Congressman Neal’s reference to ‘Planter’ uncalled for due to local sensitivities
Oscar Wilde famously said: “The problem is the English can’t remember history, while the Irish can’t forget it.”
Add Irish Americans to that list for context, as a poet of a different genre made headlines this week when US Congressman Richard Neal referenced “the Planter and the Gael” during a speech in Dublin.
The comments outraged unionists, who were already less than impressed with Mr Neal’s visit. They see him as a republican in the Irish sense, and therefore unlikely to understand their views.
Mr Neal later maintained he was using a historic reference to the Plantation during the 17th century.
“I also referenced the historical term of the Gael, the Gael and the Planter, because those are entirely accurate historic references,” he said.
Others defended him and pointed to the fact they were famous words contained in a poem by John Hewitt, the Belfast writer who died in 1987.
We come from a part of the world where words are important.
Dialogue helped forge our peace, words help heal our rifts.
Context is everything, and words that were once commonplace in everyday conversation are now no longer considered acceptable, and rightly so.
The word used to describe children born to unmarried parents, for example. Would any of us even consider using it to describe a baby?
Words used to describe children with disabilities, words used to describe gay men and women; words that were historically used liberally but now have no place in society.
I have never heard Irish people described as “Paddies” in a way that denotes affection. It is always derogatory.
Those who use the words “Taig” or “Fenian” as a description of themselves must have never been called it in anger, because I don’t find either acceptable given the context in which they are often used.
I have always assumed that the word “Planters” was meant as offensive, and therefore not to be used to describe my Protestant neighbours.
As a trade unionist and socialist, Hewitt recognised the phrase as offensive.
In a widely read interview with poet John Montgomery in 1980, Hewitt said of the Planter and the Gael that neither term was helpful in the context of our shared problems.
“I won’t say they help because in the community I come from we never call ourselves the Planters,” he said.
Did Mr Neal intend to offend unionists?
No, I don’t believe he did.
But I also think many influential Irish Americans have a misty-eyed view of the “old country”, an idea of what this place and its people are that doesn’t necessarily correlate with the modern reality.
The history of the Plantation is well known to anyone who paid attention in school.
But it dates back to the 17th century; other than a lesson in a book, it is not relevant to the modern island we live on.
He may as well have referenced the Norman invasion for all the relevance it has in a modern sense.
The flag-waving racists who carry ‘Ireland for the Irish’ banners and want this place brought back to the time when Church and state were one in the same are rightly derided for attacks on those who have made this island their home over the last 20 to 30 years.
And yet some educated people think it is OK to tell those who have roots here for generations that they are “Planters” who have no long-term place in this island. As for “Gael”, it always strikes me as having connotations of the “Arian race”, a pure breed of Irish totally unconnected to the diverse island we are now living on.
In the growing conversation about what the future of this island will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time the word “Planter” has no place.
Mr Neal was on a diplomatic mission; his visit should have been a positive one.
Instead, it was overshadowed by negativity, and he managed to insult a large section of unionism in the process.
Take previous visits by American delegations and the positive role they played.
The arrival of Bill Clinton in 1995 and how that gave a much-needed boost to the delicate peace negotiations.
The diplomacy by Clinton’s administration meant that all sections of our society were made to feel their input was valid.
Clinton appointed George Mitchell as a special envoy to Northern Ireland along with Martha Pope.
Pope, who served as Mitchell’s senior adviser later, recalled the meeting space where tables were carefully arranged to avoid conflict between opposing factions.
Diplomacy was key to the delegation’s success as they awarded space to nationalist, unionist, loyalist and republican.
The Bush administration sent two special envoys here in Richard Haass and Mitchell Reiss.
Both had an understanding of this place which was crucial during the decommissioning and policing talks.
To twist the words of another Irish writer, Brendan Behan: “I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.”
In this case substitute policeman for badly briefed American politician and you get the idea.
There will always be a place for the US in Ireland, North and South, politically and economically — the close links between our nations are a source of pride for many.
But, at the very least, those who visit need to be well briefed, up-to-date and ensure that their contribution is a helpful one, and not simply a trip down memory lane to the Ireland of their forefathers.