The front page of the Guardian on the 27th of July is a page with an interesting contrast. It is dominated by a half-page picture of Jennifer Saunders and Jonna Lumley in the guise of Patsy and Eddie from Ab Fab with the Olympic torch and a gushing article by Jonathan Freedland, extolling joys of being British, discussing how the Olympics will bring Britain together as a nation and suggesting that hosting the cream of the world’s athletes will show us the place of Britain in the modern world.
Towards the bottom of the article is a rather chilling piece, overshadowed by the glitz and the glamour of the Olympics, but potentially far more important as the regards the future of Britain: the announcement by three Irish Republican paramilitary groups that they are forming a new IRA and plan to increase the now sporadic terrorist attacks in Ireland. An account, later in the paper, of how the message was delievered to the press – on a country road, in the dark, miles from Derry – makes chilling reading after so much positive work has been done thanks to the Good Friday Agreement.
It is not difficult to see why previously isolated groups in Ireland feel the need to come together, despite their seemingly disparate aims. The Real IRA, vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs and the handful of smaller post-Provisional IRA have sat and watched for several years as first the Brown and then the Cameron Government promoted an agenda which emphasised Britishness, culminating in the joint celebration of the Diamond Jubilee and London 2012.
Both the Jubilee and the Olympics have been positive events for the UK as a whole. While the Jubilee is partially responsible for the continued negative growth of the British economy, it has resulted in investment in a number of communities in the UK, the creation of new forests and given a lot of people an enjoyable day off work. Likewise, the Olympics has helped to sustain jobs in construction and engineering in London, should increase tourism to the city and will leave a legacy of new sports facilities, albeit a legacy concentrated in the south of England.
However, those living in the UK have repeatedly been told that these events are about Britain.
This ia a problem because a large number of those living in Britain do not identify as being British. This include Scots and Welsh who don’t believe in the independence of their home nations, a large number of those living in Northern Ireland, a significant and growing percentage of those living in England, some migrants and descendants of migrants and foreign nationals living in the UK, such as Edinburgh’s large North American population.
There is plenty of evidence which backs this assertion up, including this datablog article from the Guardian, which gives a simple visual oversight indicating that an overwhelming majority of those living in Scotland, Wales and Nothern Ireland regard themselves as being Scottish, Welsh or Irish rather then British. Even in England, it’s about 50-50 between those who identify as English and those who identify as British. Surveys carried out by IPSOS-Mori and YouGov regularly show that a majority of Scots consider themselves Scottish rather then British, with a growing trend in England for English to identify as English.
In Scotland, England and Wales, being called British if you don’t regard yourself as being British just leads to an insulted look and a quick correction from some, while others brush it off (although they probably won’t sing God Save The Queen). In these three nations, civic nationalism has prospered, creating inclusive nationalist movements like the SNP and Plaid Cymru. That said, overt “Brit-ification” of major events can still lead to a feeling of alienation.
In Northern Ireland, nationalism is a different beast. The conflict spans generations and combines religion with nationalism. It’s less then twenty years since parts of Ireland were still active warzones, peace walls are still in place throughout the country and marching seasons remain a flash-point for violence. Being called British or being told you are British is a deadly insult to many in Ireland. Yet, with royal visits to both Northern Ireland and the Republic and the visit of the Olympic torch to Derry (or Londonderry as the BBC repeatedly referred to it), with the blanket coverage of the Jubilee and the London Olympics, with the glorification of the British military following the conflicts in Afganistan and Iraq, that is what Irish Republicans are repeatedly being told.
This over promotion of British-ness, rather then acknowledging the strengths and uniquenesses of the component nations may well be a contributing factor in the decision of these Republican groups in Northern Ireland to coalesce. Northern Ireland does have other problems – high unemployment, the need for considerable investment in housing, scars from the Troubles – which will have contributed to this move. It could also be that the remains of the militant Republican movement have become so small individually that they need to band together for strength, especially if they feel the need to use intimidation tactics.
There is no point in continuing with behaviour which at best causes discomfort to a hefty slice of the UK population and at worst antagonises a significant minority. Instead, we should all acknowledge the strengths and uniquenesses of the components of the UK, acknowledge the fact that the UK is four nations united by two acts of union and act like a modern, inclusive country. Making reference to Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland will not lead to the dissolution of the UK, but it will lead to a better, more cohesive society.