Where else in the entire world would the UN send a special envoy to mediate with the locals about the flags they fly, the parades they hold and how they deal with the past? Only in Northern Ireland would this be important enough, and only because the Irish and the British governments desperately need a success.
Now look. I’ve been branded everything from a fascist to a communist. Everything from a unionist to a dyed-in-the-wool republican, so I think I’m the ideal man to comment on this. I’m the everybigot and this is what I think.
A Nation Once Again? Bullshit. There never was an Irish nation. The nation-state was invented in 1789 and before that there were only spheres of influence dominated by feudal lords of one stripe or another. Ireland was a heterogeneous patchwork of small feudal kingdoms prior to the Flight of the Earls, and even then, the life of the ordinary worker was absolutely miserable. The feudal chieftains gave not one toss for the wellbeing of the average serf they ruled.
There was never an entity known as Ireland — only a territory loosely defined so.
On the other hand, there was a common bond in the shape of the Irish language, but language has always been a notoriously slippery ally. Not two weeks ago, I bumped into a couple of lads speaking German in my local pub. What part of Germany are you from? I inquired. Italy, they said.
There are Germans who speak French, and French who speak Italian. There are Russians who speak Polish and Finns who speak Swedish. It’s the shifting nature of borders through the centuries, and anyone who tries to tell me that I’m part of a single, pure Celtic strain is talking plain nonsense. I’m not, and neither is anyone else, including those remaining Irish speakers on the islands, whose lineage is heavily adulterated by the DNA of the Cromwellian soldiers who settled there.
We all know where doctrines of racial purity brought us in the last century so let’s be done with such notions..
On the other hand, we can’t turn away from the overbearing, triumphalist chest-beating of the Northern unionists, whose profound sense of insecurity leads them to prance about banging drums and waving Union Jacks like utter fools, as if such posturing constituted a culture. As if their ridiculous Ulster Scots was a language and not just an accent.
Flags and parades in the Wee North have nothing whatever to do with culture, and everything to do with a group of people who see themselves as cut off from the Motherland, in much the same way as the South African Boers did, and perhaps still do. These are the people who keep reminding themselves that they are the descendants of those who came from Scotland and drove the native Irish off the land and into oblivion in a spectacular act of ethnic cleansing, an atrocity so vile that modern-day unionists can only contemplate it by hating its victims and their descendants.
The unionist parade is about nothing but oppression. It’s utterly ludicrous, and yet its sole purpose is to remind the locals that they have been defeated. In some ways, this hatred is a sign of decency, since the folk memory of the crime is so strong, and the folk-guilt so virulent that the only way to avoid it is to detest those on whom your ancestors visited the injustice. Such is the way of all oppression, but what horrifies those who still regard themselves as settlers is this: their protector, the British government, no longer defends them with guns and armour. They can no longer swagger among the defeated, certain of back-up from a sectarian paramilitary police force and an overwhelming military power. They must deal with the detested, conquered locals, and this is something that sticks in their craw.
So what have we got?
On the one hand, we have the local tribe, fed on a diet of nationalistic nonsense, while on the other hand we have those who celebrate their tradition of conquer and oppression, fed on a diet of equally-twisted propaganda.
And this is what brings me to the point I wanted to make.
The Haass initiative tried, and failed, to reach consensus on three issues: flags, parades and dealing with the past, but to any rational analysis, there is only one issue that needs to be dealt with, and that issue is the past.
What we need is a massive re-exploration of history that will sweep away the nonsense heaped on both sides. Let us rid ourselves of the idea that an Irish nation ever existed, and let the unionists face up to the appalling ethnic cleansing, the genocide that put them where they are today. Let both sides accept that they were the pawns of an aristocracy that cared nothing for the poor or the weak.
Then we might have the basis for a common understanding of the mess that is Northern Ireland.