As someone who grew up in a Catholic household, I have always been taught about the struggle of inequalities of the past in my community, here in the north. We have seen decades of progression through diplomacy and the democratic process, including; one man one vote, job opportunities in both Nationalist and Unionist communities, the end of gerrymandering etc. However, is there still more to be achieved if equality is to be truly prevalent?
I have recently been involved in many debates surrounding the issue of QUB becoming a “cold house” for Unionists with complaints about GAA jerseys being worn on campus and the recent actions of the political organisation, Lasair Dhearg, and their rebranding of street names from British colonial titles to Irish native names. The idea that QUB is a cold house for Unionists is something I would have to disagree with completely. My reasoning for this would aim to look at how QUB is structured both in the past and today. The university, first and foremost, has been named “Queen’s” after the monarch of Britain, along with a British war memorial just inside the front gates of the Lanyon building as well as portraits of Elizabeth II in multiple rooms of the main building itself. On top of this, there are many societies in QUB that hold a strong Unionist standpoint, such as the Young Unionists' Society, the Orange Society, the Conservative and Unionist Society and even British Armed Forces representation at university freshers' fairs. So why is wearing a GAA jersey around campus seen as sectarian and an infringement on Unionism when we look at the wider spectrum of the University’s origin and progression? The problem we seem to be facing here is not an infringement of rights for one community, but rather privilege being taken away from one group and being replaced by measures of equity.
So why does equality seem like discrimination to those who grew up in a heavily Unionist background? One can only presume that it is because to people who grew up privileged, the rights of others seem to undermine or infringe upon the rights of themselves, when this is not the case at all. Rather it is tipping the scales to be equal and not biased. One example of this, which has been an issue for a long time both inside the gates of QUB and in our society in general, has been the issue of the Irish language and its signage. Although Gaeilge is the native language of Ireland and has been used even in contemporary contexts, many Unionists would see the preservation of the language to be in some way sectarian, whether they claim that it takes away from their British identity or say that Irish a dead/foreign language. Those who choose to speak it should be respected for wanting to keep their native culture alive. During these types of debates there comes a lot of straw-man arguments against the language and its signage. I have had many people say to be 'well then we may as well put Polish signs up too because more people here speak Polish than Irish', completely forgetting that Gaeilge is a strong part of Irish culture on this Island, native to all 32 counties. There seems to be somewhat of a victim mentality surrounding Unionist culture when it comes to issues like that, with representatives such as Gregory Campbell and Jim Allister making a mockery of the language to make themselves feel more secure in their own identity, while claiming that Irish culture chips away at their British identity. As if somehow someone else’s identity invalidates their own. Yet, many republican faces have spoken on this issue in a very different light; “I am so confident in my Irishness that I have no desire to chip away at the Britishness of my neighbours.” – Martin McGuinness. The shutdown of Irish culture by Unionists is not at all new, especially when it comes from a place of superiority.
In saying this, Unionist/Loyalist culture has always based itself around the discrimination of other cultures (the burning of Irish flags and effigies on bonfires on the 11th night, Orange marches on the 12th with songs about the superiority of Protestants and the use of derogatory terms to describe Catholics and Nationalists). This type of culture would be seen as more exclusive than inclusive to other communities yet GAA jerseys are described as “intimidating” by Unionists when their own bonfires have slogans such as “Kill All T**gs” on them. The celebration of this bigotry points not only to the hypocrisy of those who speak against Irish culture, but also one of supremacy of their own culture against others. When it comes to the actions of the socialist republican group, Lasair Dhearg, changing colonial street names to Irish names, there is a lot of 'what if it was the other way around?' when there is no 'what if' in this scenario because it is the reality for those who aren’t from a heavily Unionist background. NI was built on colonialism and sectarianism, “A Protestant state” as James Craig put it. The progressive nature of the need for equality in Unionist behaviour seems to point towards the decline of British Culture here in the north. In reality, asking for an end to burning flags and effigies isn’t dismantling the identity of Unionists, it is rather asking to put an end to the discrimination of other cultures.
The constant fight for equality in preserving Irish culture is of no threat to Unionist culture and the Britishness of our neighbours, but is rather to dismantle the supremacy and privilege which one side has over the other, to be seen as equal and not to be undermined or to feel like guests in our own home. This place is home to all of us, not just a select few, and we are all to be treated as such.
Alannagh Doherty is a 21 year old from Derry and is a final year student studying Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.