“Northern Ireland is British” – so mind what you say

Oh dear. Was that another crocodile moment? As you probably know by now, the potential First Minister Arlene Foster clashed with the potential Deputy First Minister at the Tory party knees-up yesterday. Michelle was asked if an Irish Language Act would make the north less British, to which she replied  “The north isn’t British”. Arlene, alert to insult even at breakfast time, quickly told her “I don’t want this to turn into a row, but Northern Ireland is British.”  They can’t both be right.  Which is?

It all depends on what you mean by saying our North-East Nest is British. Arlene is right that this part of Ireland, while it has devolved government, is ultimately controlled by Britain. So if you’re saying “Who wields power in the NEN?”  then the answer is Britain. No ifs or buts. They haven’t gone away, you know.

But if you’re talking about the people here (remember how John Hume used to say that the border was about people, not territory?) then while by a small percentage the majority here regard themselves as British, a very large (and growing) minority do not see themselves as British. Never have, never will. Maybe if we apply the criterion offered by poor deluded Maggie Thatcher and ask “Is the north as British as Finchley?” the thing becomes clearer. Of course we’re not.

There are a number of interesting things about the exchange between the two women. As UUP leader Robin Swann noted, Michelle’s comment “sucked the atmosphere out of the room” – that short exchange is what the question-and-answer session was reduced to. And as Swann also pointed out, Michelle’s comment may have been deliberate. It could well  have been dangled to see if the DUP leader had shuffled away from her famous and revealing crocodile comment.  If that was the case, Arlene certainly took the bait.

But the little introductory clause used by Arlene  – “I don’t want this to turn into a row” – is perhaps even more significant. She clearly felt that Michelle shouldn’t have said our NEN wasn’t British, and if she did there could be a row.   Say you don’t consider this part of Ireland British and you’re likely to provoke anger or at least heated dispute from unionist politicians.

That’s the part that jars with me. No one is asking Arlene or any unionist politician to deny that our NEN is British. Certainly Michelle wasn’t. What is important is that nationalists and republicans should have the right to express their views on the nature of the north.  But if a row is possibly going to break out any time a republican/nationalist expresses the view that our NEN is really part of Ireland, not Britain,  we’re back just about where we started. Behind Arlene’s  correction lies an implication: taigs may be tolerated about the place  these days but they better mind what they say to those who run the colony.

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