Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Do the deal, or Perfidious Albion may just remember who we are

There is one single abiding reason why we must hope that the Northern Executive is reassembled and continues to fumble along in a pretence of government.

That reason has nothing to do with the gibbering madmen of dissident republicanism, for they do not need an excuse to start a war: they'll do it anyway, as poor, gallant PNSI officer Peadar Heffron can atest to.

And yes, of course it's good that Protestants and Catholics at least put up the appearance of liking one another. For appearances can do more than deceive. Deceit can sometimes delude the deceiver: in time, the surface becomes the substance, and people start believing in the parts they are playing. I agree, it’s not likely, but it could happen.

But the most compelling reason for the Northern parties to resolve their differences is that the English cannot be trusted to take over. (What follows is the kind of article that can appear in an Irish newspaper about the English, but not vice versa).

At bottom, it's the very Englishness of the English which is the impediment to their good governance of the Irish.

The Irish remember a great deal — to be sure, most of it wrongly: either way, an active historical imagination is a powerful ingredient in Irish identity. For the English, amnesia is the great defining anvil upon which the imponderables of their identity are hammered.

Now, I outrank most of you on this subject, so believe me when I say that the English are almost untroubled by any serious group-memory.

The English do not really have any traditional songs — the title ‘folk-song' was a 19th century, cod Anglo-Saxon term invented by English cultural nationalists — because to know songs, you have to have a group-memory.

Most English have none. English ‘folk-songs' are dead 200 years. Any musical portrayal of the East End of London will feature My Old Man and The Lambeth Walk: and that'll be that. Over.

In my Leicester childhood, my father would lie in bed on Sunday morning singing Irish songs: The Rose of Tralee and The Kerry Dances, I Met Her in the Garden Where the Praties Grow. It was |inconceivable that the fathers of my little English friends would have known any English songs of a comparable vintage.

In part, I think the English memory-failure is an expression of a dysfunctional social dynamic. Some years ago I took my wife to a shoe shop in a Shropshire village where, during previous visits, I had come to know the owner, a Miss Jones. But now the shop was completely gone.

I asked in the local pub about Miss Jones. The owners, the Larkins, whom I had known as long as I had Miss Jones, had never heard of her.

England seems to be a strangely atomised society. And if people tend not to relate meaningfully in groups, then they cannot remember group-things, such as songs.

Even ancient and recurring cultural festivals, like Guy Fawkes Night, are proving vulnerable. Incredibly — and with the assistance of the BBC — this cultural red squirrel is being displaced by that American festive grey squirrel, Halloween (because it is certainly not the cultural power of the Scots or Irish who are doing this).

Even organisations whose duty is to remember can forget almost everything. The British Army that had broken the ‘impregnable’ Hindenburg line and put Germany on the rack in 1918 had forgotten almost everything within a few years.

What there is of English group-memory for the 20th century is based almost entirely on propagandised myths, such as the much-vaunted spirit of the London Blitz — which also, as it happens, saw mass acts of cowardice and looting. And please, don't get me going on Churchill . . .

Contrary to much mythology on the Irish side, the English are not raised with a dislike of the Irish. The truth is even more insulting: the Irish — as a group or a nation — simply do not register at all on the English psyche.

On the school curriculum, Ireland is an unwelcome intruder who — through no fault of the English — every now and then blunders across the pages of English history, like a gatecrasher at a genteel cocktail party. Having insulted everyone in some unknown tongue, he exits to general sighs of relief, conversation resumes, and he is instantly and totally forgotten.

This cultural blindness to Irish matters is almost genetic in its irreducibility and is seemingly immune to education, just as no amount of lessons in aquilinism will convert a sheep into an eagle. Which was probably why Stormont was allowed to behave like a slum landlord for so long: the English just didn't want to know.

Whatever knowledge of Ireland that was oh-so-slowly accumulated amongst the British mandarin class during the Troubles has now probably dissipated. Belfast is a warship berthed on the Thames, yes? Londonderry is the name of quite a nice air — Irish, is it? And Dublin: is that in Ulster or Eire? I can never quite remember.

Believe me on this: it’s better for everyone if the lads in Belfast get their act together and England never, ever governs any part of Ireland again.

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