Theresa May needs to realize there is no Northern Ireland nation

Posted By: April 11, 2017

Fionnuala O Connor. Irish News. Belfast. Tuesday, April 11, 2017 

Theresa May and Westminster are gearing up for Brexit in their different ways.

The tone on May’s part, even when what she says amounts to little, will be businesslike, while that from the furthest Tory right-wing and probably, from Labor, will be all over the place. But the language almost certainly will be consistent on one issue – it will marginalize the healthy, definite majority here that voted against Brexit.

The SDLP’s three MPs will do their best to get a hearing for the north’s relegated Remainers but times and tide are against them.

Instead, there will be a talk of the United Kingdom’s “four nations.” The “country” will be walked on-stage, as in the need to avoid dividing “it” further. “Britain” will get a name-check or three. The UK and ‘the country’ will be used interchangeably, as though they have an identical identity on which all agree. Nigel Dodds will almost certainly voice complete support for May and appreciation of her determination to fulfill the will of ‘the people’ as voiced in the referendum.

But the people, nation, and country of this political rhetoric no more exist than does a pro-Brexit Northern Ireland. Dodds knows this, even if the blinkered prime minister does not. The DUP knows it, what there is of the Ulster Unionist Party knows it. All of them except May, a determined know-nothing, know that each repetition is a big fib but behave as if repetition makes it true.

There is no Northern Ireland nation. It is not one country, not the twee “wee” one of murals and tea-towels and non-thinking hopes for the good of all. Resoundingly, inarguably, to the distress of some and ridicule from others, there is no such creature as the Northern Irish people.

Twittering about its existence only pushes further away from the likelihood of it ever coming into being, by exasperating Irish nationalists. Say Northern Ireland, not “the north”? Anti-PR genius. What that does is fire up Irish Republicanism in all its varieties – down to the most agnostic – to resist assimilationist fiction.

As for a Northern Ireland “nation” or “country,” and the nonsensical habit of calling the UK a country, sometimes in the same sentence or speech that calls Northern Ireland a country, those go beyond the power to exasperate into bad joke territory. Who are these people kidding?

The trouble is it probably does kid some unionists, doing their heads no good at all, further delaying the development of unionist politics based on reason and civility. The trouble is that rejecting, or questioning, or laughing off every assertion of these mythical entities takes energy and alertness. Who has the time? Who wants to tangle with mechanical reciters out to chisel their fantasy into a semblance of realism, simply by repetition?

But allow single mentions become dozens without objection, sit quietly for references in formal speeches in Westminster’s Hansard with no correction, no effort to identify each one as an “alternative fact,” and the phenomenon pats itself on the back.

Worse yet, each fib unchallenged boosts the south’s anti-northernism by suggesting the fiction has overcome the opposition, (phew, they sigh), while each ‘hey, no!’ is marked up as another example of northern nationalist intractability – what the comparatively friendly Dublin commentator Noel Whelan calls the southern urge to say ‘get over yourselves.’

Awareness of your own, often inherited preconceptions ought surely to be a commentator’s starting-point. Few enough here and even fewer in Dublin allow the thought detain them for a second. Like very few others, Whelan stretches beyond the south’s default instinct to tune out the north.

What some there made of the McGuinness Funeral, out of print and in private conversation, is almost enjoyable to imagine. Printed and public comments were striking enough – on the river of mourners, stewards with recognized authority, the blend of state and Church – though it was ‘states’ plural that blended, dysfunctional NI with Irish. But the unionists who came to do McGuinness honor, or at least to bury him, came face to face with a nation, country and political identity none of them could have compacted in their heads into neat Britishness. Their Northern Ireland is also the north of a bigger country – little though that suits much of the bigger country either.

For unionists, as for nationalists, wishing does not make it so. Like the tired old joke has it, nobody would choose to start from here: neither to build a shared north nor unify Ireland. But here is where we are.