Reflecting on the Twelfth of July
Taken from a piece written in 2008
What has drawn me here? It feels secretive. I am in The Embankment, London and I can see the Police motorcyclist flashing his blue light, behind him I can see a Northern Ireland flag, no it is not football, it is the end of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, annual Lord Carson parade.
Last year I revisited my ‘Northern Irish protestant unionist upbringing’. I was wanting to identify what was my culture. I had dismissed it in my late teens only to realise years later that you can dismiss it, but it has still been part of your formation. I think for a lot of Northern Irish protestants we feel culturally like white South Africans, we have been a majority who oppressed the minority (in SA it was the reverse). Without knowing who we are culturally most of us quietly accept the usual notion of Irish, (shamrocks, dancing, Gaelic, Guinness) which most people around the world assume upon us.
I work and live with cultural diversity. I have had to face, whilst I was asking others their ethnicity, what was mine? On one occasion I was asked to help form an Irish workers support group. I was chuffed as being asked but there was a pause. I had to decide whether I identified myself as Irish before I could answer. At that moment, many years of reflections came together I did not see myself as what I now call ‘Irish Irish’.
I had done some work on ethnicity and concluded that my Northern Irish protestant life and experience amounted to an ethnicity. Was it not obvious after 30 years of ‘The Troubles’ that it was an ethnic conflict, that being two distinct ethnic groups were in conflict. If we were all the same what was all the trouble about?
The more I pondered the more I realised that my experience, call it culture, was distinct from my catholic neighbours, but what was it? I had thoughts but no words, nothing to point to. The red, white and blue images of sashes, bonfires, Billy Lundy, drums, flutes, accordions, and hymns all seemed sectarian.
Part of the problem, like so many people who have been anglicised, is we culturally are like little Englanders there is not much difference between NI protestant culture and English culture. The accent makes it distinct but so does a Newcastle accent. The term British is used for us rather than English. The obvious distinction is, what has been coined ‘the Orange culture’ nowadays revised to ‘Ulster-Scots’.
I thought perhaps I would revisit the obvious and see what I might find. Last year I tentatively visited the parade in London. My family here who are English with a Caribbean heritage saw a colourful, musical parade so did a lot of London tourists. But I was an insider I knew the meaning of the cultural codes. Yes, colours and music are neutral but lyrics aren’t. Flags become symbolic and some of the flags I saw left me uneasy. Yes, it could be claimed that it went back to 1916 but the so-called modern-day version was responsible for atrocities. Was I ever going to feel comfortable with a culture that was so politically Protestant that Catholics could not fail to feel hostility?
Here I was again, another year, though this time alone, this time at a distance, trying to somehow reconcile that what I knew so well was culturally acceptable. For all my trying I could not accept the message. I find that difficult to live with, but I can’t accept the sectarian under/overtones, so what does that make me culturally? the quest continues.