I was on BBC Radio Ulster/Raidio Uladh’s “Sunday Sequence” this morning talking about ageism. I’d initially planned to blog on the topic until I tuned in to the latter part of the programme as I drove home. The presenter Róisin McAuley was interviewing a Queen’s University professor who was big into dealing with the past/post-conflict reconciliation/whatever you’re having yourself. And what phrase did the prof use most? “Two tribes”. According to him, we keep reducing everything to tribal loyalties. Whether it’s Nelson Mandela or the Scottish referendum or the EU, we boil it down to the two-tribes equation: – unionism vs nationalism/republicanism.
I thought the presenter might challenge him on the use of the term but she didn’t. A pity, for two reasons at least. The first is that to talk about unionist and nationalists/republicans as being two tribes suggests that we in the north are two sets of natives who were discovered years back by our colonial masters. We’re not. The most rudimentary grasp of our history tells us that our colonial masters when they arrived here discovered one tribe, which they promptly set about subjugating. In pursuit of this they imported their people – Scots and English, mainly – to help subjugate and defeat this native tribe. We’re still living with the consequences of that strategy.
Reason number two: the good professor went on to explain that he was very much in favour of votes for 16- and 17-year-olds because that would help us get past tribal ( aka primitive) division and into normal politics. Whoa there, prof. The thing that divides what you call the two tribes is far from either primitive or abnormal. People here are divided on the constitutional/national question. From whichever side you approach it, the continued union with Britain or the ending of partition and the creation of a new Ireland is a large, legitimate and hugely important political concern. It’s not two sets of primitives quarrelling over which end of a boiled egg you should take the top off. To argue that it’s a primitive distraction from real politics is to accept the present state of partition as natural – that is, to accept the unionist argument that continued union with Britain is the reasonable and normal state of affairs. Whoa again, prof. Not quite so fast. Every decade since the creation of this north-eastern state a hundred years ago has shown that what was created was anything but reasonable/normal/natural. You may not agree with Charlie Haughey when he referred to our tormented little corner as a “failed political entity” but you can see why he said it. That is, if you weren’t a condescending prof with a mindless two-tribes mantra.