ln the Six Counties, the British colony in Ireland, the sectarian lines are drawn. The Good Friday Agreement did nothing to eliminate them, contrary to the praises of many and perhaps even the wishes of some who supported it. The majority section of the population has a badge of professed faith to identify it, Protestantism, while the other has its own badge, Catholicism. But each section also has other symbols of its own.
Politically, each section has a number of divisions within it but each has its majority representation: the Democratic Unionist Party for the Protestants and Sinn Féin for the Catholics. Both of these parties have overcome others to rise to prominence over their respective sections – the DUP deposed the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Féin overtook the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Both Sinn Féin and the DUP display the symbols of their respective sections and employ them to sectarian electoral advantage.
Apart from professed religion as a signifier, each section also has its own visible symbols: the Tricolour and Harp for the Catholics, the Union Jack and Crown for the Protestants. And to this has now been added language: Irish for the Catholics and Ulster Scots/ English for the Protestants.
There are other symbols too but they are of minor importance, for example for the Catholics flying the Palestinian flag in solidarity with Palestinians and, just because they must oppose anything the Fenians do, the Israeli flag for the Protestants. Soon we may see the Catholics adopt the Catalan Estelada flags and the Protestants, the flag of the Spanish State. But would Unionist Protestants fly the flag of a Catholic country? Yes, it’s quite possible – they already fly one of a Jewish state.
The opposing sections are in this discussion described as “Catholic” and “Protestant”, as though religion were really the issue – however it is not. Some commentators like to speak in term of “nationalists and unionists”, with the more extreme wing of the latter described as “Loyalists”. That particular sub-group of Unionism is more likely to refer to Catholics as “Taigues” or “Fenians”.
There are religious differences in doctrine and in temporal supremacy between both religions: Catholics believe in the immaculate conception of Mary, the mother of the Christ figure and Protestants do not, though she is seen as a saint in their churches also. Perhaps more relevantly, for Catholics the Pope is, notionally at least, the supreme temporal religious authority while for Anglican Protestants, it is the ruling British Monarch (other British-based Protestant sects acknowledge only their own vicars, their reading of the Christian Bible or their own consciences). Currently, that monarch is Queen Elizabeth II Windsor and lest she be considered just some kind of figurehead, albeit with untold (literally!) riches quite apart from public funds allocation and properties, it is well to remember that she is also Commander-in-Chief of the British Armed Forces.
Back in the day, the Pontiff (the Pope) also controlled a fair share of armed force and also brokered deals between the monarchs of different kingdoms. And in that respect, we’ll shortly come to some great ironies with regards to the Six Counties but first there are other matters to deal with.
RELIGION AS A QUESTION OF STATE POWER
Henry VIII of England disestablished the power of the Pontiff in English-ruled domains and made himself head of the Church, which of course required a split in the Christian Church, and the whole process has since become known as the English Reformation. That happened in the 16th Century; Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I continued this policy in the 17th Century and also extended the power of England and the territories under its domain. Of course, none of this was done by those monarchs alone; powerful feudal and commercial interests were involved also. Being Head of the Church of England allowed Henry to dissolve monasteries and confiscate their lands, filling the coffers of the Crown and of the faithful – faithful to the Crown.
Unfortunately for Ireland, a large part of the country was in the possession of England at this time, though not without resistance. And the original “English” colonists, the Gall-Ghael (“foreign Gael” in Irish), the Normans who had invaded from a colonised Wales with their mercenaries, wanted to stick to their earlier religion, continuing to acknowledge the Pontiff as their spiritual leader. They held their lands through conquest of arms under English monarchs (though the first had been a French Norman) but their loyalty to the British Crown was somewhat shaky. In 1366, nearly two centuries after their conquest of the Irish lands they held, the English Normans called them “the degenerate English” and accused them of having become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”.1
And what of “the Irish themselves”? They too were of the old faith, although their earlier Celtic Christian Church had been more than a little lax in its application of Roman doctrine, especially in laws and mores around marriage, justice and the status of women. The Roman Church was feudal and Irish society still ran along clan lines.
An uneasy alliance was formed between the Gael and the Gall-Ghael which emerged first for the English king Charles I against Cromwell, in the middle of the 17th Century and later again near the end of that century for King James II against King William III (of Orange). On each occasion the Irish alliance lost.
BATTLE, SECTARIAN LINES AND IRONIES
And here we come to ironies. William of Orange was a Protestant and the victory of his forces at the Battle of the Boyne is considered by Unionists a victory of Protestant forces over Catholic. Actually, there were some Catholics among William’s force and some Protestants among the opposing James II forces but that is not the irony. Nor is the fact that William of Orange was a homosexual and that Rev. Ian Paisley, who founded the Democratic Unionist Party and led it until his death in 2014, led a campaign against decriminalisation of homosexuality under the slogan “Save Ulster from Sodomy!”
No, the irony is even greater than those two facts and it is this: William’s armed forces were part-financed by the Vatican, in other words through the Pontiff himself. Although in Ireland the conflict took on the shape of Catholics fighting for freedom to practice their religion (and even Gael and Gall-Ghael holding on to their respective powers), against Protestants forcing their religion and colonial power on others, it was part of a European-wide conflict known to historians as The Nine-Years War. A coalition of forces composed of Austria, the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic, Spain, England and Savoy, styling itself the League of Augsburg, drew up to oppose Louis XIV of France. And James found himself on the side of France and against his own Parliament.
The Pontiff, as leader of the Holy Roman Empire, was very much a member of the League of Habsburg as was the Kingdom of Spain and Savoy – all under Catholic rule. When news of William’s defeat of James’ forces at the Battle of the Boyne on 1st July 1690 reached the Vatican, a Te Deum mass of praise was celebrated there and similar demonstrations of praise were practiced in the Spanish Kingdom also. That war in Ireland had fundamentally little to do with religion in reality but everything to do with English state and colonial power and European power struggles.
And of course this is not only an irony for the Protestants, who annually celebrate the Boyne victory on the 12th of July in their most sectarian and anti-Catholic manner, but for the Catholics too, who see James as defending their Catholic faith, of which the Pope was the spiritual leader. Nor is that the only irony in connection with Ireland and the Vatican: it was a Pope, Adrian IV, who issued a Papal Bull (something like a warrant) in 1155 legitimising invasion and conquest of Ireland by Henry II of England. Pope Adrian IV, aka Nicholas Breakspear, was the only English Pontiff ever, true but he was a Pope and he must have had substantial support in Rome to issue such a document.
One of the characteristics of republicanism in the late 18th Century, apart from the abolition of the monarchy, was the separation of Church and State. Freedom of conscience and worship were important principles in the French and American revolutions. The United Irishmen also adhered to those principles with an even greater motivation, which was that the majority of the Irish population was excluded from participation in government, military and civil profession by a religious bar.
The Unitedmen were defeated, crushed. Their Protestant (Anglican) and Dissenter (Presbyterian) leaders and supporters were executed or exiled2 and the remnants for the most part became dominated by sectarian anti-Catholicism. And Irish nationalism, including republicanism, came to contain a strong Catholic bias (notwithstanding the continuing presence of Protestants and true Republicans in the movement).
Despite the fact that the Irish (and English) Catholic Church hierarchy has been publicly and energetically hostile to Irish Republicanism from the 1780s onwards, the majority of the Irish Republican movement of the early 20th Century observed the practices of the Catholic faith and never broke from its religious allegiance nor sought to overcome the dominance of the Church in society. As a result the Republican movement was unable, had it wanted to, to tackle many of the social injustices in the Irish State’s education, health, intellectual, literary, art, gender and sexuality policies and legislation, where the Church held sway.
Liberty of conscience and worship remains an important civil right, a democratic demand. People are entitled to practice their concept of religion or to abstain from it and their choices in this regard should not influence people’s participation in society as a whole. The Catholic Church is losing its power in the Twenty-Six Counties and that is reflected too in the Six. The Presbyterian churches are likewise losing influence. However, faith congregation membership continues to be a communal marker and to be used by the DUP and SF to hold their respective voting blocs together.
If separation of Church and State is an important principle of Republicanism then Republicans should actively campaign for that end. No school that bases its intake of pupils on the practice or belief of any religion should receive State support. But in the unlikely event that Sinn Féin should embark on a campaign to apply that principle, they would find themselves losing their voting block, for that is how their block is identified in the Six Counties: as Catholics, baptised in Catholic church, attending Catholic services to some degree or other and being educated in Catholic Schools.
The Unionists are of course just as careful to look after their own sectarian voting block and at least as sectarian. But they don’t claim to be Republicans.
THE ESSENCE OF THE SYMBOLS
Symbols of course do not merely stand for what they are themselves but, in being a symbol, for something else also. A sculpture or drawing of a lion may represent the animal but when used as a symbol, frequently stands for monarchy and power: for examples, the lion on the coat of arms of the United Kingdom and the lions at base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London. And symbols can also change their symbolic meaning and come to mean something else than was originally intended. The cross symbolised martyrdom for early Christians, later came to symbolise Christianity itself, later still the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition …. For the Ku Klux Klan in the southern states of the USA, the burning cross symbolises the power of their organisation and white anglo-saxon ethnic supremacy.
The Irish Tricolour flag was presented to Thomas Francis Meagher of the Young Irelanders by women revolutionaries in Paris in 1848, the Year of Revolutions in Europe (but not really in Ireland, where the fight had been knocked out of the remaining survivors of the Great Hunger 1845-1849). Reputedly the flag’s colours signified peace (White) between the traditions of the Gael (Green) and the descendants of those who had fought for William (Orange). The Unionists see it, however, firstly as a symbol of rebellion against the Crown (not without reason, given its historical use) and secondly as a flag of a Catholic Ireland.
The Harp is an Irish symbol of some antiquity and was reputedly flown on standards in ancient medieval times in Ireland. The Norman and English invaders appropriated it firstly as symbol of a conquered Ireland and incorporated it into their colonial standards and flags. Revolutionary republican grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Cromwellian settlers then appropriated the harp as the symbol of the republican United Irishmen, with the motto “It is newly strung and shall be heard”. After the defeat of the Unitedmen (whose leaders were nearly all Protestant), the Harp became a rather suspect symbol for Unionists, mostly Protestants and besides, it is the official symbol of the Irish State (the only state in the world with a musical instrument as its national symbol). However, it remains within the arms of the United Kingdom, representing the Six Counties colony still in British/ English possession.
The “Easter Lilly” emblem is a symbolic representation of a white lilly with an orange centre, with a green leaf as a background. It was developed by Irish women Republicans in the second decade of the 20th Century to commemorate those who died fighting for Irish national freedom, in particular during the 1916 Easter Rising. For decades it was produced as a simple paper representation for the Irish Republican movement and sold on streets or pubs in the lead-up to Easter Monday, when the Rising would be commemorated. In more recent times it has been worn for up to a week each side of Easter Monday and it has also been produced as a metal badge or pin, which some Republicans wear all year around.
The flag of the United Kingdom, commonly known as the “Union Jack”, embodying a design composed of the symbols of the Crosses of Saints George, Andrew and Patrick, represents the union of the nations through their respective patron saints3: Scotland and Ireland under the rule of England and its Royal Family. It was a forced, not a voluntary union and is therefore a reactionary symbol but Unionists in the Six Counties view it as a symbol of the union with England which they wish to maintain.
The Crown represents the English Royal Family and UK State power. Since it is the same State that imposes its rule on the other nations of Ireland and the British Isles, it is fundamentally a reactionary symbol, also representing the reactionary institution of monarchy.
The Poppy, a cloth representation of the red flower, is worn by many British people in the lead up to Armistice Day, November 11th and sometimes for days afterwards. Many British people apparently believe that the purpose of this symbol is to commemorate the dead in wars or to support veterans and their families. In fact as research has shown, the primary purpose of commemorating ‘Remembrance Day’ and the Poppy is to gather public support behind the Armed Forces of the UK. Unionists seemingly see wearing it as proof of their political allegiance to Britain, England or the Crown – or all three.4
In the most recent history of the Six Counties, the symbols listed above have been those of the respective communities, with the added fact that Crown and Union Jack have also been symbols of the colonial statelet itself.
Recently two other symbols have been promoted, also with sectarian allegiances: Irish and Ulster Scots. Neither of these two languages is spoken by the majority of either community, for whom English (with some words specific to Ulster) is the majority language.
THE IRISH, ENGLISH AND ULSTER SCOTS LANGUAGES
Irish or an Ghaeilge, one of the languages of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages group, was the language of the people living in Ireland before it was invaded by England and remained the majority language in Ireland until the end of the19th Century. It continues as a community language5 in all provinces of Ireland including Ulster but there in parts of Co. Donegal, the northernmost county of Ireland (and not part of the Six Counties despite the statelet being called “Northern Ireland”).
Irish died out as a community language in the Six Counties from its last refuge, the Sperrin Mountains, sometime in the early decades of the 20th Century (the 1911 Census recorded a majority of Irish speakers in that region but also, interestingly, in the Protestant Sandy Row area of Belfast City). However, some Irish speakers survived and others learned the language so that it continued to exist in the colony after the partition of Ireland in 1921. During the recent 30 years’ war, Irish enjoyed a resurgence and to some extent became a badge of resistance to colonial rule.
English is, more than most, a language composed of a number of different languages. Given that it sounds like and is classified as a Germanic language, it is surprising that its major component is of French language origin with the minor component based on Saxon German. English developed in what became England over a period including the defeat of the Romanised Celtic tribes of the area by the Saxons and Angles and the subsequent conquering of the Saxons themselves by the French-speaking Normans.
A century after their victorious invasion of England, the Normans invaded Ireland. In most of the area they conquered in Ireland, the Normans soon came to adopt many local customs, including the speaking of Irish so that less than two centuries later, their England-based colleagues referred to them as “the degenerate English” who had become “more Irish than the Irish themselves.”6
Although the invaders failed to enforce the Statutes of Kilkenny, over the following centuries they managed through eviction of natives and plantation of colonists, as well as the exclusively official use of English and legal repression of the Irish language, to make Irish a minority language and to reduce it, as a community language, to a number of reservations in certain parts of the country.
Ulster Scots is a dialect of Scots, in turn a dialect of German spoken by Saxon colonisers of the Scottish Lowlands (the reason the dialect became known as “Lallands”). The Scottish colonists of Irish lands given to them by James I, Oliver Cromwell and English bankers brought the language into Ulster where it developed into “Ulster Scots”. That too gave way to English over time except in some pockets, without any serious effort to revive its fortunes. Until, that is, agitation began in recent times for rights for Irish speakers and for the teaching of Irish, when some Unionists, seeking an “Ulster”7 “Protestant” equivalent with which to oppose any benefits for Irish, began agitation for the preservation and teaching of Ulster Scots.
However, the real competitor with Irish for dominance in the Six Counties (as also in the Twenty-Six, the Irish State) is of course English.
“PARITY OF ESTEEM”
“Parity of esteem” is a concept that was put forward by Sinn Féin within the atmosphere of the Good Friday Agreement.
To many people at the time, including myself, it seemed like something between “soft” Republicanism and a token demand, something to represent to the party’s following that it was doing something for them in the Six Counties. Sinn Féin would have claimed it was much more than that – and it was.
When some critics of SF or of the Peace (sic) Process claimed that sectarianism was being institutionalised, was being “copper-fastened”, I wondered how that was. Obviously, people in Catholic areas would vote Sinn Féin but how was that any different other than how they would have voted previously, viz. Nationalist or SDLP?
But in the past, except for the brief “power-sharing” agreement8 which the Loyalists had so effectively sunk, no political representative on a Catholic voting base had even come close to carving up the Six Counties on a community proportional basis. Now Sinn Féin have done so – not just in local authorities but in the government of the statelet itself (present difficulties excepted). That is what SF has achieved, after some years of civil rights agitation, Catholic communal resistance to repression and nearly three decades of armed struggle – a sharing out of the spoils of office. Power-sharing. Parity of esteem. A sectarian carving out of areas of influence.
And every power-base must have its symbols. Recently the Irish Language has become one such. Obviously the Irish language is entitled to support and its speakers have civil language rights. Clearly the sectarian opposition of Unionist politicians to concessions in this direction is fundamentally wrong. Of course a Language Act is needed so that Irish speakers can use it to push for their rights where the institutions oppose and block them. But that is not why SF has come so late into this struggle. It’s another symbol of their ethnic power-base and another stick with which to beat the Unionists.
And of course there are Irish language speakers and campaigners who are Sinn Féin members. They made clear you knew that during the huge demonstration in favour of Irish language rights, the Dearg le Fearg9 demonstration of 2014 in Belfast, when they were the only political party displaying a banner in violation of an understanding that no political party would do so.
But what does Sinn Féin do in order to forward the language among its own members and activists? Are its public speakers obliged to be competent Irish speakers? Are its Ard-Choiste (Executive Committee) meetings conducted through Irish? Its cumann (branch) meetings? Its Ard Fheis (annual congress)?10 No, none of those. Is the party even running an Irish language instruction program to overcome this deficit at some point in the future? No.
Apart from some enthusiasts among its activists and a vague nationalist emotional attachment, Sinn Féin as a party is not really interested in the language. In the Six Counties, it is interested in a sectarian carve-up which will keep it at the power table and the Irish language has now become useful for that. Just as, in the Twenty-Six Counties state, it is interested in coming to power in a different kind of power-sharing.
THE EASTER LILLY AND THE “REMEMBRANCE” POPPY
And the latest symbol to be sullied by joining this war of symbols is the Easter Lilly. In times past the Easter Lilly, commemorating in particular the dead who fell fighting for freedom in the 1916 Rising, was worn by many in the Twenty-Six Counties state who were not Republicans. In the latter decades of the last century, few wore it apart from Republicans and, in the Six Counties, it was asking for trouble from the colonial police or Loyalists (often the same thing) to display it. The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (1954-1987) there empowered any police officer to decide it was likely to lead to “a breach of the peace” and to remove it by force; conviction of a breach of the Act was punishable by a fine of up to £500 (sum equal to about £15,300 in 2017) or up to five years in prison.11
The Act, the repeal of which was one of the demands of the Civil Rights movement of the late 1960s, was finally repealed in 1987 but of course, any signifier identifying a person as a Republican or even a Catholic in the Six Counties is at the very least an invitation to less favourable treatment by the authorities and at worse to harassment and assault by Loyalists or colonial armed forces personnel.
It is of course right that people should have the right to wear the Easter Lilly but to pose it as an equal right to wearing the Remembrance (sic) Poppy is to devalue the Lilly, to putting an anti-imperialist and Irish Republican history emblem on the same level as an imperialist military-glorifying one. But that is exactly what Sinn Féin is now doing12. And Leo Varadkar, Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Irish state, recently publicly agreed with that notion.13
And is that not the same project as those of the “Museum of Free Derry”14 and of the Glasnevin Cemetery Trust15, one on each side of the Border, commemorating dead British colonial force members side-by-side with their victims and those who fought against them? As though they are of the same worth to commemorate? As though the objectives of each were (are) of equal value?
What more effective way to undermine the power of an anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist symbol than to equate it with its opposite?
THE IMPORTANCE OF SYMBOLS
I once heard an organiser of a British-based left-wing party, himself of Irish parents, declaim against Irish political commemorations in London as “only of symbolic importance”. How little he understood of human beings to say that! Outside of urgent situations, natural surroundings and chemical reactions, symbols are the only things that convey meaning to human beings.
This page is covered in printed symbols, which we have learned to decipher into words which, in turn are symbols to convey meaning by association. If I write the letters h,o,u,s,e joined together, or say “house”, a symbol in sound, the listeners construct the shape of a house inside their heads, based on the culture and structures to which they have been exposed in their lives, to understand what I mean. If I write or say instead “tent”, they will visualise something else. If I write or say “party” the listener may struggle between visualising a festive occasion or a political party but should I have preceded that word with another, “house”, confusion disappears and the only question is whether the listener’s experience or understanding of a “house party” is the same as mine.
A nod of the head is a symbolic gesture which in most cultures signifies some level of agreement, a shake of the head its opposite. We understand symbolic hand gestures, shrugs, grimaces, smiles, winks, the lift of an eyebrow, bodily posture. Shapes of body or posture can convey sexual availability and induce arousal, or convey threat and give rise to fear. Symbols haunt our dreams, according to Jung and Freud, communications from our subconscious. Symbols are crucial to conveying and understanding meaning.
WHAT IS RIGHT AND WHAT IS NOT
It is right and proper that people should uphold the symbols of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial historical resistance, including the Irish Tricolour (although more appropriate to my thinking is the Starry Plough of the Irish Citizen Army16). Another symbol of that resistance, the Easter Lilly, is equally valid. It is right and proper that people should
value the cultural and political history embodied in the symbol of the Irish Harp. It is a matter of great cultural world importance that the Irish language survive and flourish. These are important symbols and, in the case of the language, an important thing in itself. These are not things to be equated with symbols of oppression, colonialism and imperialism.
The Union Jack, the Crown and the Poppy deserve to be shunned by all progressive people, because of the values they symbolise and the continuing effect of those things today. The English language, on the other hand, is worthy of a place in a bilingual Irish society.
Let Republicans and others promote the wearing of the Easter Lilly and the display of flags of historic Republican resistance. Let them never place them in the same context or on equal status with the symbols of imperialism and colonialism. Let many promote the use of the Irish language and rights for its speakers but let it not be used as a crude political weapon, much less to further the prospects of a party which actively colludes with and shares in colonial rule by an invader and has done nothing in reality to promote the language even among its own ranks.
1 The Statutes of Kilkenny sought to halt this “degeneracy” with 35 Acts forbidding the “intermarriage between the native Irish and the native English, the English fostering of Irish children, the English adoption of Irish children and use of Irish names and dress. Those English colonists who did not know how to speak English were required to learn the language (on pain of losing their land and belongings), along with many other English customs. The Irish pastimes of “hockie” and “coiting” were to be dropped and pursuits such as archery and lancing to be taken up, so that the English colonists would be more able to defend against Irish aggression, using English military tactics.
“Other statutes required that the English in Ireland be governed by English common law, instead of the Irish March law or Brehon law and ensured the separation of the Irish and English churches by requiring that “no Irishman of the nations of the Irish be admitted into any cathedral or collegiate church … amongst the English of the land”.
“………. Statute XV, which forbade Irish minstrels or storytellers to come to English areas, guarding against “the Irish agents who come amongst the English, spy out the secrets, plans, and policies of the English, whereby great evils have often resulted”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statutes_of_Kilkenny
3 Ireland has in fact three patron Christian saints: Patrick, Bridget and Columcille.
5 By use of the term “community language” here I mean a language used by a community settled on an area, as distinct from say a community of people separated by distance but united by use of a language, or a language used by a few families separated from one another by a majority not speaking that language.
6 The Statutes of Kilkenny
7 A misnomer constantly repeated not only by Unionists but also by British public commentators: the province of Ulster has nine counties, of which three are in the Irish state and six in the British statelet.
8 The Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, which proposed power-sharing between Protestant and Catholic communities in the shape of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, was overthrown by the Loyalist action of the Ulster Workers’ Council (and Ulster Army Council) strike of 1974, including armed intimidation of Catholic areas, with British Army troops and RUC police standing by (or in the latter case openly colluding) .
9 Literally “Red with Anger”, a campaign of demonstrations organised both sides of the Border, against administrations of both states, by Irish language campaigners and speakers. Connradh na Gaeilge (the Gaelic League, an organisation part-funded by the Irish state) took part in organising this but it was only one of many much more grass-roots organisations across the country involved. It had been agreed that political party representatives would not be speakers (this was violated in some instances) and that political party banners would not be displayed (violated by Sinn Féin on the Belfast demonstration).
10 This is very different from comparable movements for national independence in Catalunya and the Basque Country, where their own national languages dominate their political discourse, despite repression (until the 1980s) and lack of state support.