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Opinion 'To say Britishness is authentic, while denying Irishness is quaffing one’s own Kool-Aid too deeply'

Melanie Phillips tried to use history to delegitimise the nationalist aspirations of Sinn Féin and the Scottish Nationalist Party, writes Caoimhin De Barra.

MELANIE PHILLIPS’ RECENT article on British identity angered a lot of people in Ireland, especially her statement that Ireland’s claim to nationhood was “tenuous”.

Phillip’s objective in writing her piece was to use history to delegitimise the nationalist aspirations of Sinn Féin and the Scottish Nationalist Party, while supporting the political status-quo in the UK.

There is one problem, however. While all national identities are constructed to an extent, the invented nature of British identity is more obvious than most.

This point is made in Linda Colley’s famous book, Britons

The British state came into existence in 1707, not due to popular demand, but to prevent the recently ousted Stuart dynasty from trying to reclaim the Scottish throne.

Nobody identified as being British in 1707. So, Colley notes, British identity had to be created in the years and decades that followed.

But, in an extraordinary act of arrogance, Phillips dismisses out of hand the magnum opus of one of the most accomplished British historians of her generation. Colley’s mistake, apparently, was to forget that the “British Isles” existed long before the union of England and Scotland in 1707.

Phillips’ entire argument hinges on this point

Britain is an “authentic unitary nation” because it encompasses the “British Isles”, which, it is implied, is a natural geographic unit.

But “British Isles” is not an objective geographic name that emerged out of nowhere. God did not ordain in the Old Testament that henceforth and forever more this would be the name for the islands to the north west of Europe. If you scratch away the earth in Galway, Glasgow or Gateshead, you won’t find “British Isles” engraved on the hard rock beneath.

The term was first used by John Dee, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, in 1577. At this time, the Tudor monarchy was in the process of trying to subdue all of Gaelic Ireland, as well as meddling heavily in Scottish affairs. In other words, from the very beginning, the expression “British Isles” was a deliberate attempt to give geographic legitimacy to the political ambitions of an expansionist English state.

The proof of this is seen when we explore what exactly is included in the “British Isles.”
Take Shetland. Shetland is about the same distance from Scotland as it is from Norway. Indeed, Shetland had a strong Norwegian influence on its culture for most of its history.

Nobody identified as being British in 1707

British identity had to be created in the years and decades that followed.

The word “Britain” wasn’t new, as it was the name of the old Roman colony, and “Britons” had been used occasionally to refer to the Welsh.

What was new, however, was “British” as an umbrella term for the English, Scottish and Welsh.

shutterstock_552176584 It is true that the islands of Britain and Ireland are near one another, but that does not mean they must be considered a single geographic unit. Shutterstock / Bennian Shutterstock / Bennian / Bennian

Why is Shetland included in the “British Isles”?

Ultimately, because it was ruled by Scotland prior to the Act of Union in 1707, and then became part of the new British state. Had Shetland remained under Norwegian control, it would not today be considered a part of the “British Isles.”

The Faroe Islands are about the same distance from Shetland as Shetland is from Scotland. Why are they not considered part of the “British Isles”? Because they have never been associated with the British state. And if they had fallen under the rule of Westminster at the same time as Shetland did, we can assume that today they would be included as well.

Jersey and Guernsey are also considered part of the “British Isles”, despite the fact that they are much closer to France. Why is this? Because they are Crown dependencies. Politics, not geography, is the deciding factor.

Is the Irish sea not saline enough?

It is true that the islands of Britain and Ireland are near one another, but that does not mean they must be considered a single geographic unit. Britain is also in close proximity to France, but there isn’t any term that implies a “natural” geographic relationship between those two countries.

Indeed, the hypocrisy of British nationalists like Phillips is that they view the body of water between Britain and the continent as justifying Brexit, offering proof of Britain’s natural separation from Europe.

But, for some reason, the Irish Sea doesn’t seem offer the same level of separateness between Ireland and Britain. Maybe it isn’t deep enough? Or has it got something to do with the salinity level?

Ulster unionists “are not British”

One of the more eye-opening claims made by Phillips was that Ulster unionists “are not British.” In one sense, Phillips is correct, in that their planter forefathers who came to Ireland in the 1600s didn’t think of themselves as British, because the concept didn’t exist at the time. They saw themselves as English or Scottish.

But there seems to be something of a contradiction in Phillips insisting on speaking about the integrity of the “British Isles” state, but denying the right of people from one of those islands to call themselves British. Nor are such selective interpretations of the past confined to Britain.

In an article written last year, Irish historian Barry Kennerk criticised the Easter Rising for sowing unnecessary discord between Britain and Ireland. Kennerk wrote: “the idea that we share a common culture of the British Isles predates the Union Jack.”

We might indeed wonder what exactly this common culture was?

In 1801, just about the only thing that united the various Protestant sects of Britain was their deep hatred of the Catholic faith professed by the majority of people in Ireland.

At the same time, a significant minority in Scotland, the majority of people in Ireland and the vast majority of people of Wales did not speak English.

What common culture could exist between people divided by religion who also couldn’t talk to one another?

Projecting present into past

What Phillips and Kennerk are both doing is taking some aspect of the present and projecting it back into the past as something that has always existed, unchanged throughout history.

This creates the illusion that their worldview is how things have always been and anyone who disagrees is some kind of troublemaker upsetting the natural order. But such historical imaginings are akin to a house of cards: easily demolished.

To claim that a British state is justified because Britishness is authentic, while denying that an Irish or Scottish state could possess a similar level of legitimacy, is to quaff one’s own Kool-Aid too deeply.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

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Caoimhín De Barra
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