Unionism’s Continued Culture War Between Settler And Native In Ireland

Back in 2013 the political theorist and author, Daniel Butt, identified three characteristics which are found in most descriptions of historical colonialism:

“[these are] …domination, cultural imposition, and exploitation. First, colonialism is typically described as a form of domination which involves the subjugation of one people by another… This domination has taken varied institutional forms, but in general has involved the denial of self-determination, and the imposition of rule rooted in a separate political jurisdiction. Second, colonialism has frequently involved an attempt to impose the colonial power’s culture and customs onto the colonised, whether as a result of a belief in the racial and/or cultural superiority of the colonising power; an evangelical desire to spread particular religions or cultural practices; or as a mechanism for establishing and consolidating political control. Finally, the history of colonialism is deeply linked to the exploitation of colonised peoples… This exploitation has taken many different forms, but we might mention, among other policies, the slave trade, the misappropriation of cultural property and natural resources, the establishment of exploitative trade relations, and the forcible introduction of capitalist forms of production.

(“The International Encyclopedia of Ethics”, edited by Hugh LaFollette)

While some now regard it as impolitic to say so, it remains a matter of fact that several aspects of British unionism in Ireland fit quite easily within the first two definitions of colonialism. That is not a new observation. The historical origins of ideological unionism through the extension of Greater England’s hegemony over this island nation have been studied and debated for centuries. However there is an increasing reluctance to publicly acknowledge that a colonialist mindset continues to infuse unionist politics, one that requires a latent belief in the superiority of an ersatz form of British nationality, society and culture imposed upon this country (though plenty will do so in private, and from the most surprising of quarters). It may be depressing to speak in such terms at the start of the 21st century but there is no other way to explain the antipathy – or outright hatred – that mainstream political unionism in the Six Counties continues to display towards the indigenous language and culture of this island.

Of course, one can point to other territories in Europe where mixed linguistic and ethno-national populations co-exist (or not) but each of those cases is particular unto itself. When it comes to Britain and Ireland the accepted historical framework is one of invader and invaded, of coloniser and colonised, albeit with rarely admitted layers of complexity that go far beyond simple black and white, and into shades of contradictory grey. However the irrational aversion of the regional unionist parties, the DUP, UUP, TUV and even the supposedly liberal APNI, to the Irish language and Irish-speakers cannot be explained or understood except by reference to history. The oft repeated and sole excuse of unionist politicians, that they disdain Irish because it has been “politicised” by nationalists and republicans, is laughable. It sits alongside the grotesque arguments of conservative members of the Republican Party and press in the United States who dismiss the need to investigate unlawful killings of African-Americans by the police because the “Blacks” have “politicised” the subject (one supposes that instead of tweeting “#AllLivesMatter“, anglophone unionists could tweet “#AllLanguagesMatter“).

The anti-Irish sentiment which fuels the political parties of unionism manifests itself through physical violence, institutionalised discrimination or just plain pettiness, as can be seen in this extraordinary report from the Irish News in Belfast:

“THE decision to change a fisheries protection vessel’s name from Irish to its English equivalent was last night branded as a “retrograde step”.

The Banríon Uladh, which patrols the Irish Sea, has been renamed to Queen of Ulster by the DUP’s Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, Michelle McIlveen.

Ms McIlveen said the vessel had its Irish name replaced to its English translation because the executive department which owns it has a “single language policy”.

She added that it had been renamed as her department had a “fresh identity.

But Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew, who named the ship when it was bought in 2010 during her time as Stormont agriculture minister, said the move was “petty in the extreme”.

“It’s the most retrograde step I have heard in a long time,” she said. “It’s racism towards the Irish language and towards the Irish community….”

Indeed it is, the racist legacy of several centuries of colonial rule and misrule by a foreign power over this island. The vast majority of people in Ireland, in all our mixed and multifaceted ancestry and identity, recognise that we are living in the 2000s. However there are still those who are wedded to a belief that we are dwelling in the 1600s, settlerists who see a frontier territory not a modern nation state. Unfortunately they fill the elected ranks of the DUP, UUP, TUV and APNI. In such circumstances, even the name of a boat is simply another front in an ongoing culture war between settler and native, however erroneously imagined.

Though I suppose there is some comfort in knowing that we are not alone in dealing with the poisonous inheritance bequeathed to the Celtic nations of north-western Europe by the former suzerainty of Greater England, be it settlerism or a self-effacing cringe.

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4 comments

  1. McIlveen is the anglicised version of her surname, which derives from Gaelic, Mac Gille Bheathain, son of the servant of Saint Beathan (Bean), a common surname in S-W Scotland and quite common around where I live in Co. Antrim. Not quite sure why the A.P.N.I. and U.U.P. are being lumped in with the D.U.P. and T.U.V., as I’ve rarely heard the former parties voice any opinion on Irish, while, of course the latter parties are obsessively hostile to it, mainly through ignorance and its complete association, in their eyes, with physical force Irish Republicanism.

    1. Gildernew has more to be ashamed of in this than any Unionist.
      She’s using the Irish language, indeed many of the SF ministers are, as a political weapon. Much like the manhole covers controversy a few months ago the language is being used to stick another pin in the Unionist bull. When the unionists react, cue outrage and accusations of fascism.
      Does zero favours to the language.

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