Former PD leader and Irish minister for justice, Michael McDowell made a (calculated) media splash at the annual McGill Summer School in the Glenties in Co. Donegal this week by suggesting that the 12th of July should be celebrated in the Republic of Ireland. Before I give my own reaction/take on this I want to point out how his suggestion was received here in 'norn iron'.
His comments were welcomed by the Orange Order and some unionist politicans while others, such as the normally sensible Nick Garbutt in the Newsletter condemned it his opinion piece yesterday 'Flags, Emblems and Ignorance' http://www.newsletter.co.uk/columnists/Flags-and-emblems-and-ignorance.6438266.jp. His argument completely by-passed the possibilities and debate opened up by McDowell's comments, focusing instead in McDowell's starting position of 'republicanism' and the fact that not all Protestant or Unionists are members of the Orange Order. On the former point I think McDowell was engaging in an attempt to reclaim republicanism from Sinn Fein (something that is to be welcomed and indeed the articulation of a 'civic republicanism' is something I support and have attempted to flesh out from a green political perspective in some of my academic writings). On the latter Nick seems to approach the debate about a more inclusive celebration and public acknowledgement of the 'orange tradition' in Ireland, determined from the outset to reduce that tradition to the Orange Order. That was not McDowell's point at all. His references to truly celebrating the 'orange panel' in the Irish Tricolour is, if one reads his speech, is about the 'non-gaelic, non-catholic' tradition on the island of Ireland i.e. that bit which is (take your pick, British, Anglo-Irish, Ulster Scots) and largely located in Northern Ireland. No one, I think, reduces the 'orange panel' to the Orange Order but the call for the celebration of the 12th opens up a debate about the Republic of Ireland becoming more mature and inclusive and living up to the spirit of a republican polity and society in the public acknowledgement of pluralism and diversity (and as indicated below, a recognition of the sectarianism suffered by the Protestant community in the Republic. But more significantly, and taking Nick's point head on, it raises the issue of what the 12th of July celebrations mean for those Protestants and Unionists who are not members of supporters of the Orange Order. It seems to me that this calls for a debate about whether there is a need for another non-Orange Order, non-12th July celebration of Britishness, Anglo-Irishness, Ulster-Scottishness etc? Because at present this public celebration is defined and confined to the 12th July. Thus it is unfair to criticise McDowell for reducing the cultural celebration and public display and acknowledgement of Unionism to the 12th celebrations since there are no other ones currently available. But the main issue is that McDowell should be congratulated not accused of ignorance for starting a long overdue debate on this issue.
My own views are that what McDowell's suggestion opens up is to be first and foremost to be welcomed. If the Republic of Ireland is to live up to its 'republican' (i.e. civic republican) not Irish nationalist character (though of course the latter has historically dominated and coopted the former) then making the 12th July a public holiday in the Republic - or failing that, providing some state-backed i.e. public recognition of it (beyond the President hosting a 'private' reception), has another (in my view) progressive advantage. And that is the acknowledgement within the Republic of Ireland that the Protestant community has suffered sectarian discrimination, marginalisation and unequal treatment since the foundation of the Irish state. That this discrimination was uneven, subtle and did not mirror the levels suffered by Catholics in Northern Ireland, does not in any way undermine the fact that there has been a wall of silence and a refusal within the Republic of Ireland to acknowledge the fact that to think that 'sectarianism' was and is something confined to Northern Ireland in general and is another term for 'anti-Catholic' in particular, was and is simply wrong.
That many within the Protestant community in the Republic quickly realised that to get by within the new state the best course was to 'keep their heads down' is itself evidence of how, to abuse that well-worn phrase and apply it to a different context, the Republic of Ireland was 'a cold house for Protestants'. It is of course for members of the Protestant community in the Republic themselves to articulate the extent to which this was and is the case, and it is good to see that in the last number of years there has been a steady stream of academic research focusing on the sectarianism and discrimination experienced by them.
If we are to build a new relationship between the two parts of the island, the two dominant political and religious traditions (which involves the active seeking to create a more pluralist set of identities upon which to base political interests and politics), then a public debate needs to begin the Republic of Ireland around the claim that it was 'a cold house for Protestants'. This has begun - fitfully - for an example see the exchange between Senator Eoghan Harris and historian John A Murphy on the extent of anti-Protestant discrimination in Cork http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2009/10/29/corks-bloody-secret-a-small-dispute/