Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

Do these unionists try a Brit too hard?

Starey-eyed: Sammy Wilson's anger isn't very British, says Robert McNeil
Starey-eyed: Sammy Wilson's anger isn't very British, says Robert McNeil

Jeez, what's with these unionist guys in Stormont? Scare-ee! I'm told Monday's debate on same-sex marriage was restrained by some previous standards. And, it's true, nobody completely lost it. But you could see it simmering underneath.

You can hear it in those speeches that start off quiet and nervous, then build up steam and seem just about to explode before, thankfully, they reach the time-limit and the putative rocket has to sit back on its launching pad.

Why are these guys always so angry? Is it a peer pressure thing? Look how mad I got! Witness my rage! Impressive, eh? Nope.

I can't think why anyone would think an unmanly loss of self-control admirable. I suppose that watching someone lose their self-control is frightening, and perhaps that is the intention.

But losers of self-control are losers. Any teach-yourself guide to boxing or the martial arts will tell you that, as soon as you lose it, you lose it. You're actually an easy target to an opponent who remains unfazed.

Maybe it's tension caused by the whole British, not-really-British thing. You have to balance these two nebulosities. Britishness is a good and admirable concept in many ways.

It pans across these islands. Nothing to do with politics or the state. I'm talking culturally. There are aspects of Irishness that seem to me quite British (and aspects of Britishness that seem quite Irish).

Even after independence, Scotland will still be British. Apart from anything else, we were here before these Anglo-Saxon johnny-come-latelies.

So, if you're against British (as in English) rule, for example, you don't need to throw away all Britishness. Consider the ironies.

Firstly, the mellow, tweedier nationalist (and Alliance and Green) side of things actually seems more British than the bulgy-veined, starey-eyed, unpleasantly suited unionist side. These latter folk come across more like the sky-punching protesters you often see on foreign news clips from the streets of countries with climates vastly different from Northern Ireland's.

Take, by contrast, a stereotype of Britishness: the English gent. A good thing, in many ways. Work with me on this. Think 1950s films. Think about that ideal based on courtesy, gentleness, moderation, reasonableness and phlegm in the non-nasal sense.

It's just a model. But Yanks love it and think it actually exists. In truth, it's like one of Plato's forms: not attainable on this Earth, but something towards which it's good to aspire.

Yes, it's a good ideal. It's transferable across the British Isles and even further abroad. Indeed, it's my view that Americans – always polite and well-spoken in my experience – embody it better these days.

Do you think those bulgy-veined fellows coiling themselves into a rage come anywhere near that ideal? They're planets apart: the British ideal and the uber-Brits. That seems to me the unionists' problem: they're just not very British.

True, generally speaking, you mustn't generalise.

There were one or two on the unionist benches who looked mellow, balanced and even at peace with themselves (the most difficult person to make your peace with).

But others give the general impression of being ideal models to pose for a straitjacket catalogue.

Is there any merit in asking them to chill?

Has anyone tried? Or will they just lose it again?

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