Billy King shares his monthly thoughts
Hello again – You may not know that there are hundreds and hundreds of varieties of snowdrops with some rarer ones changing hands for perhaps a hundred quid a bulb. Chacun à son gout. We just have a couple of varieties and one of them, for the first time ever, was in flower before Christmas and new year. That is global warming/warning for you. A few decades ago you could be almost certain, in our neck of the woods, of a hard frost before the end of October while now it could be a couple of months later, and one year our nasturtiums, which go to mush with any hard frost at all, survived through to the spring. In the damp cold of an Irish winter you may not notice it too much but the weather times have been changing. And more damaging storms and floods will be our lot, Isha-n’t that the truth.
Nun better, nun worse
I don’t know if you watched the two programmes on RTE about the ‘last priests’ and ‘last nuns’ in Ireland, presented respectively by Ardal O’Hanlon and Dearbhall McDonald in mid-January. There has been an amazing change in my lifetime, from an ‘oversupply’ and export of people in this form of religious life to very few and most of those being at or past normal retirement age – and retirement age for priests is 75. They may be few and far between in the future but as species (Irish born clerics) they are not going to die out, and if women priests appear (eventually) and celibacy becomes optional in the Catholic church (somewhat sooner) then there will be more who can join.
Of course we are better of without the belt of a crozier being something to fear. All the Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant (with the possible exception of a few churches catering primarily for migrants) are having to downsize and be creative in what they do and don’t do. And no longer being a bastion of the state (choose which state) perhaps they are also free to adopt a more radical mission and even rediscover the nonviolence which was certainly part of the early Christian church – you couldn’t be a Christian and a soldier for the first couple of hundred years of the Christian church. Well, that stipulation certainly vanished, didn’t it; sometimes states said – and say – men had to be a soldier to be a Christian (and this was backed up by subservient churches).
O’Hanlon had it handy in that he had a couple of old school friends who were priests; they came across very well. And to survive as a priest today in what is to some extent an anti-clerical environment, certainly for Catholic priests, you need to be together as a person and sure of your vocation. Meanwhile watching nuns be emotional and very human in relation to things done by their order in the past was moving. Of course atrocious things were done by priests and nuns but brilliant things too, and religious sisters, some not having the same institutional responsibilities as the men, have got up to some amazing projects, and moved with the more secular times, pushing out various boats. Part of O’Hanlon’s feature was about the ultramontanist (not a word used in the programme) movement in the Catholic Church in the mid-19th century under Cardinal Cullen; this elevated and isolated the priesthood and led to many of the evils perpetrated by some in the years following.
I only watched the two programmes once, as they were being screened, and their purpose wasn’t to revisit the evils of the past. But unless I am wrong there was no mention of the slowness of some religious orders to cough up the lolly that they were meant to for the government compensation fund for victims. And an order like the Christian Brothers have made it unnecessarily difficult for victims bringing legal cases. There are still lots of outworkings from the past.
Aotearoa and Norn Iron
As you may know, the Maori word for New Zealand, Aotearoa, is usually translated as Land of the Long White Cloud. This presumably was what impressed most upon Maori people as the characteristic of those islands when they arrived from Polynesia, or was how the Polynesian settlers who became the Maori found it when sailing there. It is a beautiful and evocative name.
The old Northern Irish loyalist slogan in favour of partition was that “We will never forsake the blue skies of freedom for the grey mists of an Irish Republic”. We don’t hear that quoted these days for a variety of reasons. However it struck me recently that, politically speaking, Norn Iron could be known as the Land of the Impenetrable Grey Mists. This is also an evocative name but not exactly beautiful. And no, I don’t know what that would be in Ulster Scots or Irish, maybe someone can enlighten me (before some “tír’s” are shed). And just because Stormont may be returning doesn’t mean those political grey mists will be clearing up either. And you could say the whole people of the North have missed out there.
You can’t vet me, I’m part of the Union
History isn’t always what we think, and is often more complex and nuanced than our preferred take. For example, the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland by ‘nationalists’ (in inverted commas because there are all sorts, and various forms of resistance) is tempered by the extent to which others in Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, bought in to the British imperialist and colonialist project, and the 19th century British army would have collapsed without Irish soldiers, primarily there for the job.
In the recent past, loyalists in the North have bemoaned the departure from previous norms which the Northern Ireland Protocol and then the Windsor Framework represented. A legal case that the Northern Ireland Protocol was, among other things, incompatible with the 1801 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, and therefore invalid, failed in London. But some loyalists have continued to bang that drum; in treating Northern Ireland differently in the economic sphere to the rest of the UK, the new arrangements were deemed a traitorous betrayal of solemn agreements in the past. The first point here, perhaps, is that there was very considerable bribery and corruption involved in getting the Act of Union agreed, and the Irish Parliament to vote itself out of existence, and it represented such a small section of people in Ireland, that thinking of the Act of Union as in any way ‘democratic’ is a nonsense.
However an article in the Belfast News Letter made me aware of another salient factor. The Act of Union did not institute free trade between Britain and Ireland. So calling for a return to the ‘equal treatment’ it is supposed to represent does not necessarily entail getting rid of the ‘Irish Sea border’ since there was one in 1801. Henry Patterson in the News Letter of 29th January https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/opinion/columnists/henry-patterson-legalistic-attempts-to-restore-article-6-of-the-act-of-union-would-be-a-disaster-4495902 pointed out that tariffs continued between Britain and Ireland after the Act of Union: “the restoration of Article 6 of the Acts of Union to its pre-Protocol status would be a very bad business indeed. The original Article 6 (the so-called ‘same footing’ clause) actually included a list of significant duties on goods moving between Great Britain and Ireland. In addition to duties on goods like whisky, cider and chocolate, it also entailed that countervailing duties could be imposed by the UK Parliament.”
And Patterson goes on that “The lived experience of “equal treatment” under Article 6 of the Union was nothing of the sort. This was particularly the case after the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 which, in truth, was the real constitutional foundation of Northern Ireland. From that point, there has always been differentiation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Section 21 of the 1920 Act required extensive checks by customs officers on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” He continues with examples of divergence during Unionist rule in Northern Ireland but also towards the end berates the Irish government on legacy issues and its inter-state case against the British government on that matter.
Perhaps it could be said that Britain has always treated Ireland and Northern Ireland differently to its own island, and Northern Ireland, from its foundation at partition, has reciprocated. So the historical case against the Windsor Framework is not a good one. That in no way determines what the future of Norn Iron should be but without its people working together then its future will be a revisiting of aspects of its past.
That’s me for now. When I write again the daffodils will be coming out in our part of the world, yellow harbingers of the slightly warmer weather that we know as ‘spring’ and ‘summer’. Until then, take care of yourself and others, Billy.