The Blanket

To Hell With the True Believers

Newton Emerson

What do Robert McCartney and Anthony McIntyre have in common? (Apart from no hope of being the next MP for North Down). Answer: they both reject the Good Friday Agreement on religious grounds.

Bob adds the Agreement’s various vectors together, and notes that the result points South. This isn’t The One True Unionism.

Anto analyses Sinn Fein’s rhetorical somersaulting, and notes that somebody has his beard caught in the border. This isn’t The One True Republicanism.

And do you know what? It doesn’t matter. Because Bob and Anto are both logic-chopping their way up an ivory tower. Theology is not politics.

Republicanism and Unionism, in their ‘purest’ forms, have highly religious characteristics. Both employ prophets, saviours and martyrs. Both celebrate a history of suffering. Both can be reduced to a list of unbreakable commandments. And ultimately, both require a leap of faith into the circular arguments that support them.

Hence debate between true believers often resembles some medieval monastic disputation over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Within the terms of such debates, the internal logic even promises each participant a ‘right’ answer. So instead of having politics as the art of the possible, Northern Ireland has politics as the defence of Absolute Truth - which keeps our individual green and orange souls pure, but collectively damns us.

The Good Friday Agreement turns this contradiction around, by offering salvation through heresy. Republicans sit in Stormont. Unionists work with Sinn Fein. Dublin gets an input by dropping its claim. As the mortal sins stack up, the religious convictions fall down. Real politics begins to occur, real hope is possible, and the screams of the True Believers get drowned out by the choir. This was what we voted for, right?

The Agreement has worked so far, despite its own contradictions, because it treats both our ‘traditions’ for what they are: not true faiths, just rival denominations. It puts our respective heavens on indefinite hold, underlines the bits of our respective Bibles that contradict each other, and generally pees in the font. Bob and Anto call it blasphemy - I call it reality.

Reality is dawning for Unionists with the realisation that the British government hasn’t a single article of faith in its pretty little head. We’re being gently shunted South, and Tony Blair will say whatever it takes to smooth things over - in fact he’ll even write it down. But any Unionist pious enough to treat such statements as scripture will soon learn the difference between religion and politics. To stay British, Northern Ireland must become more Irish.

Reality is dawning for Republicans with the realisation that Northern Ireland exists, will probably outlast them all in some form or another, and has to be made to work. There’ll be no united Ireland without a united Northern Ireland.

It’s not like the Agreement invented paradox and self-deception here, it just makes use of them. Britain has never believed in the Union: now it doesn’t have to. The Republic always planned to wait the ‘Northern question’ out: now it can pass that cowardice off as tolerance. Unionists have always at heart been simply Northern Ireland nationalists: now Northern Ireland seems much more like a ‘nation’. And of course Sinn Fein operated an absurd double standard for the past 30 years: another few years won’t kill them - and hopefully won’t kill anyone else either.

So who cares if Edward Carson and Michael Collins are spinning in their graves? There’ll be plenty of time to reflect on our impiety when we’re all as dead - of old age - as they are.






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If you stand up and be counted, from time to time you may get yourself knocked down. But remember this: A man flattened by an opponent can get up again. A man flattened by conformity stays down for good.
- Thomas J. Watson, Jr

Index: Current Articles

22 August 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Listen Rather Than Punish
Anthony McIntyre


To Hell With the True Believers
Newton Emerson


Merger Mania
Ciarán Irvine


Interface Workers Snubbed
Billy Mitchell


A Vibrant Feile
Sean Smyth


RIRA & CIRA: No Support and Going Nowhere?
Liam O Ruairc


18 August 2002


Unidentified Mob Rule
Aine Fox


The West Belfast Feile
Newton Emerson


The Most Useless, Most Spineless, Most Pointless of Them All
Ciarán Irvine


North Belfast: A Resident's View
Joan Totten


A Tawny Sinew
Anthony McIntyre


Deepest Sympathy


Ahmed Al Kouraini
Sam Bahour


A Personal Voyage of Taboo

Davy Carlin


Reading Connolly
Liam O Ruairc




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