Former Blueshirt Minister, Ivan Yates holds down the fort, blabbermouthing on Newstalk’s The Hard Shoulder. Last week, he went on a mid-air rant about the “time warp” up North in response to a vox pop. James Conor Patterson finds that prejudice toward is always just below the surface down south. He penned this response for rabble.
About 6 years ago, when I was at a book launch for an anthology of short stories on Dublin’s Wellington Quay, something unremarkable happened. Some writers and I who had just been at the reading were sitting down to drinks and congratulating one another on our respective literary merits—’No, honestly it’s the best story I’ve read in ages’—when the conversation turned, as it is wont to do, to politics.
Syria came up, as did Palestine. The refugee crisis, it was generally agreed, was terrible and the European Union should have done a lot more to accommodate the region’s men, women and children who were then dying of starvation. Israel’s heavy-handedness in Gaza could no longer be ignored, and with the introduction of heavy artillery into built up civilian areas, someone suggested that these were war crimes and that there might be the possibility of involving The Hague.
We nodded, drank, and anything anyone said was generally met with a chorus of warmth and agreement. These were Ireland’s bright young literati together in one room agreeing, and until the subject turned to Northern Ireland there was nothing between us to foment any disagreement.
I happened to mention to the person sat next to me—from Mayo no less and who, up to that point had been affable, agreeable even—that with the flag protests at Belfast City Hall and with the recent spate of sectarian shootings that were then taking place it felt more and more as though identity issues in the North were coming back with a vengeance.
That there was much work to be done to heal divisions between communities, and that as a nationalist I hoped one day for a United Ireland which was able to accommodate everyone. He looked at me, astonished. ‘I thought,’ he said ‘that ye Nordies were done with all that.’
By that, of course, he meant the Northern Nationalist community’s long struggle to obtain parity of esteem. And by ye Nordies he meant you, Outsider. As I said at the beginning, by then this was unremarkable for me. I had spent three years at University College Dublin and had even come to consider Nordie an almost term-of-endearment. My friends used it, some strangers used it, and I was accustomed to it at that point that after three years of living in what I considered to be my Capital I could no longer recognise when it was accompanied by a sneer. But I recognised it then.
So when I read Ivan Yates’s comments in yesterday’s paper I wasn’t surprised, for experience has taught me that prejudice toward the North lingers below the surface of many Southern commentators’ analyses. But what I was surprised by was Yates’s timing. Last year’s Brexit vote introduced the greatest existential threat to the island of Ireland in a generation, and at a time when many of Northern Ireland’s citizens are feeling at their most disempowered, their most vulnerable, people like Yates with influential platforms only serve to make us feel more disempowered, more vulnerable
“My tolerance of Nordies both sides of the sectarian divide is limited enough,” he said on Monday’s Newstalk show ‘The Hard Shoulder’. “They are still caught in this time warp between the Tricolour and Union Jack.”
And whilst it might seem reasonable for him to suggest that Northern Irish society still harbours a bitter sectarian streak, what his analysis fails to acknowledge is the huge progress which has been made in the region since the Good Friday Agreement nearly 20 years ago. Employment opportunities have levelled out between traditionally marginalised nationalist communities and formerly ascendant loyalist communities. Political radicalisation of young people has dwindled, and Northern Irish schools have topped UK GCSE and A-Level results for the past three years running.
The number of residents availing of dual citizenship has risen to its highest ever level, and unemployment across the board is at little over 5%. The dividing lines have looked for some time as though they might be blurring, and as freelance journalist Kylie Noble pointed out in The Guardian this August, “Most young people I know in Northern Ireland do not vote thinking of the border foremost—we vote thinking of what politicians will do to make this contested corner of the Earth fairer, more just and outward-looking.”
Yates’s attitude, I would argue, arises as much out of ignorance as it does out of prejudice (which you might say, are two things that go hand-in-hand). And when one considers the history of the Troubles, it often seemed from a Northern perspective that the Republic wrapped itself in as much of a wilful blanket of ignorance as did Great Britain. But when a former Fine Gael minister—who should know better—starts spouting off that “They’re welcome to join a United Ireland once they get out of their time warp,” you can forgive Nordie sensitivity when snobbish schadenfreude accompanies such ignorance.
“Behind all that bluster they’re actually like a rat in a corner threatened,” Yates said of the North’s Unionist community in this same Newstalk tirade.
“The fact of the matter is, we don’t actually like the Nordies.” To which we Nordies might well reply, ‘This isn’t helping, Ivan.’
But what does it matter when there’s nobody there to listen? What does it matter when I’m just another Nordie?