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Tribalism is little more than the politics of the lowest common denominator
Thomas Gore • 11. 10. 03

Unionism and republicanism are similar in one respect at least – they both congregate around a simplistic central political tenet. Undoubtedly a strong point in terms of hanging on to adherents, but, at the same time, a fundamental weakness when it comes to internal cohesion.

To be a unionist one need only hold the belief that Northern Ireland should retain its present political and constitutional position within the United Kingdom. Conversely, to qualify as a republican you need only advocate Northern Ireland’s joining together with the rest of the island in an independent political entity where the head of state is an elected or nominated president.

These two political camps provide shelter for so many variations on their respective themes, that I tend to think more “large tent” than “broad church” when reflecting on either.

You can be liberal, socialist, conservative or nationalist; left wing, right wing or middle-of-the-road; racist, sectarian, homophobic or anti-Semitic; or occupy a position anywhere on the broad religious spectrum between fanatic and atheist - and still legitimately lay claim to being a republican or unionist.

In fact, the only thing you can’t be is both republican and unionist.

So, given the very basic nature of the political glue that binds together otherwise very diverse groups of people, it shouldn’t surprise us that both unionism and republicanism are so prone to internal division and schism. In fact, it would be very strange if they weren’t.

Only political certainty, (as during 30 years of conflict when we all could be certain that politics were going nowhere) or a real or imagined militarily threatening enemy (again handily provided for both sides by the “troubles”) seems to have lent anything remotely resembling internal cohesion to either group. As soon as those were removed or changed shape, the binding quickly fell apart and the main focus immediately shifted back to internal differences of opinion, emphasis, analysis, interpretation, direction etc. etc. etc.

All meaningless of course, because on any purely ideological evaluation, while both political positions can reasonably claim to be as wide as Lough Neagh, at the same time, neither is much deeper than a puddle.

Consequently, the little thug who spends all of his or her spare time attacking vulnerable members of “the other community” has, in truth, as much right to don the all-encompassing mantle of unionism or republicanism as their more moderate and cerebral co-adherents who would never countenance such behaviour.

All political parties and ideologies (at least any worthy of the title) allow for a diversity of opinion and indeed actively encourage creative and positive tensions as long as they fall within well-defined ideological parameters. They rightly consider such internal discourse as absolutely vital for continuing development.

In this regard, the problem for unionism and republicanism is twofold.

On the one hand, the parameters of the respective belief systems are so broad as to render them almost non-existent thereby leaving them open to the wide diversity of adherents already outlined. On the other, and in complete contradiction of this diversity, both sides barely allow – much less encourage – the open debate, self-examination and positive criticism that is the hallmark of any healthy political party or movement.

In our set up, any such discourse is, more often than not, looked upon as evidence of treachery.

Therefore, frustration alone ensures a perpetual state of powder keg volatility is the ever present and defining feature of both the orange and green tents.

Another little incidental by-product of our political set-up here, again much at odds with that pertaining in other places, is the role religious persuasion plays (the accident of birth phenomenon) in pre-determining our political beliefs. The rigidity of this, when you think about it, is truly amazing. It’s never about joining a political camp in Northern Ireland – that comes automatically with birth – but the remote possibility that you might leave your pre-determined one.

But why should we, on either side, continue to allow ourselves to be herded together like sheep into some false affinity with many who, in reality, we have nothing in common beyond a shared (and often barely that) political/religious persuasion?

It ensures we are lumped together with, and more often than not defined by, the lowest common denominator within our own particular tribe. In our large orange or green tent, we rub shoulders with drug dealers, religious fanatics, criminals, sectarian bigots, psychopaths and more - and they can all, with justification, claim us as their tribal brothers and sisters.

Politicians will never seek to move us beyond this blind tribalism. It simply isn’t in their interests. From the moment they are elected, a politician’s overriding concern is ensuring that they are re-elected next time around.

Disturbing the status quo by pointing up some hard realities to their own electorate certainly isn’t the way to go about attracting votes. A continuous playing to the lowest common denominator within a particular community is a much safer bet. And besides, the biggest criminals in either tent are often the politicians themselves.

It therefore falls upon those from outside of the electoral rat race to lead the charge on this – those amongst us who can no longer stand to be aligned with the lowest common denominator within our own pre-determined tribe.

Decent people, who consider another’s religious and political beliefs as merely incidental to the fact that they are fellow human beings, must begin a discussion on how we might create another tent: one where the entrance qualifications are a lot more stringent than mere blind tribal allegiance.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

12 October 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Tribalism is little more than the lowest common denominator
Thomas Gore


Separation vs. Segregation
Eamon Sweeney


The Legitimacy of Our Struggle
Liam O Comain


Not Losing His Way
Anthony McIntyre


A Hero of Reknown
Kathleen O Halloran


West Belfast - Childhood and the Wars
Davy Carlin


Abduction of Republican
32 County Sovereignty Committee


RSF attend Sardinian Conference
Des Dalton


6 October 2003


Tangled Times
Eamon McCann


Heroes and Villains
Tommy Gorman


Who Was Responsible?
Michael Kearney


Costello Commemoration
Paul Little


Uncharted Waters
Anthony McIntyre


Date Change: Anti Racist Network Meeting
Davy Carlin


Coming Soon to the United States?
Toni Solo




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