Monday, February 08, 2021

Hiber-nation in 1996? Embrace the varieties.

This article caught my eye a while ago, when it was published over the Christmas and New Year period, and it came back to mind today. What is remarkable about it is not what the Presbyterian representatives Rev Dr Harry Allen and Rev Sam Hutchinson said back in November 1996, but rather that those from the Northern Ireland Office were so taken aback by it. The civil servants who run Northern Ireland are supposed to be masters of nuance and ambiguities, but in this article - at a key moment in history - they show just how little they understood when they said "On identity, the views expressed tended towards the surreal". Maybe the NIO had been asleep at the wheel - certainly they had no grasp of cultural complexity and diversity. Hiber-nating in fact.

'Irish' meant in its broadest geographical context just means 'from Ireland'. But there is also a narrower cultural/linguistic context which can mean a very specific set of cultural expressions and aspirations. For example, when someone says that Ulster society is a combination of Irish, English and Scottish influences, we know that 'Irish' in that context is much more specific than merely geography. And even these can 'radiate' in degrees of specificity, and overlap with one another. As with any discussion, it is essential to define your terms.

To lift some quotes from the News Letter article, is no surprise to me whatsoever (or to anyone half-informed) that Presbyterians might describe themselves as 'Ulster-Scots', and that their 'Northern flock', living within the United Kingdom, would be 'first and foremost British', or perhaps have a sense of identity that was 'Britishness tinged by a bit of Irishness'.

Shockingly still, this was the era when the Cultural Traditions Group delivered some very fine work under the auspices of The Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University in its Varities series. The Varieties of Scottishness conference had been held in March 1996 just a few months prior to the NIO/PCI meeting. The Group had delivered Varieties of Irishness in 1989, Varieties of Britishness in 1990, and All Europeans Now in 1991. The papers from these, and the Group's other conferences, were published; these can still be bought online via and other second hand sources. 

1996 was also the year of Seamus Heaney's superb Burns's Art Speech (see previous post here) in which he articulates and understands so beautifully our historic and intertwined triple-blend.

Yet it was 1997 during the negotiations which led to the Belfast Agreement when the notion of Ulster-Scots was put to the UK's most senior civil servants and politicians, that one of them said in his memoirs it "left us in hysterics". One might have expected Mr Powell to understand better than most, given than he has an MA in American History from the University of Pennsylvania and wrote this 1979 paper about 'Presbyterian Loyalists' in Philadelphia, published in the Journal of Presbyterian History.

It is hard to know how this place will succeed when the policy makers have been, and maybe still are, so blissfully uninformed. Pretty much every other 'western' country rightly celebrates its inherent cultural diversity.

Variety is both fascinating and true. It seems that grasping this has been, and perhaps remains, a vast challenge for blockish officialdom here - or, exposes the lack of understanding among those whom the officials depend upon for 'advice'.