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Immoderate moderacy March 22, 2018

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

A depressing piece from John Wilson Foster in the Irish Times on unionism and a united Ireland. Foster has written copiously on Irish novels and one might think that given that, coming from a moderate unionist background, he might have greater sympathy than he expresses for an Irish language act, but it is genuinely dispiriting to read something that amounts almost to a check list of troubling perceptions of nationalism (and as troublingly the term is used interchangeably with catholicism).

Self-perceived oppressed minority? Check!

After all, Catholics must be constantly reminded that they are an oppressed minority who should be striving for a united Ireland. Unionists must be harried without term and reminded that Sinn Féin’s day is coming.

Sinn Féin unable to accept normalisation? Check!

My suspicion is that Sinn Féin cannot abide such normalisation of social relations. And since they exhaust almost all the oxygen on the matter of nationalism (the SDLP is gasping for air), those relations must not find ordinary, much less political, expression.

I need hardly mention ‘suspicions’ and ‘instincts’. Foster has many of those:

I have Catholic friends who are unconcerned by living in the United Kingdom (a few expressly wish to do so) but naturally I cannot know how representative they might be. Instinct tells me that that they are a considerable constituency.

If only Catholics would support the situation!

Were they to speak out, while asserting their undimmed Irishness, they might help prevent a worsening of our current plight.

And yet, and yet, he ignores entirely the substance of the letter from nationalists to the Taoiseach and suggests:

Whatever their numbers, they are a far cry from the people in exile and bondage depicted by the recent letter to the Taoiseach sent with fanfare by 200 northern nationalists. I have pondered their claim to be deprived of human rights and can find only one candidate: the right to live in a nation of their choice, an all-island republic free of the United Kingdom.

Note that in this he appears absolutely indifferent or unaware of the issue central to that letter – that Brexit threatened to undermine the GFA/BA (he doesn’t mention that agreement at all) and through a potential/likely strengthening of partition would set back matters on the island decades if not more. They weren’t calling for the over-turning of the GFA/BA but its continuation! Few would consider this revanchist. Fewer still, unreasonable.

But for him it is but a rapid pivot to:

It is no hostility to the Irish language to suggest that official bilingualism (through an Irish Language Act) can hardly be a human right based on reality. Some 1.7 per cent of the population of the 26 counties daily speak Irish; the figure for the six counties is far less.

Anyone in Northern Ireland is free to learn Irish and entitled to speak it anywhere save in court or government offices (where Polish and Cantonese would be less impractical). Meanwhile, most unionists care nothing for Ulster-Scots and know there is no cultural equation between it and Irish.

That this is essentially the same argument used by many in the DUP and TUV, that the Irish language has no cultural value worth persevering, less even in a sense that Polish or Cantonese and that it is arguably less equivalent than those suggests that moderate unionism is in real trouble in regards to understanding parity of esteem. As some comments BTL on the article noted, small but meaningful gestures in regard to the language would actually help support the unionist position and moreover, and not unimportantly, would dovetail with practice elsewhere in the UK.

Indeed it is the relative ease by which such measures could be introduced that undermines his argument in the following.

Human rights and the Irish language are being used as Macbeth’s enemies used Birnam Wood – to fulfil prophecy by sophistry, advancing on the objective of a united Ireland behind the manipulation of social reality.
Unionists are dismayed that the constitutional parties in the South seem to have fallen in behind Sinn Féin on these (with all due respect) fabricated issues and on Brexit. (Which is certainly not fabricated, but it is a practical problem to be solved, not a constitutional bandwagon to clamber aboard.)

A language act equivalent to those in Scotland and Wales simply cannot be the existential threat he seems to present it as (as well as which there is an obvious contradiction in his argument, for if Irish is as nothing in the North then how on earth can granting that nothing some formal recognition be of any particular import -and by the way, I don’t think that granting some formal recognition would be any threat at all to the union. Again, anything but).

Note that Brexit is waved away – whereas, and this sentiment is not confined to this island, many regard it as a genuine existential threat to the UK (and not much lesser to this island).

Speaking of checklists, when in doubt argue that people shouldn’t be looking here, look over there, there I tell you!

Prophecy is magical thinking that Sinn Féin practise, the idea that a united Ireland is predestined and thus justifiably to be achieved by any means. It suffocates debate, makes every reform a staging post, and obstructs daily reality from flowing in the direction the stream of consciousness takes us, a direction that might well be towards closer unity on the island were Sinn Féin itself magically to disappear.
It also deliberately diverts energy away from the truer issues that affect us all – education, the economy, health, employment. Instead, human rights, an Irish Language Act, legal pursuit of security forces from the time of the Troubles, are the current issues of choice in the politics of prophecy and endgame.

Curious isn’t it how ‘truer’ issues in regard to education don’t encompass a Language Act. It also ignores the relative calm of the pre-Brexit period, indeed the period from the early 2000s through to the mid 2010s. But then for him…

After all, Sinn Féin is dedicated to the failure of Northern Ireland, a dedication implicit in their refusal to speak the name of the jurisdiction or take their seats in Westminster.

Except that it is entirely possible to participate fully in the institutions established under the GFA/BA (part-established by SF amongst many others) and still have an end goal of ending partition). Because let’s turn this about. How can unionist parties come to work institutions that admit of difference and distinction from Britain by their very existence. If he genuinely thinks SF cannot work in those institutions then by the same token he should be deeply sceptical about how the DUP or UUP can as well. And yet, as we know, they can and have and could and perhaps will. And let’s be honest, many of us on the left know all about participation in institutions that ultimately we want to see superseded.

And all of this ignores the legitimacy of seeking to end participation constitutionally. Something that once more was part and parcel of the GFA/BA. He may not like that, but if we are talking about democracy in any sense, and not just in the context of the GFA/BA… And by the way, everything he says here holds true of the SNP or PC.

All of this is risible in its own way, but then matters take a darker turn…

How can the circle of this sleepless strategy be squared with participation in government? Surely any political party in the South that aligns itself with Sinn Féin on Northern Irish issues is complicit in the politics of sabotage?

Now consider that. An Irish party that through its own analysis somehow winds up in support of a position that SF holds is ‘aligning with’ SF and ‘complicit in the politics of sabotage’. So presumably the WP which also supports an Irish language act is ‘aligning with SF’. Or the fact FF and FG in different ways are hugely exercised by Brexit likewise ‘aligns’. This isn’t politics, it certainly isn’t analysis. It is – and I hate to have to say it – nonsense. Moreover it is self-serving and rather problematic because words like ‘sabotage’ are hugely loaded. Curiously he doesn’t apply this to, say, the DUP though he makes much of ‘moderate’ unionists. And he doesn’t explain how it is possible to walk a path in opposition to a Tory Brexit that is cheered on by the DUP. And let’s work through the implications. If he is correct, then whatever is proposed by London, or the DUP, in regard to the North if it is opposed by SF is per definition out of bounds for comment or action by Dublin or southern political parties. Again, we’re talking nonsense here. Not least because that’s not the way actual politics works.

What’s most depressing is the sense that he is collapsing definitions, complexity, and so on in order to offer a hugely simplistic narrative whose purpose is ultimately… well, what? It’s difficult to discern anything much bar the rather boilerplate lamenting of the loss of a ‘centre-ground’ in the North (again ignoring that the fiery radicals of the SDLP and Alliance both support an Irish Language act).

Indeed reading his thoughts it is difficult not to feel that his proscription is one where such inconveniences would not arise – that all is fine, let’s not trouble ourselves…

But as centre-ground politics (for example, a coalition of the willing, say SDLP and UUP, in the absence of Sinn Féin and the decay of the DUP) gained common purchase, it is my belief that the silence around the water cooler would end.

That none of this engages with the reality is also depressing (not least the reality that whether one likes it or not the current constellation of forces is on that has the DUP and SF taking primary roles). But perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised. There’s no road map forward, no serious effort to engage with the now rather than hazy aspirations.

There’s also an oddly condescending and classist note in respect to some of what he says. For example:

Aside from moderate nationalists and Catholic de facto unionists, the other largely unrepresented constituency today is that of moderate, educated unionism. Its relative silence has seduced even someone as distinguished as Denis Bradley to equate unionism with the DUP and accuse unionism across the board of the ancient practice of withdrawing behind the boom.

Educated unionism? And by the by, it’s not that unionism is equated with the DUP but the other way around entirely, that the DUP has sought entirely successfully to represent itself as the sole voice not just of unionism but in a characteristic display of chutzpah as the voice of Northern Ireland.

Instead, and despite the fact that until recently intercommunity social relations were the most amicable I have ever seen them, events have taken an ominous turn. During the recent and deplorable Troubles, the social centre held and the business, professional and academic classes rubbed along quite well.
Now because of the determination of a minority of educated republicans smelling meat, the faultline is threatening to run upwards, through the academy and professions. Pan-nationalism now looks cultural, not just political, and might even become social. If the upward fracture continues, we will be in serious trouble.

‘Professional and academic classes’, ‘a minority of educated republicans’. And earlier that ‘educated unionism’. Interesting.


1. EWI - March 22, 2018

An awful lot of ink spilled, and pretentious words used, just to complain that the ‘Taigs’ are getting uppity.

Liked by 2 people

2. Sean Danaher - March 22, 2018

Hi WorldByStorm

I haven’t posted here before but have an astrophysics PhD from UCD and am now an Emeritus Professor in Northumbria University (Newcastle upon Tyne).

I found JWF’s a really depressing article, poorly argued and largely missing the point. It came across as DUP propaganda. More worrying is that some of these arguments have become fairly accepted in the UK and indeed there was a Guardian editorial recently which made some of the same points. Indeed I was so annoyed with the Guardian I wrote a piece on the Progressive Pulse Blog (UK based but I am one of the editors and largely write about my native Ireland.)


this I think is a good rebuttal of JWF’s crass, uncultured and dare I say it gives the impression of suffering from the Dunning Kruger syndrome in this area.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - March 22, 2018

Thanks Sean, very interesting link and well worth making that case I think. It’s kind of appalling how the Guardian could come up with this stuff. Then again… why are we surprised.


EWI - March 22, 2018

What are the chances that the Guardian’s editorial policy is being influenced by Henry McDonald?


WorldbyStorm - March 22, 2018

I hope not.


3. CL - March 22, 2018

“In political/electoral terms Northern Ireland is clearly more polarised than it was in 1998. The palpable sense of hope and new opportunity that existed in 1998 has exploded into dust. …
Sinn Fein and the DUP are growing their base precisely because they are reflecting the mood and concerns of their respective voters….
It’s not about Brexit and a possible hard border introducing new tensions into Northern Ireland politics; rather, it’s the possibility that the existing tensions are so problematic and taut that it wouldn’t take very much to push them beyond snapping point.” -Alex Kane.

Liked by 1 person

seandanaher2017 - March 22, 2018

Sadly I believe you are right. After the GFA I had presumed things would get better and gradually the PUL/CNR divide would becomes less relavent. how wrong I was!

Brexit has thrown the cat amongst the pidgins so to speak and I keep a close eye on Slugger to see the lie of the land


WorldbyStorm - March 22, 2018

In a weird way there was a relatively comfortable status quo prior to Brexit. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was at least reasonably peaceful – and there’s interesting data, I think Kane mentioned it, that suggests politically on the broader issue there was a blurring to some degree. But as you say, cat, pidgins. Now serious problems.


4. An Sionnach Fionn - March 22, 2018

It’s remarkable how many mainstream unionists are willing to recognise and accept that some people living in the north of Ireland may have an Irish identity – so long as those people don’t do anything to express, articulate or pursue that Irish identity. I mean, it’s okay to be a nationalist, in your heart and mind, but just keep it to yourself. It’s like the pro-union version of don’t ask/don’t tell.

Awful stuff, but reflective of where even the most liberal sort of soft unionist stands.

Brexit or not, there is a crunch time coming in the 6 Cos. Something fundamental is going to happen, even with some form of continued regional separateness, within a reunited Ireland or in a de facto shared territory between Dublin (Brussels)and London. However, before that happens we’ll have to go through the Ulster version of a Donald Trump, a last hurrah against the changing demographics and society more generally.


WorldbyStorm - March 22, 2018

“how many mainstream unionists are willing to recognise and accept that some people living in the north of Ireland may have an Irish identity – so long as those people don’t do anything to express, articulate or pursue that Irish identity. ”

That’s sums it up perfectly.


Marconatrix - March 23, 2018

Seumas, I find your idea of a “liberal sort of soft unionist” as improbable a concept as e.g. a “compassionate Nazi”. Perhaps the fault is mine, I’m not an astrophysicist after all, but what motivation could a resident of Ireland have for unionism other than to do down the ‘natives’, a colonial mindset that is? As the Republic becomes more cosmopolitan, European, connected, secular, liberal, progressive and most of all perhaps, wealthier, it’s increasingly hard to see what in the world Unionism still has going for it. Sin mo bheachd-sa, co-dhiù.


WorldbyStorm - March 23, 2018

But is it that difficult to see. Take Sylvia Hermon. Liberal unionist, effectively votes with the BLP, has a clear appreciation of an Irish nationalist perspective and respect for same while being a unionist. Dawn Purvis likewise. Naomi Long Alliance who are functionally unionists…And yet all these people are able to work constructively with nationalists and republicans.

By contrast take Kate Hoey. Illiberal unionist, an actual member and MP for the BLP with no appreciation of a nationalist perspective or any real respect for same, and again a unionist.

There’s a whole heap of other things too, but if one is born into unionism then it’s no more a question of what it has going for it as much as that is what one is, in precisely the same way as if one is born into republicanism or nationlism those are the reference points. This isn’t to say matters can’t change – clearly they can and in any number of different directions, but that it’s not a simple false consciousness. It exists and people adhere to that and it’s no easier to push someone from being a unionist that it was for nationalists and republicans in the six counties to stop being nationalists and republicans.

There’s a lot in what you say re the Republic, but… that doesn’t really help if ones national identity is locked in with Britain and regards Britain as worldbeating, etc, etc. Indeed as we see with the DUP it is very easy for it to align with highly reactionary concepts of Britishness under Brexit – and to see them as positives.

The whole question of a colonial mindset is perhaps part of that but also not the whole thing. Some people will have it. But not all and functionally if you’re brought up on a working class loyalist/unionist estate one has to wonder at how that works too. Not that it won’t be there but…


5. Seamus Mallon - March 23, 2018

Does anybody detect the hand of Eoghan Harris in the wording of this article by Mr Foster, because the language he employs is used by Harris every week in the Sindo.


WorldbyStorm - March 23, 2018

That’s an interesting thought.


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