Race and Belonging


Edward Said is a writer and Professor of Comparative Literature whom I greatly admire. He was born in Jerusalem in 1935 but his family were expelled from their home when Israel was declared and Said eventually settled in the USA.

Several years ago he was diagnosed as having leukaemia though he continued to lecture and tour and write about the Palestinian cause and national dispossession. He was due to speak at the John Hewitt Summer School in County Antrim two weeks ago but was too ill to travel. And that is how I and several others, including the poet and writer Tom Paulin, were privileged to fill his slot at the last moment. The topic was 'race, cultural identity, belonging', though inevitably the discussion kept turning towards relations between unionist and nationalist and the current state of the peace process.

In my introduction I told a true story, about something that had happened to me the previous Saturday in London as I was walking from Hammersmith to an address in Shepherds Bush.

Along the way I had to ask various pedestrians for help. I stopped a number of people, who were English, and they gave me directions which included landmarks like filling stations, traffic lights, a florists and a pharmacy. At one stage I realised I had strayed past a turning I should have made and I stopped a man who happened to be Irish. I am sure he recognised my Belfast accent.

"If you go down that street," he said, "you'll see a pub on the left called The Orchard. Then further down you'll come to The Sun. Then after that you'll come to The Rat and Carrot, then you'll see Cobbold Road on your left."

Perhaps he thought I needed refreshments, or perhaps they were the main things local with which he was familiar. Anyway, his pub-crawl directions were perfect. My audience laughed when I finished. But the point I went on to make was this: had an English person told me that story I am sure I would have been quick to take offence, would have suspected there was a subtext of racial stereotyping. Would my sensitivity and response have been racist in turn?

In order to survive, nationalists in the North had until the late Sixties to keep their heads down and develop a thick hide. To overcome their sense of isolation and their insecurity they clung to the idea of freedom and a united Ireland. Northerners developed along different political/cultural lines than the people in the South, to whom we appear to have long memories and a crazy mixture of gallows humour and political severity. We never experienced independence or the dubious luxury of revising and rejecting the past, but had to rely first and foremost on our own inner and outer strengths, and our sense of Irishness.

Given the legacy of our colonial experience, of living in a partitioned, sectarian state; given the perceived traditional attitude of the English towards the Irish and Unionism's supremacist attitudes towards the native Irish, it is extremely difficult not to find refuge and seek succour in prejudices of your own.

But to progress we must shed our prejudices, we must change our language, we need to stop using terms like the Orangies, the Huns, the Bluenoses, the Black Bastards, with their racist overtones. Out of the ceasefires, out of the peace and political processes nationalists/republicans emerged full of confidence - but not triumphalistic as the anti-Agreement and some pro-Agreement unionists have alleged. If that were the case there would have been no unease, no disaffection and no 'Real IRA'.

It is this self-assurance, combined with a progressive attitude, that allowed nationalists and republicans to compromise and make concessions to unionism - which unionism, seemingly, doesn't quite know how to handle.

Nevertheless, there has been a real thaw in relations in the North, despite the ongoing resistance to the Agreement, the armed activities of a minority of republicans, and attempts by the Ulster Unionist party with Peter Mandleson to eviscerate the body of the Patten Report on a new policing service. Peace has created a more tolerant atmosphere. Republicans and unionists share power, sit on committees, debate together in public. I even heard a unionist on BBC's 'Talkback' argue for a rail link between Derry and Donegal so that both areas could advance together economically.

Short Strand - where Henry McIlhone, the first IRA Volunteer to be killed in the current troubles, died defending St Matthew's Chapel against armed loyalist attack - has invited unionist representatives to take part in a discussion. The PUP's Billy Mitchell and another unionist commentator have agreed to participate in the discussion in the local community centre on August 10th. The theme is: 'Where Hope and History Meet: My Vision of the Future'.

I don't mean to exaggerate the extent of these dialogues but they do represent small steps towards mutual understanding. Similarly, the Feile's 'West Belfast Talks Back' has made its own contribution to free speech in recent years by inviting into the area opponents and critics. Next Wednesday night's line-up involves Stephen King (advisor to David Trimble), Paddy Doherty (Sinn Fein MLA), Eamon O Cuiv TD (Minister for Arts, Culture, the Gaeltacht and the Islands), and a Protestant Minister, chaired by the indomitable Anne Cadwallader.

Finally, to return to the issue of race and a quote from Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz. He would make only one concession to the term 'race'. He said that there are two races of men in this world - the race of the decent man and the race of the indecent man. "Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people." He continued: "In this sense, no group is of 'pure race' - and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards," which is an exemplary forgiving statement from a man whose wife perished in the concentration camp.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison