I have referred before to Duncan Morrow’s recent lecture which seeks, in my view entirely justifiably, to re-define the Northern Ireland conflict as one deriving from a state which was designed not so much as a “gerrymandered majority Protestant province” but as a “gerrymandered means of containment” (my words, not his).
It is becoming apparent to me – but I write this merely as a theory rather than a statement of a clearly defined view – that this “containment” point is central to the whole issue of what has gone on and continues to be argued about in this small part of the world. To push this theory further, I am going generally to replace the term “Irish” with “Gaelic Irish“, and the term “British” with “Anglo-Scottish” – let us see if this helps our understanding. All comments welcome!
The “British Isles” were in fact initially so named 2000 years ago by Ptolemy. As with anywhere else, they were contested for a considerable length of time but from the Norman invasion onwards, and particularly from Tudor times onwards, they had settled into three major “nations” (in the original sense of the world, referring primarily to “peoples”). I do not mean to exclude the Welsh, or indeed the Cornish or Yorkshirefolk or Scousers, but history dictates that these three “nations” have been fairly well defined and have formed three “states” of their own within the past 700 years or so.
In no particular order, we have:
– the “English” nation, resident in the state (long-standing kingdom) known as “England” under English law, religiously predominantly “Anglican”, and ethnically predominantly “Anglo-Saxon” (let’s just say “Anglo” for the sake of this piece);
– the “Scottish” nation, resident in the state (long-standing kingdom) known as “Scotland” under Scots law, religiously predominantly “Presbyterian”, and ethnically predominantly “Anglo-Gael” (not to assume any mixing but let us just say “Scots” or “Scottish” for the sake of this piece); and
– the “(Gaelic) Irish” nation, resident in the state (now republic) known as “Ireland” under Irish law, religiously predominantly “Catholic”, and ethnically predominantly “Gaelic (Irish)” (as noted above, let’s call this “Gaelic Irish“).
Clearly, the boundaries between the “nations” and, once established, even between the “states” have been blurred on occasions – not least during the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms” in the 17th century. Towns on the island of Great Britain such as Berwick and Carlisle have shifted between England and Scotland, but it is worth noting that so has Carrickfergus on the island of Ireland; Wales was incorporated into the “Kingdom of England” under English law and is predominantly Anglican, but has a separate ethnic and linguistic (and thus national) identity; there is a significant ethnic division north/south in England and Highland/Lowland in Scotland. Territories such as Cornwall and the Isle of Man have had uncertain and changing status over time. Ireland in particular is prone to very significant local loyalties as well as an overarching national identity. So I am fully accepting that the above is somewhat simplistic. But I suggest we can run with it…
This brings us to what is now Northern Ireland. Rather than a conflict between two competing sides – “British/Protestant” and “Irish/Catholic”, it may in fact be better to see Northern Ireland as a competition among three nations, at least initially. By effectively renaming the sides identified in the 1998 Agreement as “Anglo-Scottish” on one hand and “Gaelic Irish” on the other, we in fact free up terms such as “British”, “Irish” and “Protestant” to be used with greater precision in more useful ways. Immediately, for example, it is apparent that there can be crossover identities – if you have “Anglo-Scottish” and “Gaelic Irish”, who then are the “Anglo-Irish”? Inserting “Gaelic” in front of “Irish” allows instantly for other types of “Irish” – thus obviously allowing for loyalty to the “(all-)Irish” rugby team while allowing at the same time for non-allegiance to the “(Gaelic) Irish” state.
It also makes it easier to fathom how someone can be both “British” and “anti-English” – if they are instead “Anglo-Scottish” and “anti-English” this is more straightforward (whether it is justifiable is another point, of course). It would do no harm either to clarify that while there is a strong “Ulster Scots” identity among the “Anglo-Scottish”, there is also a non-Scottish element to that identity (thus any direct correlation between “Ulster Scots” and “Protestant” or “British” can immediately and easily be rejected).
It perhaps also helps distinguish the constitutional options. The option of a “United Ireland” can be clearly distinguished from “incorporation into the Gaelic Irish republic (as it currently exists)”, with the emphasis switched to “united” rather than “Ireland”. Likewise, “maintenance of the Union” essentially means maintenance of the “Anglo-Scottish united kingdom”, which immediately recognizes that the immediate threat to it may be a split of the Anglos and the Scots – a split which would cause obvious difficulty to people of “Anglo-Scottish” origin in Northern Ireland who instinctively have a foot in each camp. Additionally, the “Anglo-Scottish” are not at home in either “England” or “Scotland” (which deprives them of half their identity) but in “Northern Ireland” – a shared state which is wholly “Irish” in a broad sense but not entirely “Gaelic”.
All of this explains why “Northern Ireland” will never truly be a home for any single one of the three “nations”; and why full incorporation of it into any of those nations’ states (England, Scotland or Ireland) would be obvious folly. Does clarifying the starting point in such a straightforward way not then make it rather easier to work together towards the end goal?