Cultural effrontery






On 9 August there was an interesting and revealing article in The Irish Times by Rosemary Jenkinson, artist-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast. The title was: I’m a Belfast Protestant but I’m an Irish writer’.

Jenkinson’s subject was really the question of belonging, that complex relationship between politics, culture and national identity, explored in the intersection of her own personal history and career.

In a sentence, what disturbed her is this:

“I like to call myself an Irish writer but being born a Northern Protestant presents some problems”

if only because

“…a plantation name like Jenkinson sticks out as much as if it were Polish.”

As a young girl, with a conventional upbringing in East Belfast and its commonplace affinities with things British, she was encouraged by her teachers to make the journey of self-improvement to a top university in England. On reflection, she thinks that those teachers did ‘a better job of ethnic cleansing a generation of young Protestants in the eighties than the IRA ever did’ – even though she admits that she and her friends were glad to leave Northern Ireland after experiencing an instance of Catholic sectarianism.

At university in Durham, Jenkinson also encountered one case of English bigotry, one of the ‘Ireland for the Irish’ sort; though the same offender probably would be appalled to hear someone advocate ‘England for the English’ and would likely demand a ‘no platform’ response from the Students’ Union.

Jenkinson’s spirited response at that time has given way to a less confident and more insecure reflection today:

“I think the girl’s negative reaction to me is why, unlike the Catholic Irish, Ulster Protestants don’t hold on to their identity when they emigrate. It is weird but our identity is primarily predicated on what we aren’t rather than what we are.”

She found it difficult to settle in either England or Scotland or outside the UK and knew that she had ‘to go back to Belfast’.

The difficulty for her in Northern Ireland has been the lack of arts funding which is partly put ‘down to the Ulster Protestant ethos’ – though how funding, aesthetic and talent are aligned is never expanded upon. From that point of view, the South is better. Yet here is for her another problem of belonging: ‘in terms of politics, the media I watch, my culture, my experiences, am I really regarded by the Southern Irish as Irish?’ (Indeed, her great-grandfather had been forced to leave Cork before partition because of discrimination).

Here is Jenkinson’s conclusion in full:

“The truth is that Northern Protestants envy how Irish Catholics are loved and accepted throughout the world. I think the new uncertainty of Brexit makes us feel as precarious as an infant in care. We’re like the problem child of Europe, feeling disowned and unloved by England and Ireland, yet at the same time we’re incredibly proud to have survived. It’s impossible to tell if a united Ireland is in the offing. All I can say for sure is that, whatever the case, I’d like to be considered as an Irish writer.”

If Jenkinson’s story is not representative of all Unionist/Protestant experience (and she is not claiming that it is) it retails a distinctive mood or mentality that is recognisable:

  • it is essentially defensive:
  • it is about survival;
  • it is negative;
  • it is only defined – to use Linda Colley’s old term – by the ‘Other’ rather than by any intrinsic cultural worth;
  • it is wanting (a history of always aspiring to be something else – English at one time or Irish now;
  • it is apologetic – albeit with a tinge of self-pity (nobody loves us…but we do care); and ultimately
  • it is fearful of the future (what will become of us?). And the fear can be stated quite simply: it is the fear of not

That phrase ‘fear of not belonging’ is deliberately chosen because it was how Lord Windelsham – one of Northern Ireland’s first Direct Rule Ministers – described the existential condition of the Ulster Unionist (and an academic version was Miller’s influential book Queen’s Rebels).

Jenkinson has honestly and accurately, albeit not necessarily deliberately or consciously, conveyed a recognisable existential mood.

The corresponding journalistic cliché is also recognisable – Unionists suffer from an identity crisis and this psychological ‘crisis’ is used to explain the Northern Ireland Question – to which Jenkinson’s article goes a long way to providing the ‘appropriate’ answer; the solution is to become ‘Irish’.

However, it is vital to question all those assumptions because their sense informs the prevailing nationalist and republican narrative of Unionism. The last thing a self-respecting Unionist should want to be is to be defined by his or her political opponents, and yet it is remarkable how often even intelligent and cultured Protestants/Unionists permit that to happen. Jenkinson appears to be one of them.

First, there is the matter of culture itself. For example, the whole debate in Northern Ireland about ‘cultural traditions’ was beset by one simple question that was never even addressed even as the funding for its different ‘cultural’ activities was distributed.

When we talk of cultural traditions do we mean Irish/Northern Ireland culture or do we mean culture in Ireland/Northern Ireland?

The former has a distinctive bias, which is central to traditional nationalism and establishes a sort of bogus authenticity; a limited focus, against which all creative activity is measured. Nationalist = culture. All else is alien.

The latter is understood as the diversity of what a creative and imaginative people are doing at any one time in any one place – and Ireland/Northern Ireland just happens to be one of those locations.

Of course some things will be distinctive of and unique to location, but others will not be.

A brilliantly talented classical singer or an innovative novelist – is what they are doing to be defined by where they are doing it or by what they are doing? And furthermore, does it matter?

Yes, it does matter. This idea that Protestants/Unionists lack ‘culture’ is such a pervasive prejudice because what is being taken to be culture is the first of these, nationalist, modes of understanding.

Hence the staple resort of lazy broadcasters and partisan commentators to speak of nothing else about Unionists/Protestants but bonfires and marching bands. It fits with the pattern of attempts to demoralise Unionists; that attachment to being British is tenuous, ephemeral, and the sooner Unionists acknowledge that they are really Irish the better. Cue the Irish Language Act to smooth Unionists into their ‘natural’ identity. If Unionist’s feel affronted by this attitude, maybe they ought to be.

This association of ideas and conclusions is patently absurd. It discounts all other cultural activity from choral societies to amateur dramatics as if they have no worth or creative standing, as if an ‘ideology of community’ must inform absolutely everything one thinks or does; that culture must be defined solely by national purpose or ethnic affinity – a world defined by West or East Belfast?

How limiting and constricting is that as a vision of the aesthetic?

Second, this also speaks to the curious notion that being educated in elsewhere, or feeling an affinity with cultural life outside the island of Ireland, is a form of collective or communal betrayal – because who you are and where you belong is birth-determined.

Moreover, it’s as if cultural life can be packaged into neatly self-contained, national categories: the sort of narrow Republican agitprop view of life which any self-respecting Unionist, – indeed, any self-respecting person, should reject.

Should Shakespeare be condemned because he is part and parcel of English imperialism? Or Wagner because of Nazi associations?

When one surveys the cultural landscape of Northern Ireland the world-class and internationally respected institutions of NI Opera or Ulster Orchestra are not definable in the narrow terms of Irishness or even Ulsterness – and therefore dismissed as elite: if one politics doesn’t damn another is readily available to serve the same purpose.

The notion of a narrow sectarian definition of culture, birth-determined, stated in those terms sounds absurd. Yes. But how often do Unionists concede ‘culture’ to a national-ethnic definition, or echo it, without challenge?

This underscores the third point – the sort of cultural cringe, felt even by someone as obviously intelligent and talented as Jenkinson: a cultural cringe which assumes on the one hand a richly vibrant Irish national culture and on the other, an empty Unionist/Protestant one, defined only by what it lacks; as Jenkinson suggests, one which is defined by a history of industry (now long gone) and not by art.

This is translated in to two familiar stereotypes: the romantic Irish, and the ‘hard-headed’ Prods! These two are equally nonsense. However, this sort of nonsense has political consequences of the sort which Jenkinson addresses directly – of feeling excluded from being British and of being Irish only on someone else’s terms.

Only thinking makes this so. The assumption we find in Jenkinson’s article is that Republicans have all the best tunes and that, as guests in their nation, we may be allowed to sing along too, so long as we behave properly.

There is also intimation, though likely unintended and certainly not explicit, in the Jenkinson article about concern around a possible border poll and the consequences for Unionists/Protestants of the outcome of that vote. Unfortunately, her sort of thinking has conceded the end already.

Unionists need to be more self-confident about their place within the United Kingdom as citizens belonging as of right and of citizenship; with a culture that enables self-expression and self-affirmation, from rich seams of ideas that change and are often reinvented, always comfortable in its own clothes.

Unionists/Protestants also need to be more confident about cultural expression. Let’s use the word ‘tradition’ by way of celebration and heritage to be enhanced, refreshed and renewed, and as the foundation of new ideas and expression. Implicitly this means avoiding a narrow ethno-nationalist straightjacket of ‘culture’ that is a particular and specific tradition that is also a universal mystical inheritance.

There is nothing to be defensive about in being British; there is nothing to be negative about; there is nothing wanting in experience: there is nothing for which to be apologetic; and ultimately there is nothing to fear but fear itself.