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Bella, Joan And Me

Last week I wrote a piece criticising some of the points made by the Scottish journalist and SNP politician Joan McAlpine in her article addressing the thorny issue of the SNP’s controversial anti-sectarian bill in Scotland. Joan had previously expressed views supporting the new legislation and (unsurprisingly) stirred up something of a hornets’ nest around her, coming under quite a bit of flak from the supporters of the two main targets of the law: the supporters of the rival Glasgow soccer teams of Celtic (traditionally enjoying immigrant Irish and normally Irish Roman Catholic support) and Rangers (traditionally receiving Scottish Loyalist and Protestant support).

My article was intended as a riposte to some of the “facts” presented by Joan McAlpine in her support of the legislation, legislation which will principally involve the banning of perceived “sectarian” songs, symbols or behaviour in Scottish sporting events. It was not a critique of the legislation per se, or of Joan’s opinions on it. As I stated in the posting, and in the comments that followed, I regard the matter as a largely Scottish affair: a Scottish issue for the Scottish people to deal with as they see fit. However when Joan made some surprisingly ill-informed claims in relation to Irish history to back up her opinions I felt they needed a firm reply.

Firstly, Joan implied that the national anthem of Ireland, Amhrán na bhFiann, was a sectarian “chant” and that it should be banned from sporting grounds in Scotland. While she may have been making the argument that in certain contexts, such as an “Old Firm” game, the singing of the Irish anthem may be perceived as provocative to some Rangers’ fans she could have balanced it with the point that the British national anthem, God Save The Queen, would be just as provocative to many Celtic supporters and should also be banned. But she did not do so.

Secondly, she indicated that in her view songs (or symbols?) commemorating the Irish Revolution were similarly “sectarian” in nature, a far more tendentious argument. A reference to the recent allegations of a sectarian campaign against “Protestants” in the south-west of Ireland during the War of Independence was particularly irresponsible. To hear a Scottish nationalist spouting the counterfactual propaganda of contemporary apologists for British rule in Ireland was frankly dismaying. Joan McAlpine should have known better. This is not the behaviour one expects, or should accept, from a fellow Celtic nationalist. It was particularly distasteful when one remembers the long history of anti-Irish and Roman Catholic sentiments that were found in some Scottish nationalist and Protestant circles up to relatively recent times. It was quiet uncharacteristic of the writings of Ms. McAlpine, from what I’ve known and enjoyed, and hence my lengthy response.

However, it turns out this is not the end of the matter. Now Andrew Anderson, over at the Scottish nationalist media site Bella Caledonia, has used my article criticising Joan McAlpine as a jumping off point to address the more important issue of the anti-sectarian bill itself. However he has done so with some unfortunate misinterpretations of my original posting.

“Séamas Ó Sionnaigh raises some valid issues in his attack on Joan McAlpine and the Scottish Government’s approach to sectarianism, but whilst I would defend his right to make a polemical defence of historical and more recent armed struggle, he actually misses the point. The challenge is how to move forward so that we can live together in these islands without killing each other, in Ireland and Scotland. A good first step would be to discuss our differences without disparaging those we don’t agree with. Séamas seems to have overlooked that Joan’s article was partly prompted by the vitriolic attacks she faced in the Twittersphere for having the temerity to raise the issue. And when Séamas talks of common ethnicity he treads on dangerous ground indeed.”

Firstly, my article was not an attack on Joan McAlpine or her support of the anti-sectarian bill, nor the Scottish government’s legislative solution to sectarianism in Scotland. Neither was it a defence, as such, of armed struggle in Ireland. The historic Irish Revolution needs no such defence. The more recent armed struggle on the other hand is certainly deserving of a more nuanced and considerate approach, whatever one’s views on its validity or not. The pain is still raw for many thousands of people, on all sides, and as I stated in my article the sensitivities that stem from that should be acknowledged and respected. It was primarily a critique of the historical references to Ireland’s War of Independence made by Joan, references which surprisingly echoed contemporary British and Neo-Unionist revisionist counter-histories, that led to my article being written. Yes, I pointed out some of the incongruities of the bill, and if asked for an opinion I suspect it will cause more troubles that it will solve, but that is a matter for the Scottish people to face.

Secondly, Joan McAlpine’s sensitivities, however justified, do not excuse a Scottish nationalist promulgating British nationalist historical fantasies about Ireland. As a journalist (or blogger) if you write on subjects that are politically or culturally controversial then you must expect a reaction. It comes with the territory, particularly in the age of web-based interconnectivity and interaction. Of course the torrent of abuse faced by Joan was completely unwarranted, but I hardly think my lengthy criticism falls into the category of mean-spirited or paranoid tweets and status updates. It began with my expression of admiration for Joan McAlpine, for heaven’s sake.

I fail to understand Andrew Anderson’s reference to “dangerous ground” when I talked of the common ethnicity shared and celebrated by many Irish and Scottish people. We are Celts and Gaels, both Irish and Scottish. The ties that bind us are manifest in our related histories, languages, literature, poetry, music and sports. It is a form of pan-national ethnic identity, one that is embracive and open, one that does not require a particular passport or place of birth to join. People from Nova Scotia to Japan can and do learn the Irish and Scottish languages and in doing so enrich and enliven our societies and cultures.

Furthermore recognition of our mutual heritage, far from being divisive, is a unifying force between Ireland and Scotland. It does not advocate killing people – it advocates bringing people together. Perhaps if the Scottish government and those who support or oppose this bill lift their eyes from the minutiae and see the bigger picture we might indeed lower the temperature of the discussion – and replace it with a far more important and far reaching one instead.

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