As a final comment on the events of last week, one highly and increasingly frustrating aspect of social and political comment in and about Northern Ireland is the ludicrous notion that Northern Ireland is somehow unique; the only part of Europe where people worry about identity. In fact, it is mainstream – it is just that most regions dealt with it by expelling one or other “side” in a religious, ethnic or linguistic dispute.
I spent Eleventh Night in Antwerp, the largest city wholly within the Flemish Region (i.e. Dutch-speaking Belgium). Its Mayor is a hard-liner, pushing for Flemish sovereignty. The only French-language sign I saw in the entire city (in a country whose capital city is 85% French-speaking, remember) was an old one at the entrance to the Zoo.
Eleventh Night was relevant in Belgium too, as it is the Flemish Community’s national day. An exhibition in Central Station explained, however, that linguistic issues were not always to the fore here: an economic powerhouse handling 40% of the world’s trade in 1500, until the late 16th century, Antwerp was majority Protestant. The Wars of the Reformation put paid to that, and from 1585 the city’s Protestant population had to flee in its entirety, mainly to Holland and partly also to England and (modern) Germany.
Linguistic issues are to the fore now, however. The Flemish Government recently removed “French-speaking facilities” from majority Dutch-speaking municipalities; a Flemish transport Minister recently tried to foist black-on-yellow numberplates on the country (these just happen to be the colours of the Flemish flag); recent “deals” on managing the Belgian state have met with on-going anger among Dutch-speaking politicians, aware that the people they represent are subsidising poorer French speakers to the south. The Belgians are just lucky, frankly, that the two sides are geographically divided (apart from in parts of Brussels), or who is to say how ugly it would all get?
This is all happening in the very country in which the European institutions are based. Is it unique? No, it is representative.