Michael Ignatieff on the British Nationalism of Ulster Protestants

Last night I watched Michael Ignatieff’s documentary on the nationalism of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland. It’s a bit strange seeing Ignatieff at such a young age, compared to how I’m used to seeing him, he looks almost kid-like. Especially as he mulls about with kids, asking wonderfully innocent questions. He’s able to get away with it, possibly because of his accent, despite asking questions which sound a bit offensive, or at least culturally insensitive from a position of knowledge about the community identities, and a sense of the gravity of the situation. 

The documentary is refreshingly not focussed on the dynamics of “the troubles”, or “the conflict” in Northern Ireland. Of course the conflict is an interesting topic, but as Micheal says, there have been enough documentaries made on that already. It’s quite a different thing to explore the nationalism of one community, especially the community which isn’t traditionally termed as “nationalistic” (that term is usually reserved for pro all-Ireland Catholics). Ignatieff claims interest in Ulster British Nationalism partly on the basis of it being a frame which reflects British nationalism back to Britain in forms which the mainland British themselves are uncomfortable with. This discomfort is manifested explicitly in the film when he expresses his desire to interview a protestant paramilitary, but the BBC won’t allow it. This refusal to look protestant nationalism in the face, in its most extreme manifestation, is a kind of bad faith carried out by mainland Britain – a refusal to acknowledge its own nightmarish possibilities of being just another violent blood nationalism. This is certainly something the mainland British have a reason to avoid acknowledging. 

I’m sorry to keep harping on about the paramilitaries, but it’s actually Ignatieff’s recognition of their importance that I think is the best thing about this documentary. He recognizes that the role of the paramilitaries stretches like a red thread through everything he sees – everyone defines themselves in terms of their relation to paramilitaries, paramilitaries are the effective police in the sectarian areas, and although nearly everyone will denounce violence if asked, they will all nevertheless show up to a paramilitary funeral. The bind of the community to its men of violence is a mirror of its inertia and recalcitrance against a future it is already inside of. It celebrates rituals in the same way as they have been celebrated for hundreds of years, it speaks constantly of battles that the British have long been silent on, and it enacts British pageantry with more care and precision than Buckingham palace – Ulster protestants are like so many nationalists cut off from the homeland – more nationalistic than the homeland, more British than Britain itself. 

And there is a kind of sadness here, Ignatieff says, because if one day Britain does decide to leave the Island of Ireland it won’t be because the Ulster protestants were not loyal enough, it will instead be because they were too loyal, because they become a character of themselves and did not move on with modern Britain. 

 

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