A conversation about the Irish name for “Belfast” degenerated recently into the comment “It’s the English name that counts, we’re under English [sic] rule”. Isn’t it telling that people still phrase it like that – “we’re under British rule“? Who, with an iota of self-worth, would phrase it like that?
Eight years ago this week the England football team visited Northern Ireland for a World Cup qualifier. The papers were full of the questions English players were asking about Belfast lough, what room David Beckham was staying in at the Culloden, and what sandwiches Wayne Rooney was eating. These great English invaders were lauded as superstars and latter-day colonial masters. Before they lost 1-0…
To be clear, I am half-English, I was largely educated there, I am genuinely fond of England above and beyond that, I support all its sports teams they play anyone except Ireland/Northern Ireland (or occasionally South Africa). But I do not for one second believe as a resident of Northern Ireland I am “under their rule”. What a ridiculous notion! It is quite obvious to anyone who views it objectively that we are every bit as good as they are, as David Healy proved that night.
Of course, there are people who do believe we are “under English/British rule” on both sides of the divide, and who do innately carry an inferiority complex – this is surely a colonial overhang. After all, Ireland was under English Rule (i.e. Parliament in London was able to legislate for it without any Irish representation). This goes well beyond the inner cities too. Indeed, one excited new NI21 member wrote over on Slugger that our (NI) politicians “shouldn’t bother with the difficult stuff like welfare and tax” (in other words, that they should leave it to those superior beings over in England – you know, like the obviously incredibly competent David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg…)
It is true that Northern Ireland was not fully included within the UK in 1921, but rather cast asunder from it – uniquely attaining Home Rule when it didn’t want it and when Scotland and Wales were still 80 years away from having it. It is true that most people in Great Britain are aware of Great Britain’s own boundaries but often unsure of Northern Ireland’s or Ireland’s relationship with it, treating people from either jurisdiction much the same. It is true that, unlike Wales and particularly Scotland, Northern Ireland politicians rarely play a significant role at the heart of UK-wide politics. And of course there’s the “not available in Northern Ireland” syndrome.
But Northern Ireland is not “under British rule”, as this would imply something involuntary about it and/or that it has no say over that rule – so it is particularly odd to hear Unionists using the term. The 1998 Agreement makes it absolutely clear that Northern Ireland is in a Union with Great Britain (post-devolution, perhaps best seen as a Union with England, Scotland and Wales) which it may remain within or depart from entirely of its own accord. Furthermore, the 1998 Agreement makes it clear that Northern Ireland has its own rule for domestic matters, co-operating with Great Britain on excepted and reserved matters through Parliament in which it is perfectly fairly represented proportionately; indeed, it also cooperates on certain agreed matters with the rest of Ireland through bodies with Boards with equal numbers from each jurisdiction reporting to each legislature – so there’s no “under anybody’s rule” there!
What the phrase really gives away is an ongoing inferiority complex – as if we somehow should be under someone else’s rule because we’re too stupid to govern ourselves. That then becomes somewhat self-fulfilling when, in the certitude that someone in Great Britain will bail us out if we do anything too ludicrous, we overwhelmingly elect to Stormont a load of “community representatives” with a narrow, one-sided view of everything in preference to competent legislators who can think and feel for everyone in NI.
Yes, we have our foibles, but taken as a whole they are no worse than any other country’s. It is about time we in Northern Ireland gained some self-respect, with or without David Healy banging in hat tricks or Rory McIlroy banging in birdies. We are actually worth it.