Sinn Fein talk friendship but their opposition to RIC commemoration shows they prefer division

Charlie Flanagan, the Republic's minister for justice, seen above in Stormont in 2017, in a statement issued last week promoted an Irish state commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary but was pressured into a climbdown by republicans
Charlie Flanagan, the Republic's minister for justice, seen above in Stormont in 2017, in a statement issued last week promoted an Irish state commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary but was pressured into a climbdown by republicans
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Identity politics is all the rage these days.

Lionised by the left and arguably successfully weaponised by the right in the triumphs of Trump and Brexit, this new form of politics is seemingly here to stay.

On this island, there have been recent indications that Stormont based unionists and the Irish government have a shared understanding of one of the key tenets of identity politics.

They say that no one culture should be promoted above any other.

Thus, last Friday, Arlene Foster, by way of commending the new Stormont deal, said: “This is a deal that recognises that no one identity should be placed over another”; she added that the deal worked because it recognised that there are people in Northern Ireland with an Irish identity and others with a British identity.

Meanwhile Charlie Flanagan, the Republic’s Minister for Justice, in a statement issued last week promoting a state commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), said: “[our approach] has made clear that there is no hierarchy of Irishness and that our goal of reconciliation on the island of Ireland can only be achieved through mutual understanding and mutual respect of the different traditions on the island”.

Shortly after this comment, however, he was pressured into a climbdown by republicans and even, sadly, the Fianna Fail opposition.

This volte face was in contrast to the note perfect articulation of identity politics by Arlene Foster, which represents the ultimate triumph of the politics of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

The idea that Britishness in Northern Ireland is merely an identity and on a par with the “Irish identity” (a phrase once considered insufferable NIO speak by Republicans) is not what one might expect from a leader of the DUP.

Whether this is a great success for the republican movement, using identity politics as a Trojan Horse to smash unionism and reduce the Union to a mere lifestyle choice, is too early to tell.

What is not too early to tell is that the same republican movement is not buying into the same shibboleths of identity politics in the South at the moment: they made it very clear that they rejected Charlie Flanagan’s eloquent plea for no hierarchies of Irishness and mutual respect of different traditions.

For them, Britishness in the Republic is not an identity worthy of respect and certainly not on a par with Irishness; indeed in the bombastic language echoing about last week (and not just from Sinn Féin), Britishness in the South — as mediated by any form of respect for the sacrifice and devotion to duty of ordinary Irish Catholic members of the RIC — was characterised as a type of national false consciousness comparable to reverence for the Vichy régime in France.

Whilst I personally loathe the cultural relativism of identity politics, that we cannot judge one culture over another, it is undeniable that showing respect for cultures other than our own has been useful in Ireland and in dealing with the Irish question.

Republicans are some of the most skilled exponents on the island of using the language of respect of identity politics while sowing division.

It is galling to watch them pretend to hold out the hand of friendship when their reaction to RIC showed that they will not tolerate anything outside their comfort zone.

l Neil McCarthy is a writer and teacher based in Dublin and London