NEW words and phrases enter the vocabulary of any living language. Sometimes they’re a little confusing. I’m still not 100 per cent clear on ‘gaslighting’. Sometimes they’re rude and vivid, like ‘clusterf**k’. Sometimes they’re empty clichés, like ‘going forward’. And sometimes they’re weapons, like ‘Northern Irish’.
During the Troubles I don’t remember any use of the term Northern Irish, but as violence has faded and Irish nationalism flourished, up pops this term. So why did it emerge?
Well, those who use it to describe themselves would argue that besides telling people what part of Ireland you come from – the North – you’re telling them that you don’t buy all this green and orange nonsense. Your political loyalties are elsewhere, probably with the Alliance Party, and only people stuck in the past keep on voting nationalist or unionist.
So is it helpful, this Northern Irish, or empty and misleading? Well, people from the North of Ireland do tend to be different from people from the West of Ireland. And people from the West are quite different from people from Southern counties like Cork and Kerry. And people from the East of Ireland – say, Dublin – see themselves as a different breed from coarse culchies living outside the Pale.
It goes further than that – or you could take it further if you chose. Talk to County Derry people and they’ll bridle at any suggestion they’re like Tyrone people, and Tyronians sometimes mock the hint-of-brogue tones of south Fermanagh.
Our Movie to Watch is Wildfire (1994). Cathy Brady’s searing Northern Irish drama follows two sisters whose relationship is tested by the politics of their landscape and the trauma of their past. Nora-Jane Noone and the late Nika McGuigan are superb. (11.50pm Film4) pic.twitter.com/fgGIKvUypC— RTÉ Guide (@RTE_GUIDE) September 28, 2023
So those who embraced the Northern Irish term are partially right – North isn’t South and East isn’t West. But Northern Irish isn’t a geographical descriptor, it’s a political wedge which some would like to hammer into place between those coming from the six Northern counties that form our stateen and those coming from the rest of Ireland. This is necessary, because a serious gap is developing in the North between the Catholic population and the Protestant. If this continues, we’ll have a border poll and we’ll find ourselves in a new state with all those odd people from Cork and Waterford and Dublin.
You want examples of people who see themselves as Northern Irish? Well, the richest is Rory McIlroy (£170 million, I hear). He doesn’t want to be labelled as simply Irish or simply British. So is his NI badge a helpful distinction, or a balancing act so no fan feels alienated?
That the new Late Late Show presenter Paddy Kielty comes from County Down is seen as significant by some, as has been his choice of guests – Mary McAleese, James McClean, Jimmy Nesbitt. Some rejoice in this apparent nordification of RTÉ. Personally, I’ve never bought that. Are the guests interesting people? Is the presenter any good? Those seem much more sensible questions.
But just as some unionists like to fly in the face of geography and refer to the six counties of NEI as ‘Ulster’ or ‘the Province’, thus implying that NEI is a natural and separate unit from the rest of Ireland, there are those who’d classify themselves as nationalists who like to hail the achievements of musicians or actors or footballers or TV stars because they’re from the ‘wee six’.
The fact is, the campaign for Irish reunification is well under way and those who fear this prospect cling to this hybrid classifications. Or anything else, as long as it puts the brakes on the reunited Ireland train.
It shouldn’t be necessary to say it but I will: I was born in Donegal, spent my childhood and teen years in Tyrone and Derry, and during most of the 1960s I lived in and around Dublin. I didn’t need to check my passport that I was Irish, and while occasionally a clever Dublin mimic might caricature the way I talked, the same mimic did a similar send-up of people from Cork and Kerry.
Like the Ulster-Scots ‘language’, the notion of a distinct nationality known as Northern Irish is a hilarious example of people struggling to pass off a foal as being a different species from a horse because it is smaller and has a high-pitched whinny. Some of the people who struggle with the NEI horse are asses, others knaves, others useful idiots.