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Contrasting symbols in a tale of two cultures

(Patrick Murphy, Irish News)

The connection between the success of Ulster gaelic football and the difficulties of the Ulster Unionist Party may not be immediately obvious. Possible analogies about teamwork and tactics may have a relevance, but the significant link is that they are symbols in a tale of two cultures.

The Good Friday Agreement, rightly or wrongly, identified not just two broad sets of political aspirations, it enshrined in law two separate cultural traditions.

Whereas it might have focused on finding the common ground between them, it was directed instead towards a model of cultural separation in the belief that our political problems lay in the existence of two opposing factions.

The political scope of nationalism had already been defined in the Hume/Adams dialogue. Their conclusions – again rightly or wrongly – fitted neatly into a vast cultural fabric of language, music, sport, literature, the arts and a shared sense of Irish identity.

Unionism was not included in this perception of an Irish identity, as indicated recently by Sinn Féin's "reaching out" to unionists.

There was no attempt to regard social issues, such as poverty, as being cross-cultural, nor did republicans seek to invoke the tradition of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter. It may have been an opportunity lost, although unionist leaders might not have bought it in any case.

They too chose cultural segregation but without the same depth of prior analysis.

Gradually they have found themselves wrong-footed. Fifty years of political power gave them a comfort factor from which they have yet to emerge.

While republicans in Long Kesh discussed and analysed (and loyalist paramilitaries did body building), unionist politicians waited to return to Stormont.

Lacking the educational advantages of the prison cell, they were not ready for the new world of government in which political power came in a cultural wrapping. They felt uneasy, for example, with the promotion of the Irish language.

As a cultural counter-balance they had accepted Ulster Scots, which does not appear to have had a significant existence prior to the Good Friday Agreement and which might be more historical dialect than modern language. Thus unionism allowed itself to be defined by nationalism.

For example, by failing to recognise their links to the Irish language in terms of their current use of grammar, vocabulary and place names, unionists cut themselves off from one of their cultural influences. They allowed themselves to be pushed into a cultural corner – or maybe they just felt safer there.

As a result northern nationalists now make a more significant contribution to the cultural life of Ireland than unionists do in Britain. This is where gaelic football comes in. Depending on tomorrow's result between Donegal and Armagh, the epicentre of Irish sport for the next month will either be somewhere around Strabane/Lifford or in the Moy/Charlemont area.

The difficulty for unionists is that they simply cannot make the same contribution to the cultural life of Britain.

It is more difficult to make an impact on a country of 60 million people than one of five million and there is no national sporting final in Britain, for example, in which two Ulster teams are likely to compete. Unionism makes little significant contribution to British sports, arts or culture and there is no chance of someone from Belfast becoming 'president' of Britain.

This is not to propose that nationalism is somehow "better" than unionism. But it does suggest that the clarity of one contrasts with the challenges of the other. Unionists' initial challenge is political. Are they Irish who want union with Britain, British who want integration with their fellow citizens or Ulster nationalists who want independence?

In short unionism has an identity crisis. It needs what marketing specialists would call product definition.

What exactly are they selling? Being British is now such a wide-ranging cultural concept that it is difficult for unionists to play an integral part in its daily life. It is so much less complex for nationalists to be Irish than it is for unionists to be British.

Unionism needs to address its identity crisis soon. The political stability of this country now depends on it.

For the Good Friday Agreement to work, unionism requires strong politicians, a consistent political ideology and a coherent cultural identity.

Recent history suggests that it will have difficulty in achieving any of these.

Which is why when an Ulster man is lifting the Sam Maguire Cup in Dublin next month, the UUP will be in the throes of self destruction: contrasting symbols in a tale of two cultures.

August 31, 2003

This article appeared first in the August 30, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News