In France you may reasonably expect French culture, French symbols and the French language to predominate; this seems reasonable and no one seriously disputes it. In Estonia, some expect Estonian culture, Estonian symbols and the Estonian language to predominate; this is trickier, because in fact around a third of the population there comes within the last three generations from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and has an instinctive preference is many cases for Russian culture and the Russian language. Estonia is learning, with some challenges, that it is a requirement of any State and its laws to respect the nationalities of its citizens even if these differ, just as it is of those citizens to respect the State and its laws regardless of their own nationality.
In Ireland, you may reasonably expect Irish culture, Irish symbols and the Irish language to predominate (at least officially); within the territory of the Republic, this is reasonable. In Britain (to use the shorthand for the UK), you may reasonably expect British culture, British symbols and the British form of English to predominate; this becomes interesting given the variations in different countries of Britain.
In Northern Ireland, this gives us a problem. In this part of the UK, British people living in the UK expect British culture, British symbols and the British form of English to predominate; surely this is not unreasonable? In this part of the Island of Ireland, Irish people expect Irish culture, Irish symbols and the Irish language to predominate; surely this is not unreasonable? (By the way, this preference for one particular set of symbols, culture and language is often referred to by politicians who happen to share them as “equality”.)
Neither is unreasonable; but both are impossible. We agreed, directly in 1998 and subsequently effectively in 2007, to endorse a deal in which we in Northern Ireland may opt to be British or Irish or both. We still struggle to recognise, though, that our fellow citizens’ right and genuinely held desire to be the one we are not actually limits us in the preference we may expect to be shown for our culture, our symbols and our language. Compromise is demanded by what is in effect not a choice of citizenship (British or Irish), but a collective joint citizenship (British and Irish).
Interestingly, it is the apparent desire to restrict other people’s culture, symbols and language rather than insist on our own which creates the biggest problems – an expansion perhaps of the “Endowment Principle”, usually reserved for economics, which essentially notes we place a far higher value on something if we already possess it than if we don’t. However, the fundamental difficulty concerns the notion of “entitlement”.
We are all theoretically entitled, as British or Irish citizens, to prioritise our own culture, symbols and language – so doing automatically means we give less priority to the other one. We may even opt, as is our entitlement, to heap ridicule on the one we are not prioritising – for example, by referring to political opponents as “bastards” or by entering into a debate about “curry and yoghurt”. In fact, we may go further and directly attack the other citizenship if it seems directly to conflict with our own – by attacking imperial history or past military defeats (say, in 1690).
However, just because we are entitled to do something does not mean we should do it. Theoretically I am entitled to park all day on the Jordanstown Road near the station, but it would cause delays and inconvenience literally to thousands if I did so. I have a responsibility not to abuse that entitlement.
We are too focused on our individual entitlements and not focused enough on our citizenship responsibilities. In the same way we don’t block roads for the hell of it, we shouldn’t mock others’ citizenship for the hell of it either. For all our entitlement to enjoy our own culture and language, we have a fundamental responsibility in our agreed multinational society not to mock others’, least of all either of those specifically named in the 1998 Agreement as re-endorsed by elected representatives from all our main parties in 2006.
I am always one for “lightening up”. It is true that there are too many people looking to be offended and not enough willing to engage in self-deprecation. I will certainly lighten up at things which are: a) harmless, and b) funny.
In fact, in a fragile society where the penalty for ignorance and disrespect can be appalling conflict, mocking national identity and its associated culture, symbols and language is neither harmless nor funny.
Instead of focusing on how the Agreement gives us an entitlement differing citizenships as individuals, we should focus instead on how the Agreement gives us a responsibility to respect what is in effect a joint British-Irish citizenship as a society. This is a bigger ask than in France, or elsewhere in the UK, or elsewhere in Ireland, or probably even than in Estonia – but fundamentally it’s what we agreed was the only way forward in 1998 and endorsed again in 2007. (Our agreement on joint citizenship is distinct from our agreement to remain within the UK in a country called Norrhern Ireland – and by the way, no one who claims to be pro-Agreement yet refuses to refer to the country we agreed to live in by its proper and agreed name gets to give lectures on either “equality” or “bigotry”.)
It is time we replaced our demands and entitlements from each other as individuals with responsibilities and duties to each other as citizens. It is time we stopped mocking and abuse and replaced it with courtesy and respect. Most of all, it is time our leaders were punished for behaving nastily and rewarded for common decency. In short, it is time we wised up.