There’s a temptation for us to dismiss some controversial matters as ‘no big deal.’ For example, columnist Tom Kelly dismisses the acceptance of an MBE by former internee Pat McCarthy of the SDLP. You might be tempted to do a Mandy-Rice Davies and say “He would, wouldn’t he?”, since Tom himself has an OBE add-on to his own name, but that doesn’t mean Tom’s judgement isn’t right.
The state papers recently released show Gregory Campbell writing to the British government complaining about the use of the word ‘Derry’ in an advertisement for a post in the Shantallow area of that city. The British government’s response was that ‘Derry’ could be used in reference to Derry City Council, but in all other cases Londonderry should be used.
And we all know how ape-shit a section of the unionist community went when Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union flag less than 365 days a year.
Do these things really matter? Are they not covered by the words of John Hume’s father: “You can’t eat a flag”? Well, yes and no.
Whether Pat McCarthy accepts the offer of an MBE isn’t going to change your life or mine. We’ll still get up in the morning, go to work, come home, pay taxes, live our lives. The same applies if Gregory uses ‘Londonderry’ every time he refers to that city on the Foyle, and the sky hasn’t fallen because a Union flag hasn’t fluttered every day over Belfast’s Dome of Delights. The things that divide us, the control of the levers of power still rest in exactly the same place, regardless. So shouldn’t we just disregard such distractions?
I don’t think so. Words are the material out of which we construct our thoughts: Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” shows just how important words can be in political discourse. Every time someone uses the term ‘Londonderry’ they are effectively saying ‘I’m a unionist’. Just as every time someone says ‘North of Ireland’ they’re saying “I see this north-eastern corner as part of Ireland and not as a legitimate state, let alone country”. And every time someone is offered and accepts an MBE or OBE or knighthood or whatever, they’re saying “Queen Elizabeth is the head of my state and I’m thrilled she has so honoured me”.
These things are like spears planted in a river: one spear has little effect on the flow of water, but a thousand or ten thousand such spears will have.
Let me take it down to a truly sad level. There was a time when a nationalist would have thought twice about openly carrying a copy of the Irish News in downtown Belfast. And there was a time when pupils from Catholic schools, when applying for a university place, ticked the box marked ‘British’. Such things, repeated a thousand times, are like the drip of water that wears away the stone. They say “You will conceal or deny any of those things that mark you as an Irish nationalist, let alone republican. If you attempt to assert this Irish identity, there will be consequences”.
I exaggerate? Then watch in the coming months whether or not there is a bowl of Easter lilies prominently displayed at Stormont in honour of Easter 1916.