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Identity Politics in Ireland - Past and Present

 Identity Politics in Northern Ireland            Gerry OShea

Identity politics was the driving factor when Ireland was partitioned a hundred years ago. A section of the island in the northeast was set apart from the rest of the country strictly on the basis of allowing the people living there to maintain their allegiance to Britain, an entirely legitimate aspiration but one that was bound to lead to trouble because nationalists on the island weren’t even consulted about the division.

The 1918 Westminster election ended the power of the Irish Parliamentary Party. They had fought for Home Rule for Ireland, and indeed a bill was passed in 1912 that granted a parliament in Dublin with limited power over the whole island. This was fiercely opposed by unionists in the Belfast area who refused to contemplate any allegiance to an assembly with a majority of Catholics.

For them, Home Rule would bring about domination by the Catholic majority on the island, leading inevitably to the relegation of Protestants to a hind-tit role in all the legislative business of that proposed parliament.

The Irish Free State which emerged in 1922, after the War of Independence, was indeed dominated by the Catholic bishops and clergy, confirming Protestant fears.

Meanwhile, the six-county statelet followed a course of guaranteed supremacy by the Protestant leaders. It was a cold place for people of the other persuasion.

How did the two states perform over the last hundred years? In particular, how did the minority populations fare out in each jurisdiction?

Significant numbers of Protestants emigrated from the new southern state because it was not congenial to their customs and beliefs. The Roman bishops and parish priests dictated the rigid ethos of the new state. Most Irish people believed the vacuous story that their Catholic ethos ensured a higher level of morality in Ireland than in pagan England. This was a neat rationalization, making people feel good about their group identity but with no basis in reality.

 The Roman Ne Temere decree required a promise from the Protestant partner in a mixed marriage that all children of the union would be raised as Catholics, and God herself was tribalized by frequent outrageous assertions that outside of the Vatican belief system there was no salvation.

Garret Fitzgerald, the leader of the Irish government during part of the 1970’s, wrote that he viewed the Protestant population in the south of the country as a “privileged minority.” This comment recognized that a small Anglo-Irish population played a disproportionately important role in the commercial and cultural life of the country.

Their most famous member was Douglas Hyde, a distinguished Irish language scholar and a founding member and initial leader of the Gaelic League. He became the first president of Ireland, serving from 1938 to 1945.

The 1949 funeral service for Dr. Hyde in Dublin’s famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral was not attended by the Catholic leaders of the government because they weren’t allowed to pray in the church of a “false” religion. Instead, they were photographed outside the cathedral, waiting for the cortege to emerge – a powerful symbol of the subservience of political leaders to claustrophobic Catholic regulations.

All this began to change in the 1990’s. Today, only a minority of Catholics attend weekly mass and with few ordinations, the average age of the clergy is close to 60. The passage in referenda of changes allowing divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage clearly indicates the collapse of the power of the Catholic church in the public arena.

 Ironically, the membership of the three main Protestant groups in Ireland – Presbyterians, Methodists, and Anglicans – has shown modest increases in the same time period. Many commentators believe that much of this growth comes from Catholics abandoning the Roman version of Christianity.

Overall, the differences between the various religious groups have eroded over time in the South. The sense of pride in an Irish identity is strong among all citizens, and in the new secular order most people look to Brussels rather than to Rome or Canterbury for inspiration and leadership.

The story in Belfast is very different – past and present. From the early days of partition, the nationalist population was discriminated against in employment and housing, and voting constituencies were gerrymandered to favor the unionist parties. The justified sense of long-suffering victimhood among nationalists in the North caused the massive protests in the streets during the civil rights irruption in the mid-1960’s.

The Troubles followed with the IRA engaging in a full-scale guerrilla war against the forces of the state. The arrival of the British army heightened the battle lines. Most nationalists did not support violence and so the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) won more votes in the various elections in that community than Sinn Fein. That changed after the IRA disowned violence as part of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998.

The largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), seems to be in disarray. They followed the Tory Brexit march out of the European Union (EU) in the 2016 British plebiscite, but 56% of the people in the North opted to remain in Europe.

 The controversial “protocol” arrangement between Britain and the EU reflects another creaking dimension of their identity crisis. A border on the Irish Sea consigns the loyalist population to a kind of no-mans-land as they assert their fealty to a constitutional arrangement from a past era. Their firm allegiance to Westminster is not reciprocated when it doesn’t suit the government there, and the rest of the island of Ireland is firmly ensconced in the European project.

The people in both communities in the North benefited to the tune of 100 million pounds annually when they were part of the EU. The subvention expected from Westminster is much less – around 11 million. At the time the country was divided in 1921 more than 80% of the economic activity on the island was centered in the Belfast area; today that situation has changed and Dublin generates an even higher percentage of the whole island’s GDP.

Another important dimension of life in the North centers on the lack of respect accorded to Catholics. A late 19th century unionist historian named Lecky pointed out that the most down-and-out Protestant considered himself superior to the richest Catholic. This disrespect, which definitely didn’t apply to the minority of Protestants in the South, poisoned the relationship between the two northern tribes.

In May 2007, Ian Paisley, the former firebrand leader, who often preached that the Roman church was the biblical “whore of Babylon,” was edged aside as the leader of the power-sharing government in Stormont. He was also demoted by the elders of the First Presbyterian Church which he started. Amazingly, the bulk of his core supporters felt he was going soft in his dealings with Martin McGuinness and the nationalist community.

Arlene Foster is on the way out for the same reason. She was deemed to be too open to discussions with the Dublin Government, and she also drew the anger of the DUP members by abstaining in a vote to ban gay conversion therapy.

 The cries of No Surrender and Not an Inch still represent the mood and belief system of most unionists. They feel that the nationalist community, especially their bete noire, Sinn Fein, is only interested in expunging every facet of Protestant culture and heritage.

They still assert a pre-eminent allegiance to their Britishness, and many still remain devoted to an out-of-date brand of Reformation Protestantism.  That rock-hard sense of identity, combining religion and politics, remains the biggest obstacle to a united Ireland, irrespective of the results of a border poll.

Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking


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