US Congressman Richard Neal arrived by plane in Ireland to investigate the protocol deadlock but he may as well have been travelling by time machine.
His comments about how the US in the Good Friday Agreement talks acted as “honest brokers… accepting the notion that we could make space for the Planter and the Gael to live together” were like being transported back to the worst excesses of 1970s Irish-American sentimentality.
Indeed describing the crisis as “manufactured” by unionism was exactly the sort of tone-deaf clunking remarks that would have ensured there’d never have been peace brokered here.
But who was surprised? A man who plants trees in remembrance of IRA hunger strikers was hardly likely to be an impartial observer.
His speech to the Irish Seanad confirmed his political biases and infatuation with a certain version of Irish history. He even had nostalgic tales of his own derring-do. Crossing the “old border” in 1989 or 1990, he recalled how “our bus was stopped by a British Army patrol and … was subjected to a thorough search by armed soldiers with night vision equipment and heavy armaments”.
Congressman Neal might have balanced that with the experiences of border Protestant families grateful the Army and police were there to offer protection from the IRA onslaught.
It might have occurred to him that the bus search was to prevent outrages like Enniskillen, which took place two years previously.
Such balance used to be essential for anyone promoting peace and reconciliation. One-sidedness used to be regarded as being part of the problem, not the solution. Clearly, all that can now be dispensed with.
How depressing that no voices in Dublin distanced themselves from the embarrassing elements of his speech.
The protocol issue allowed Mr Neal’s trip to Glockamorra to be a prompt for windy inflammatory rhetoric, matched by the craven eagerness of the Irish establishment to endorse everything he said because everything he said endorsed everything they think.
What great — if short — conversations can be had when everyone thinks the same! How easily problems disappear as nationalism talks to versions of itself, pausing not even to acknowledge the validity of another perspective.
Mr Neal threw in dark warnings about how “chilly” relations are between Washington and London, with the implication that this has to do with Ireland and the GFA. What cobblers, Congressman. As the poor Afghans you abandoned in Kabul airport stared upwards at the soles of your servicemen’s boots disappearing in a helicopter, it was British troops accompanying the departure. Just as every step of the way over Ukraine, it is British military aid and intelligence which is working to aid the invaded nation alongside the US, with British-made weapons from Belfast.
People want the protocol changed because of numerous trade and practicality issues. But unionists also perceive its Irish Sea border as a threat to their identity, the very thing the GFA was supposed to protect.
Dismissing unionist concerns as “manufactured” exposes the belief — Neal’s and that of Irish nationalism as a whole — that northern unionists must simply admit they were wrong and give up being unionists.
The congressman is not a neutral bystander. He and the Biden administration have made matters worse. World boxing champion and tireless cross-community worker Carl Frampton called that out on social media — but then presumably he’s not a ‘Gael’ so his views can be discounted.
The fall-out from Mr Neal’s now infamous ‘Planter and Gael’ remarks suggests he’s not alone holding the belief that Protestants — ‘Planters’ — are the root of the problem. The very word ‘Planter’ implies their presence here is wrong, illegitimate, oppressive. Protestants are usurpers, and should be somewhere else.
Some quoted the dissenter poet John Hewitt who used the word ‘Planter’ frequently. But that was 50 years ago and his nuanced use of the term was partly to enable Protestants to feel that they belonged to a country which didn’t want them. It certainly wasn’t to alienate them further from their neighbours.
‘Planter’ is a self-description one takes on oneself — coming from others, it’s just another term of abuse.
Far less attention is paid to the absurd term ‘Gael’ — a title, as Neal uses it, meant as a euphemism for ‘Catholic’. Unlike ‘Planter’, which describes what you do, ‘Gael’ describes what you are — a racial designation. That this should even have to be highlighted as outdated, exclusionary and as crass as something out of a Hollywood fantasy, is depressing.
We shouldn’t have to test the genetic soup that goes into making up our lives on this island, but the word ‘Gael’ is a trigger for just that.
It may surprise Mr Neal that were his own rhetoric blown back across the Atlantic he’d find himself the Planter, not the Gael, for which read Native American. Mr Neal is now back in the US. Because that’s where he lives, where his family are, where his loved ones are buried and where he has a stake in the future. Where he has a sense of belonging and purpose. In other words, it’s his home. In America — an entire continent built upon ‘plantation’. Where the Neals have put down roots.
I know the feeling. My family line goes back to Scotland and England, two places I like but that certainly aren’t home. That’s not to say I don’t feel a strong cultural pull in that direction. The UK is a big part of my identity. But who you are, where you feel you belong, what makes you want to stay somewhere, is complicated and simple all at once.
Last year I was gardening with an elderly relative. Placing red and blue blooms in a container, they lamented that if only they’d had white flowers it would have been perfect for the Twelfth. That evening I told a friend whose upbringing was as green as mine was not about my futile search for white flowers. Minutes later she rang back: “I went outside and saw my wee white petunias. Take them for the container”
As Hewitt said, “This is our country also, no-where else; / and we shall not be outcast on the world.”
There are other ways to plant, to put down roots and to feel at home.