we chip away at the power of the DUP and Sinn Féin to define us. Or, put more positively, we offer them a different way to understand us.

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Take Back Control – of our Ulster-Scots histories

A friend of mine was sacked from the civil service for saying that Ulster-Scots was a made up language. Unfortunately he said it in the newspaper. But lots of us have said it in private, right? LOLed at the dafties whilst railing against the DUP. Or for unionists, awkwardly pushed it forward as a political issue.

I’ve been thinking recently about how radical the Scottish legacy in Northern Ireland is. And how uncomfortably this sits beside our understandings of Ulster-Scots today.

There’s so much anti-establishment Protestant history to digest. The Protestant Irish, the non-sectarian Presbyterians, the weaver poets, Labour Protestants, socialist loyalists, the evangelical reconciliation movement. Histories very far removed from British and unionist elites. We’re talking communists on the Shankill Road – like my husband’s grandad. Manual workers at the big house – like my own forebears.

But we seem to have developed amnesia about all of this. Conflict has polarised our interpretations of the past. It’s painted Protestants into a corner, which many are struggling to step out of.

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All of this started a few weeks ago when I visited a a little exhibition about the Plantation in Bangor museum, with its many Ulster-Scots Agency booklets.

The usual bristling happened first. Montgomery and Hamilton “acquired” the land, did they? Those are the rent books, are they? The feckers. And so on.

I texted my friend, whose sister had helped put the exhibition together, and told her that it was very good, but that Planters were feckers. She texted back to say that there was a bit of Scots in us all, and not to self-hate. I’d had a few beers at that point and was half way through a Billy Connolly documentary, so I was open to the suggestion.

The Plantation of Ulster was a brutal colonial act. A subsidised land grab by a British elite. All of us in Northern Ireland still live with its scars.

But, a test:

a) who did the grabbing?

b) who was swept along by the tide of colonial history?

c) who rebelled against the unfairness of it all?

The answer to all of these questions is Protestants.

And obviously Catholics for the being swept along and rebelling bits.

Today though, Protestants often get tarred by a) whilst c) has been forgotten.

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The first thing that made me challenge my instinctual ‘feckers’ narrative was, strangely, an Ulster-Scots language test. In one little booklet it asked if I knew these ‘hunner words’? Usually any mention of Ulster-Scots makes me do an elaborate eye roll any tween would be proud of. Frank Mitchell’s recent challenge to Roy, a caller to his radio show, to speak Ulster-Scots for sixty seconds, whereupon Roy simply switched into a Ballymena accent and culchied it up, is a Northern Irish comedy classic. No question.

But the hunner words were lovely. All eejits and oxters and things that are footery. Blethering and guldering. Being scunnered because you’re a mingin slabber who boked when you were steamin. Words that make me feel rooted to this piece of our island.  Ordinary people words. Words that reflect our black humour and grit.

These words aren’t ours or theirs (whoever ‘we’ and ‘they’ are). They’re pretty universal in the north. Like veda bread. Or frostbit boy (aka Ruarí McSorley, who isn’t far off speaking Ulster-Scots himself).

I don’t think I ever appreciated the richness of Ulster-Scots before. Not that it is a language, or even a distinct cultural tradition. But it’s a gorgeous part of our heritage in an increasingly MacDonaldised world. It’s been hauled into a bitter political argument, to score points against Irishness. Which is weird because it overlaps with Irishness. A fact which even the Ulster-Scots Agency underlines. It’s almost too ironic to bear.

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Another rock and roll hobby of mine is trying to find United Irishmen’s graves. The United Irishmen were mainly Presbyterians of Scottish descent who made common cause with Catholics against the Anglican elite. They rebelled against Britain in 1798. And mostly got executed for it. I haven’t had a huge amount of luck finding their gravestones. Partly because 1798 was a long time ago and they’ve eroded or been destroyed. Partly because a small child is usually dragging me away for an urgent wee. And, crucially, because only a handful of dissenters, mostly Presbyterian ministers and the occasional doctor, were important enough to be commemorated in any style. History is written by the victors. Or the vicars in our case.

This history of the victors is reflected in the Ulster-Scots Agency’s booklets. It’s Viscount this and Laird that. It’s enough to make the blood of any good socialist, never mind Gael, boil.

But when I come to trace my own (mostly Protestant) family tree, I don’t find any Lords. Just lackeys and peasants and lumpen proles. Catching fish, sewing britches and digging up spuds for their betters. A yachtsman for a Lord, on the posh side of the family. People who came, or were brought over, from Scotland with the promise of a better life. To work for the 1%. Grappling with it in these terms, I start to redefine who I am annoyed with and why I am annoyed.

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Modern unionism is still heavy with this tension. There’s an affinity with the common people, mixed with a paradoxical loyalty to a remote English elite. Which explains how Sammy Wilson and Boris Johnston can sit on the same Westminster benches, but understand little of each other’s lives. It’s an uneasy relationship. And to steal a line from a wise friend (who I won’t tar by association), the ‘iconoclastic edge still simmers in the unionist unconscious. It feeds into the sheer “no” of even the DUP’.

Outside of unionism, anti-establishment strains of Protestantism have expanded and contracted over time, in relation to sectarian conflict. Despite our current polarisation, I see them everywhere. Like the Irish identifying born-again Christians, of which I used to be one. Like Rev. Steve Stockman who runs Paddy’s day céilis in his Presbyterian church and writes articles on reconciliation for An Phoblacht. Like the loyalist councillor who is helping sort out parking for our local Catholic school. Like the Irish language speakers of the East Belfast Mission.

Conal Parr sets some of these alternative Protestant histories out beautifully in his new book, Inventing the Myth, which examines Protestant playwrights and thinkers over the last century. Protestants who disrupted traditional unionist narratives. Regularly emphasising social class over tribe. And who often paid the price for it. Because conflict pulled people into sectarian binaries, and suffocated alternative voices.

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And the greatest irony of all? Present day Scotland. It’s the only place on these two islands that now pulls towards left of centre politics. From healthcare to welfare to tuition fees to renewables, where Scotland has devolved authority, it makes more forward thinking decisions than the rest of us.

It’s also the part of the UK that could provide northern nationalism with the best template for the future, with their imaginative, inclusive imagining of independence. Upon which any future Irish unity movement would do well to draw. Putting civic, not ethnic, ideals at the core. And, whatever happens with independence, Dublin and Edinburgh will be surely close allies in any future configuration of post-Brexit relationships.

…..

Piecing all of this together – the gritty, funny humility of the Ulster-Scots vernacular, the lesser-recorded Protestant histories of dissent and radicalism, the progressive pulse of contemporary Scotland… it feels like, as usual, we’ve been missing a trick. We’ve allowed our political troubles to commandeer our Protestant heritage – a lot of which we have selectively misremembered. It’s not simply the conservative unionist monolith it feels like today.

All culture is invented. A Gaeilgeoir baby and and an Ulster-Scots baby, if abandoned at birth in a chicken coop, would not be able to distinguish Liam Clancy from Willie Drennan, or a hurley from a hockey stick. They would peck like chickens in equal measure. Which is to say that Ulster-Scots culture is socially transmitted, not genetic. It’s stories we tell about the past to make sense of the present. We’ve let the present binary frame our understanding of the past. And shape our desires for the future.

So I have a suggestion. Let’s tell a different story. Let’s take back control of the Ulster-Scots layers of our identities. By thinking, writing and talking about them more. By separating out Protestantism from unionism. By appreciating the variety of Protestant culture in Ireland. Its paradoxical anti-elitism. How evangelical religion has informed reconciliation as well as conflict. To appreciate our radical secularist parts. The Irishness that overlaps with Britishness. The positive ways that Scottishness has shaped our northernness, for Catholics as well as Protestants. 

And while we wait for segments of unionism to adjust to new realities, maybe the rest of us Protestants and ex-Protestants can elbow our way into the debate. To shout loudly. We exist. We are ready and waiting to help shape the new Ireland. Whatever that might be.

There's a Bishop in My Bedroom, Review

Review of Richard O'Leary's stunning one person play, There's a Bishop in my Bedroom, published HERE on The Last Round yesterday. Produced by Tinderbox as part of the Outburst Queer Arts festival.

Richard is a friend, so I knew this would be good. But I didn't realise it going to be one of the best bits of theatre I'd ever seen. An hilarious, visceral but tender play about love in a divided Ireland and a homophobic church. If attendance was compulsory for all clergy and politicians, we would go far.

 

I've Got a Message

'I've got a message' is a true story about my misadventures as a teenage evangelist, told at Tenx9 a few weeks ago.

My son, age 4: 'what would happen if you thought your story on the podcast was good, but the people thought it was bad, and they threw fruit at you? Haha. Fruit-face'.

Not sure what to say about that. In any case, you can check it out here or on itunes (episode 014).

Check Your (unionist) Privilege

This article, posted on Slugger O'Toole last week, is being translated into Turkish. The translator asked me what does 'break some Northern Irish eggs' mean. I tried to explain that it means we must say some uncomfortable things before our politics can move forward. This is one of those uncomfortable things...

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Check Your (unionist) Privilege

Northern Ireland has been such a pasty white place until recently. So much so, that in my teens I worried that I’d accidentally be a racist when I finally met some brown people. Thankfully there was a website for this - a university had set up a test, flashing images of white and brown people on the screen, asking quick-fire questions to test for unconscious bias. I passed. Not a racist. I thought I was off the hook.

But as the years passed, and debates around white privilege deepened, it became clear to me that I have lots of it. I didn’t discover that I was actually a racist. I just came to recognise that I have a lightness and ease of moving through the world because I’m white. From negotiating airports to finding hairdressers, my skin colour makes my life less complicated.

Sometimes you hear people say that the debate has swung too far the other way. That it’s about giving white people a kicking. It’s not their fault they were born white/male/insert privilege. Which is true. But then you look at political leaders and boardrooms and you see that this is of course the way it needs to swing, to begin to grasp at an equilibrium. Which to be honest, still feels like a distant horizon.

So, to break some Northern Irish eggs... Who is privileged, and by how much? Well, unionists, historically, by a lot. Unionists in contemporary Northern Ireland, by a significant degree. No shit Sherlock, say nationalists everywhere. But it’s clear that many unionists don’t agree, and in fact feel under attack, so let’s try to untangle it a bit. 

We could start with the Plantation. But let’s not. Battering people over the head with the past doesn’t usually get us very far.

Let’s start with St. Patrick’s day 2018. The Nolan Show focused on this the other day. Unionist representatives and callers were complaining that the St. Patrick’s day celebrations in Belfast did not feel inclusive, that people were liable to break into republican song at any given moment. I sat there slack-jawed, listening to the parade’s organisers having to insist that it was inclusive and that, whilst they can’t micro-manage everyone, it was a day for all. I have heard the same said about the Twelfth, and I admire all moves towards outreach from both events. But I have also heard a lot more insistence from unionists and loyalists on the right to march and wave flags and burn things. Most people have given up pretending that it’s simply a day for cross-community family fun. 

A few weeks ago I was at a gig at the Mandela Hall where the crowd (spurred on by a terrible warm up act) sang ‘Ooh ah up the RA’. Somehow, in 22 years of dedicated pint drinking across Ireland, north and south, this was the first time I’d heard it sung. I was there with Catholic friends, who were fabulously uncomfortable. I didn’t like it much myself, but I was also feeling quite anthropological about the whole thing. I kept thinking of how many more times I had heard the Sash or ‘do you want a fish supper Bobby Sands’ sung around Catholics. How every summer of the fourteen summers since I moved back to Northern Ireland, I’ve heard loyalist band tunes carried by the wind up to my house - six different houses in fact - and walked the dog through the charred remains of the park the next day. 

It’s quite taken for granted that most of Northern Ireland will lie low on the Twelfth, get their groceries in beforehand, won’t go out in the car, get out of town. Nobody is asking for marching season to stop. But it’s worth reflecting how we rearrange our summers around unionist and loyalist traditions, when thinking of how to respond to nationalists’ and republicans’ cultural requests.

But hang on. Loyalists living in neglected estates across Northern Ireland - are we saying they are privileged? As Gina Crosley-Corcoran’s brilliant article ‘Explaining white privilege to a broke white person’ explains, you can be privileged in some ways (e.g. white or male) whilst not at all privileged in others (e.g. social class). Academics call this intersectionality. Loyalists have largely been screwed over in the class structure of Northern Ireland. But they have been able to offset this with a range of cultural privileges. So it’s possible to appreciate their pain as well as their advantage.

But back to unionism as a whole. Let’s think about the Britishness of our built heritage in Northern Ireland, and how this forms another hugely taken for granted imbalance. Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan said it well when speaking on the View recently (about 11 minutes in), exploring whether the ‘curry my yoghurt’ days were over or not. When challenged about nationalists trying to assert their own cultural supremacy with an Irish Language Act, he said,

“The issue of cultural supremacy is laughable. I can walk down through my constituency past the Royal Victoria hospital down to the Sinn Féin office at the bottom of Sevastopol Street, maybe over to Queen’s University down to the City Hall and see the monuments of the British monarchy or the British military. [In West Belfast] Crimea Street, the Kashmir Road, Lucknow Street, scenes of British army battles in their imperial past, and there’s not a word about it”. 

I do wonder if unionists ever think about this when they think about bilingual road signs? 

There are too many examples of the institutional and cultural privileges of unionism in Northern Ireland to note here. The Queen on our money, royal insignia on our tax bills, Carson’s statue up at Stormont etc. You can extrapolate. 

And I have some of this unionist privilege too. I’m a ‘no religion’ political ‘other’ of Protestant descent. I have an Irish passport, lived in Dublin for 10 years, and consider myself somewhat literate in Irish nationalism. But I only learned how to type a fada last year. It takes a micro-second. If we start the clock as an 18 year old undergraduate, that’s 21 years writing about politics without being arsed to type Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil properly. That’s shocking. It’s not the end of the world. But it does speak to a laziness, even a casual disrespect, that I would never have considered myself to have had. It assumes a neutrality of the English language that is not real.

This is what Irish language activists are trying to tell us. It’s not about domination or humiliation. It is a request for unionists to reflect on how taken for granted their cultural expressions are. And a request for some redress, to institutionalise and protect, and yes, fund, Irish cultural expressions too. This request, polite at the beginning, has become noisy and insistent. Because, well, it’s fair dos. And it’s not an Ulster-Scots Act that is needed to ‘even things up’ with an Irish Language Act. It’s an Irish Language Act that is needed to even things up with the pervasive Britishness of our institutional culture. 

The fact that unionists seem to have a cloth ear about their still favoured cultural position is worrying. They say that ‘neutral’ issues like the cost of an Irish Language Act, or the higher priority of health-care are the stumbling blocks. Or that it’s just republican agitation. All worth discussion. But these are the veneer, not the root, of the impasse. I wonder if the root is many unionists’ inability to even conceive of their continuing privilege, never mind being willing to concede some of it.

I understand completely that Sinn Féin and the DUP are having a parallel conversation right now. One about power and strategy. That they are playing the Irish language in a wider poker hand. But they don’t own this debate. We need to talk about it too. Whether it’s deal or no deal. And we get to talk about it in our own terms.

These are my terms: Nobody is saying that unionists are bad, or that they need to be sorry for being unionists. White privilege is not the same as racism. And unionist privilege is not the same as bigotry. In both cases it’s often very nice people simply assuming that the world they move through is neutral. When it’s just not.

I think it’s probably too much to ask for unionists to become radical intersectionalists overnight. But I do think it’s reasonable to suggest that more unionists might consider choosing not to be offended. To question their humiliation. To give an inch, because they have more inches squirrelled away.

We are all Mongrels

I popped this article on Slugger O'Toole the other day. 377 comments so far, some of which would make you weep into your cornflakes, but many more of which show a real willingness to talk about the difficult stuff. Only one person said it was 'the biggest load of shite [he'd] ever read in [his] life', so I'm considering that a win.

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We are all Mongrels

We are all mongrels, to a greater or lesser degree. British-Irish-Northern Irish cross-breeds. Not to mention the fact that if we did ancestry DNA tests we’d probably be 20% African. We live in a divided society and in a contested state.

So to hear Foster and O’Neill playing Punch and Judy at the Tory party conference this week was frustrating. ‘Northern Ireland is British’, ‘Oh no it’s not’. etc. etc.

I was studying and teaching Northern Irish politics in University College Dublin when the 1998 Agreement was negotiated and ratified. An academic industrial complex soon emerged around it. There were the consociationalist writers who said (I paraphrase) ‘hooray for power-sharing, it’s the only way to get from a to b’. And the sceptics who said ‘hang on a minute, this just institutionalises sectarianism’.

They were both right.

And nearly 20 years on, we’re still living with this duality. Staggering political progress. And   a groundhog day of stagnation and polarisation.

But what our politicians seem to have forgotten is that the rest of us live with our mongrel identities every day. And that most of us have worked out pretty good ways of negotiating the British, Irish and Northern Irish bits of our lives, and the Catholic, Protestant and secular dimensions of our relationships.

Take me - unionist family tree, Irish passport, ex-Protestant evangelical, agnostic, kids in Catholic school. Today I feel 50% Irish, 40% Northern Irish, 10% British. But these ratios change on a regular basis. Despite feeling only a little bit British, I spend a ridiculous amount of time pondering British politics and am utterly invested in its outcomes. More than this, I’m a left, green feminist. I’m a ma, and nail-biting member of the gig economy. I’m a muddle of complicated identities. And I’m utterly at ease with this. 

But maybe the binary fits for everyone else?

Well, not really. Identity for a lot of people isn’t clean cut. Have a look at this, from the 2016 Northern Life and Times Survey. Only 53% of Catholics say they feel Irish with no sense of Britishness and 41% of Protestants feel British with no Irishness. Combined with the no religions who are even less willing to categorise themselves as exclusively one or the other, that’s the majority of people in Northern Ireland having some kind of hybrid national identity.

And consider that this question simply asks about Irishness and Britishness, without even getting into Northern Irishness, which overlaps with both, and complicates things further (and which about a quarter of people actually choose as their top national identity when it’s included in the question). 

Also consider that this question doesn’t ask people to explain what kind of way they feel Irish if they struggle to articulate the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Or to ask how does it feel to be British if you suspect that your love for the mainland is unrequited. I think most people here have a keen sense of their northern strangeness. And that the simple words ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ mask a wealth of complexity and contradictions for us all.

And I see this glorious melding every day in the town where I live. I see a generosity between traditions at the school gate (yes, at Catholic school). I see it in my friends’ relationships and marriages, many of which are mixed. I see it in the way our kids dip in and out of different traditions, Brownies at the Church of Ireland on Tuesdays, every third Wednesday at mass with school. I see it in some older unionist family members who love Gaelic history and place-names. I see it in nationalists who sit under the Union Jack at their Protestant neighbour’s church funeral. I see it in workmates who take care how they speak to one another. Or better still, who have learned the art of cross-community banter in the pub (an advanced skill). Most of us don’t talk to each other as if we’re on the Nolan show. And this civility does not make us feel humiliated. Or backed into cultural corners. It makes us feel human.

I know this is not everybody’s experience of Northern Ireland. I don’t live in the shadow of a peace wall. I haven’t been threatened out of a shared housing project. I know that there is still much resistance to integration. And I’m not saying that this melding is easy, or without anxiety at times.

But look at it another way. Here is a question from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey in 2001 (the last time it was asked). People were given a load of identity options, including Irish and British, but also other categories such as woman/man, working/middle class, mother/father, wife/husband. And using this wider frame of reference, so many more people chose gender (19%), family relationships (28%) and social class (22%) to define themselves than chose a national (9%) or religious identity (8%). We are so much more than British and Irish.

None of this will be news to you. Because this is how most of us, even the most passionately British and most passionately Irish, live our lives. We quietly negotiate the complexity and move, sometimes fluidly, sometimes awkwardly, through Catholic, Protestant and neutral, Irish, British and Northern Irish spaces. 

But when it comes to politics, we’ve begun to lose sight of these nuances. We’ve started to believe that we need to vote in big ethnic blocs to keep the other side in line. In one sense this is the logical conclusion of power-sharing. It reduced violence and brought the extremes together. But we have institutionalised and incentivised being orange and green. Austerity and the resource competition of late capitalism more generally have left us fighting over crumbs from the table, closely monitoring how much themmuns are getting, without questioning why there is not more to go around. Polarisation also feeds on the stagnant, uncreative leadership of the big parties. At some point we seem to have stopped trying to imagine something better.

Our politics doesn’t have to be like this though. We have a huge playbook to draw upon. The long tradition of Protestant Dissent, not to mention the unionists and loyalists, from Ian Paisley to David Ervine, who have appreciated the Irish parts of their identity. Brian John Spencer has some interesting pieces on this site about this. Linda Ervine and the Protestant Irish language speakers keep this fire aflame. And there is a long tradition of Irish nationalists acknowledging how they are shaped with and by Britishness. From the Irish soldiers who fought for Britain in the wars, to the creative nationalism of John Hume. Never-mind that niggling affection for the NHS.

But current political arrangements have squeezed the space in which these conversations can happen. And we desperately need to start having them again. Is it time to replace mandatory power-sharing with voluntary coalition in Stormont? Probably. But there are pros and cons. Domination via the back door, in the form of the Petition of Concern, certainly needs to be revised. Because I do know that no good can come from this gaping political vacuum. Or this hardening of the culture war. It is a false binary upon which fear and hostility feed. And it doesn’t reflect the messy tumble of identities that make up most of our lives and relationships. Nor does it reflect our national identities, which are way more nuanced than our politics. 

Any future for Northern Ireland, in the context of the UK or Irish unity, will need to make space for both Irish and British identities. But maybe we can learn from the consequences of institutionalised sectarianism, and can perhaps now begin to find ways to amplify our hybridity. For us to learn to live well in this more open and interesting space, we must be able to talk about it. We must go out of our way to mix and meld. Swipe right on people you wouldn’t usually. Take your kid to a youth club in a church you don’t go to. Switch to RTE or BBC news for the day. Tune in to Radio Fáilte even if you don’t have a word of Irish. Go and see the Red Arrows even if it makes you feel weird. Pick an event in the West Belfast Féile if you live in the East. Check out the Newtownards Road if you live in the West. Maybe write a different kind of comment on a blog. All of this will involve putting our foot in it and sometimes feeling uncomfortable. But that’s ok. It’s surely better than what we have now.

Oh, and one last thing. We need to stop voting like eejits. Because it’s the big parties which benefit from polarisation who have the least incentive to change the record.

Beginning again

Kid no. 2 starts school today. It feels like time to decide what to be when I grow up. 

So I sat down and wrote these lines. And I made a website to put them on.

I used to be a writer. I never stopped really. In private. But I’m going to try to write in the world again. Maybe about politics in Northern Ireland. Maybe about myself. Hopefully other people will tell me their stories and I can write about those too.

I’ll update this with something fabulous, should anything fabulous happen.

Claire