THE Ulster Covenant commemorations passed off well, with tens of thousands on the streets enjoying the spectacle and the parades, the sun shone and there was a welcome reminder that the majority of people in Northern Ireland support the continuance of the Union.
Not that you would have been aware of any of this if you listened solely to the BBC’s UK national coverage of the events.
The main thrust of the hourly Radio 4 news reports on the Covenant parade was that there had been no trouble, yet (with an emphasis on the “yet”). There did not seem to have been time for comment from anyone organising or supporting the parade but a republican supporter was allowed to whine about how his community was being oppressed by loyalists.
The BBC’s coverage of recent parades elsewhere has also not been as full as one might have hoped for.
On September 11 there was a massive pro-Catalan independence rally here in Barcelona. Up to two million people, many bussed in for the day, were on the streets calling for secession from Spain. The BBC was all over it with prominent comment from socialist spokespeople. There was no mention that about half of Catalunya’s 7.5 million population support Spanish Unionism, or that the largest Catalan independence movement is a centre-right party, but there was reference to the public spending cuts being made by the conservative government in Madrid. They certainly did not give voice to the many local Spanish Unionists who are intimidated by the Catalan Nationalists into keeping quiet.
Listeners will have been left with the view that it was a popular outpouring of anger at a conservative government making public spending cuts (i.e. the approved BBC view of pretty much everything).
Similarly, when a couple of weeks ago most Scots were laughing their socks off at a pitifully attended Scottish Nationalist pro-independence parade, featuring supporters of Irish republicanism and the sort of deluded soul that thinks that Braveheart was a documentary, the BBC gave the impression that it had been a great success. The only comment I heard aired came from SNP leader Alex Salmond, who was given free rein to spin like a dervish who had had a cup too many of Turkish coffee.
These three parades, supporting nationalist independence or political union, serve to remind us of a larger and more complex story, that Europe, while often referred to as the Old World, contains many nations that are younger than the newspaper you are reading.
Over its 275-year history, the News Letter has probably reported on more wars, revolutions, new nations, and treaties than any other newspaper.
The News Letter is famous for its August 1776 front page report on the Declaration of Independence, but the USA really looks like an old country compared to some of the European newcomers.
When the News Letter’s founder Francis Joy lifted the first edition off the press in 1737, the United Kingdom did not exist: England and Scotland had united in the Act of Union 30 years previously, but it was not until the Acts of Union in 1800 that the single nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland came into being and the Union Flag was raised for the first time. 121 years later the southern part of the island of Ireland chose to leave the Union.
The 1800 Acts of Union were in part a response to the actions of the revolutionary United Irishmen, led in the north by Francis Joy’s son, Henry Joy McCracken, who was hanged in Corn Market in 1798. The Orange Order also came into being as a reaction to the United Irishmen.
Catalans were already building their anti-Spanish grudges when the ink was drying on that first News Letter. Although Spain’s borders were largely settled, the Catalunya squabble started with the Fall of Barcelona in 1713, when Spanish and French forces defeated the Austrian–allied Catalans and ended the war of the Spanish Succession. A war that had many parallels with William of Orange’s ascent to the British throne.
The French Republic came into being with the French Revolution in 1789, followed closely by the Napoleonic Wars that shaped the borders of modern France. Arguably the least united of the great European countries, France has faced secessionist movements in Corsica, French Catalunya and the Basque country.
Italy came into being in 1870, when Victor Emanuel II sent his army in to claim Rome from the papacy and finished the task of uniting the country begun by Giuseppe Garibaldi and others, although the beautiful region of Trentino did not join until it was wrestled off the Austrians after the First World War. Today the Northern League leads a campaign to separate the prosperous northern part of the country from the largely agrarian south.
Modern Germany, or at least a close approximation thereof, came into being in 1871 when the slow and sometimes extraordinarily bloody process of unifying over 100 Germanic territories, principalities and city states came to fruition with the foundation of the German Empire.
It was touch and go as to whether Germany would reunify in 1990 following the collapse of communism, and the southern state of Bavaria remains independently minded and occasionally talks about leaving Germany.
In the 275 years that the News Letter has been with us, dozens of smaller states have also come and gone, great countries have been torn apart and reshaped, and millions of people have been persecuted and killed, wars have been fought and empires have been won and lost.
I wonder what the map will look like in another 275 years time, and if the News Letter will still be around to report on the changes.