North is a Foreign Country...
Many people I know won't go over the Border to Northern
Ireland. One woman I work with shivers at the very thought. I have been
to Belfast three times in my life. That's less than I've been to Cork
or Galway, but more than I've been to Limerick or Sligo. The difference
between going to Belfast and going to any of the other cities was the
sense of visiting somewhere foreign. It is a difference which is deliberately
ignored by almost all Irish writers on Northern Ireland.
Nobody writes about the North without having a point of view they want
to promote. Throw your eye over any article, polemic, or apparently neutral
report and you'll see that if it is anything more than a bare wire story,
it will implicitly or explicitly back one or other of the two camps who
live there. Everyone is presumed to be either Nationalist or Unionist,
an idea which is built in to the voting system for the Assembly currently
trying to hold itself together.
But Irish writing on this issue has always presumed
that the Irish backed the Nationalist side, and we were just looking to
gently cajole, manoeuvre, and sometimes trick the Unionists into seeing
how good life would be in a United Ireland. The feeling that we pined
for our fourth green field (although as three Ulster counties are in the
Republic, it seems worth pointing out that we already have the ditch)
is central to the official story of the post-partition nation. Maybe that
was true once, and maybe it was even true in 1968 when the Troubles started,
but I think it certainly isn't true now.
If I turn on Ulster Television, which is the local ITV franchise, I see
a place and a people I cannot understand. It is a standing joke in our
house that if the only information available to viewers were the ad breaks
on the televsion, they would believe that all of Northern Ireland consists
of miles and miles of Shopping Centres, punctuated by furniture showrooms,
selling the most ugly and overstuffed selection of couches ever collected
by the hand of man. There is general amusement when we see an interview
with Gerry Adams in his house and spot him sitting on the latest offer
from Reid's Furniture. It can hardly be a conincidence that the emphasis
is on private homes and carefully controlled public spaces.
If the ads are strange, the programmes are even odder. Continuity announcers,
who all share a particular set of features, as though they've been sculpted
from a lard-like material I think of as stodge, hold draws, or exchange
banter with a sequence of Northern Ireland celebrities who seem to materialise
out of the ether already famous in their own land. The prime-time Friday
night talk show host on BBC Northern Ireland is a shouting bald man called
John Daly. He might as well have been grown in a vat somewhere in the
basement, because no sign of his existence ever troubled the world before
he got the job.
Then there are the disturbing local anomalies which can't be explained,
such as Ugly Man-Woman Man. This aberration can appear as a special guest
on either NI channel, at any time, to perform 'comedy' which consists
of shouting in an impenetrable accent while dressed like a schizophrenic
bag lady. It is erroneous. But the studio audience laps it up, cheering
its appearance and laughing at the amusement value of it all. It is safe
to say that if Ugly Man-Woman Man were dropped in front of a RTE audience
the embarrassed and uncomfortable silence that followed would be a greater
blow to the myth of Irish unity than a thousand articles by Conor Cruise
The fact that I now watch UTV in the same 'on the outside looking in'
frame of mind as I watch the Fracophone TV5 is only a symptom of a broader
change. It isn't incompatible light entertainment tastes which split the
North from Irish people's mental map of their country. It was the News
that did that.
Although if you look them up you can find they existed, I cannot remember
a day while I was growing up when the News didn't have a report of a bomb
going off or a person being shot from Northern Ireland. It was the same
in Britain, but they never had the extra frustration of knowing that these
killings were being done to further something you were presumed to be
in favour of. The only time Britain had to feel the shame of that was
following Bloody Sunday. The attempt to deny for thirty years that it
had ever happened is demonstration enough of what a single blow like that
will deal to a country's idea of itself.
While in school, I'd joke with my friends that the best way to promote
peace in Northern Ireland to would be to saw it off and tow it away. Sometimes
we sank it for good measure. It wasn't peace for Northern Ireland we were
really talking about, but peace for ourselves. We wanted nothing to do
with it. The death it seemed to represent soured us on all mentions of
nationalism. But we still wished it well. It was just that despair has
a way of undermining even the best intentions. The measure of our real
feelings came on the day we voted for the Good Friday Agreement. I travelled
the from Galway to Dublin, just to vote. The country as a whole turned
out in force to approve it by 97%. The reason for this apparently split
view is the double lens we had been forced to watch with for 30 years.
The nightly killings were, and were not, happening in our own country.
The papers reported on them in the Home News pages, but they felt foreign.
Trying to reconcile those senses of powerlessness and responsibility was
the real source of our urge to try to submerge Northern Ireland.
For as long as the state had existed schoolbooks and teachers, folk songs
and politicians, in fact the entire country's public life, had been sure
of one thing. Part of Ireland had been stolen and it was only a matter
of time before we got it back, one way or another. But after actually
seeing what those easily said words, "one way or another", really allowed
to be done I and my schoolfriends didn't believe it any more.
Nationalism is a romantic notion. When Yeats thought that Romantic Ireland
was dead and gone, in September 1913, he was wrong. Three years later
a Rising which mostly existed in the minds of the relatively few participants
would be made real by the willingness of the British army to accept it
at its word. Their great mistake was to behave as though the occupation
of a post office, a biscuit factory and a small city centre park was a
genuine threat to the security of their colonial state.
When they shot the organisers, instead of charging them with reckless
gun waving, the rest of the country, North and South made the rebel's
Eventually the country was spilt and the rebel's inheritors took power
in the Republic. They found that while a shared fantasy can create a country
it can't sustain it. Instead, they compromised one dream after another,
while all the time mouthing the magic words of nationhood. In other words,
the rebels became politicians. But as a society we were unwilling to accept
that dreams could lead to anything as grubby and mediocre as the reality
of the first 40 years of Irish independence. It took us a long time to
prefer that reality, with all its make-do's and imperfections, to the
dreams of the country's creation.
In the North, however, the rebellion lost, and so never had to get its
hands dirty by having to make any real decisions. The fantasy became a
kind of theology, and of course a Catholic one at that. It had an Easter
blood sacrifice and subsequent martyrs. It also had a version of apostolic
succession. This idea claimed that the only legitimate election Ireland
has ever had was the 1918 election, where the then Sinn Fein (a kind of
umbrella organisation for nationalist sentiment) took the majority of
the seats. Thus, they assert, until another election is held in a United
Ireland, whoever is President of Sinn Fein is President of the country.
There is even a rival Pope, a kind of Avingnon Sinn Fein President, Ruari
O'Bradaigh, who holds that he is the true and legitimate leader of Ireland.
Given the tiny support he holds as the leader of the breakaway Republican
Sinn Fein, he presumably holds a cabinet reshuffle in his kitchen whenever
his kids are annoying him. ("OK, that's it. Give your sister the remote
control or I'll make you Minister for Sport")
This is one of the real differences between North and South now. There,
large tracts of the people who consider themselves Irish are locked into
a fantasy of what that means which we left behind, almost without noticing.
This fantasy Ireland is the one that emigrants looked back to and saw
as their home, preferring it to the compromised, failed real Ireland they
or their ancestors had left behind, or fled from.
It was only when killing was happening in our name that we in the Republic
were forced to realise that we had been lying to ourselves and everyone
else about what it was we really believed in. Given the choice, we quietly
abandoned the fourth green field to save the three we had worked so hard
to make from being dragged half a century into the past.
The bitterest irony for those who fought so long for their fantasies,
and the people who supported them, must come when they realise that while
the British Government in 1922 may have drawn the Border, it was the IRA
who made it real. That's something we're only just coming to terms with
in our discussions in the Republic. How much more painful will it be for
those honourable nationalists who rejected the violence but tried to hold
onto their dreams?
Is it any wonder that it is something that remains generally unsaid. Our
separation is too fresh, and the wounds too recent for us to look at it
clearly yet.We have yet to accept that the North is a foreign country
now, because they do things differently there. But until we do, we will
still be trying to live in a fantasy world. If nothing else, 30 years
of bloody News has taught us the dangers of doing that.
24th February 2002