Many in political unionism still see their role as policing Irishness

Posted By: March 17, 2021



Irish-American political muscle will be on display for St Patrick’s Day with the Taoiseach speaking to President Joe Biden.


Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast. March 17, 2021


It’s St Patrick’s Day and all across the world, the Irish diaspora is flexing its outsize social, emotional, economic, and, most important for northern nationalists, its political muscle.


The Department of Foreign Affairs is hosting “virtual receptions” for seventy-eight countries in lieu of embassy receptions in countries from Tokyo in the east to New York, Washington, and San Francisco in the west. There will be zoom meetings, Irish music and dancing, and discussions with local business and political leaders.


Most important of course will be the taoiseach’s conversation with US President Joe Biden who will reaffirm his support for the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish Protocol. The taoiseach will also have a virtual meeting with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Richie Neal, co-chair of the Friends of Ireland, founded on St Patrick’s Day 1981. Neal, as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has a crucial role in any trade agreement with the US that Britain so desperately wants.


That extraordinarily powerful Irish-American political muscle greatly outweighs anything unionists can bring to bear anywhere and it’s their own fault. Unionists’ attitudes and responses to St Patrick’s Day are the perfect illustrations of their confusion about their role and status in Ireland. It wasn’t always like that. Until Ulster Unionists decided to circle the wagons, abandon their kith and kin and create a laager in the north-east of the island, unionists were confident that they were Irish. In the nineteenth century, they called themselves “the Queen’s Irishmen”. Indeed at the Ulster Unionist Convention in Botanic Gardens, Belfast in 1892, beside each other were two pavilions, one with the slogan “God Save the Queen”, the other emblazoned “Erin Go Bragh.”


Yet after they carved out this part of the island with a 30,000 strong-armed unionist militia carrying out pogroms and arson, they set out to outlaw or expunge all reference to anything Irish: language, flag, music, history, place-names. So it was that St Patrick’s Day was a holiday, but not a real holiday like the ‘Twalf'[The Twelfth]: only Catholic schools closed and business carried on as usual. Until about twenty years ago,  the day was marked by flying union jacks over public buildings including RUC barracks, because, guess what, “Ulster is British”.


It’s been a long, slow painful retreat from that position of absolute dominance which many, mostly older unionists, still don’t accept but resist. That resistance is exemplified especially by DUP MPs, MLAs, and apoplectic callers to the BBC’s daily angry man’s radio show. The Good Friday Agreement which Arlene Foster, and Jeffrey ‘I could live with 40,000 job losses’ Donaldson now extol, is supposed to guarantee equality of status and parity of esteem for both nationalists and unionists, but look at the way St Patrick’s Day is celebrated: quasi officially. Lip service paid.


Many in political unionism still see their role as policing Irishness. They don’t/can’t see they are the disintegrating remnant of England’s failed exclusionary imperialist project in Ireland which began in the sixteenth century. They still believe they have the right to limit what flags a St Patrick’s Day parade can wave, what music can be played. Foolishly some nationalists try to, altogether now, ‘be inclusive’, by removing emblems that might offend unionists. For example, flying the flag of St Patrick. Does that placate unionists? Don’t be daft: it reinforces unionists’ notion that they can veto or set boundaries for manifestations of Irishness.


Equally, BBCNI, whose default position on all matters is unionist – after all, it’s the British Broadcasting Corporation – is careful not to present anything unionists might object to, even though as a public service all viewers must pay a license. You don’t see them compelling staff to wear a shamrock, while they must wear a poppy in November, like it or not.


Respecting St Patrick’s Day has been improving over the past generation, but it’s still not a full-scale holiday as in the Republic. Why not?